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Reconciling Zionism and democracy
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Reconciling Zionism and democracy

I think we’re getting into a weird area here,” Bill Murray’s character says to his cross-dressing roommate in Tootsie. That line kept coming back to me as I wrapped my mind around another drama about clashing identities and ambiguous boundaries: the debate over Israel’s proposed “loyalty oath.”

The Israeli government’s demand that all aspiring citizens pledge fealty to a “Jewish and democratic” state has been praised, denounced, and carefully parsed — a three-word Rorschach test for Zionists, anti-Zionists, and small-d democrats. The idea has managed to unite Israeli Arabs and fervently Orthodox leaders in their opposition (no small feat).

The debate is about many things, including Jewish identity and the meaning of Zionism. But the weird area for this American Jew is reconciling both sides of the equation: Jewish and democratic. Since Hebrew school I’ve been taught that there is no inherent conflict — in fact, a beautiful symbiosis — between the idea of a Jewish state and the ideals of democracy. But more and more headlines challenge that view — or at least suggest that there is a lot more work to be done in facing the inherent contradictions.

That tension is on display in a recent Jerusalem Post editorial that can’t quite make up its mind about proposed legislation that would allow Israeli municipalities to discriminate in housing on the basis of religion and nationality. The Post explains that the legislation, backed by legislators from the Yisrael Beiteinu and Kadima parties, “would allow small communal settlements in the Negev and the Galilee to reject would-be residents on the basis of vague criteria such as the candidate’s perceived incompatibility with the settlement’s ‘social-cultural fabric.’”

Critics say they know exactly what this bill is about: keeping Arabs out of Jewish neighborhoods. And yet the Post thinks there is some justification for making legal in Israel what would be described as discrimination in the United States:

Israel is the only country in the world where Jews are the majority. Only here can they enjoy the advantages of living in a state whose language, holidays, and national symbols are their own. And while Jews are the majority in Israel, they are a small minority in a hostile region. In contrast, Arab Israelis, who make up a (large) minority in Israel, belong to an overwhelming majority in the region.

In this state of affairs, Jewish Israelis, including the secular majority, should have the right to live in a community where they are not threatened by intermarriage or by becoming a cultural or religious minority.

Those paragraphs toe the exact center line between Ben-Gurion and Bull Conner. Yes, Israel is intended as a state of unique Jewish self-determination. On the other hand, you can hear echoes of the arguments that prevented American Jews and blacks from buying into restricted neighborhoods and are trotted out when non-Jews and secular Jews raise objections to eruvim. I also hear an implied threat: If Israeli Arabs don’t like it, there are 22 other Arab countries they can move to.

And we’re not done with the weird echoes of Jim Crow. The editorial high-mindedly calls for separate housing for Arabs that meets the same “high standards” of the building projects for Jews. In U.S. history, this is known as “separate but equal.”

It gets weirder, whether you’re on the Right or the Left. The Left has long argued that a two-state solution demands a clear separation: no Jewish enclaves in Palestine, no Palestinian “right of return” to Israel. Anything less, and you are on the slippery slope to a one-state solution.

The Right, meanwhile, asserts that Jews have an inalienable right to live and build in Arab neighborhoods in east Jerusalem and elsewhere, “social-cultural fabric” notwithstanding. But if Israeli Jews gain the right to build homogenous communities, why not the Arabs?

The difference, of course, is that the Knesset bill involves citizens of Israel. It would make it legal for one set of citizens to discriminate against another based on religion or ethnicity. The world would probably denounce it as a signal that Israel isn’t serious about democracy or its own founding principles.

Frankly I don’t care about the world — lately, it doesn’t need an excuse to find fault with Israel. I worry about a kulturkampf between Israel and the Diaspora over this and similar issues. It’s quite possible that American ideas of democracy and minority rights do not and should not apply in the Israeli context. It’s possible that Israel’s right to national self-determination may not fit cozily into our liberal, constitutional frameworks. But we need to talk about it.

Israeli law professor Ruth Gavison recently wrote that she believes that “the gap between the state’s Jewishness and a true commitment to democracy and human rights — including individual and collective rights for the Arab minority in Israel — is not unbridgeable.” Gavin is a senior fellow emeritus at the Israel Democracy Institute, where she and her colleagues are working hard to bridge that gap.

Unless another wedge is to be driven between Israel and the Diaspora, many others must follow their lead and make the case for Jewish democracy loud and strong.

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