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A Jewish and democratic state – how to live with the oppression of the minority and still feel good
By: Shmuel Amir
Hagada Hasmalit

Original Hebrew:

11 September 2016 (English translation 28 September 2016)

“Yes, Jewish and democratic” is the headline over an article by Tzvia Greenfield, who has recently become the voice of the centre-Left in Haaretz (12 August 2016). In my naivety I thought at first that she was talking about famous women [1] in Israel, who fit that description: maybe Golda Meir, but it would be hard to associate her name with democracy; maybe Esther Vilenska, a noble leader who always fought for democracy and equal rights for both peoples in this country, but no, she was a Communist; what about Haneen Zoabi, maybe the bravest of them all, but she isn’t Jewish. Only then did I understand that the reference was to the State of Israel. It is Israel that is “Jewish and democratic”. But since the headline looks like it’s a challenge (due to the “yes” at its beginning) to any who would dare cast doubt on the truth of that characterization, maybe I can help by offering a tried-and-true remedy that will render Greenfield’s categorical assertion that we have a democracy here justified – the only way to turn Israel into a democratic state that cannot be undermined is simple: expel all the Palestinians from here. Then there will be no one left to discriminate against, to marginalize and from whom to deny rights generally. We will remain here by ourselves to be as democratic as we want with ourselves. Surely it should be clear that as long as there are Arabs among us we will be unable to be a democratic state, even if we want to be. Our entire past proves that. The Palestinians in our midst were never citizens with equal rights, not during the British Mandate and even less under the State we founded. From the beginning we discriminated against them in all areas of life: in work, health, education, etc. etc. And expulsion would not be very difficult to execute. We have no small experience in that from 1948 and 1967.

And for all that, I wondered about the possible expulsion. What will the “Goyim” say? Will the “enlightened” West, especially the Americans, be able to keep defining us as the only democracy in the Middle East? Will it make it hard for the West to keep supplying us with all those weapons (from submarines to advanced aircraft), and without the anger against Israel being directed against them as well? On this point, fortunately, the author if the article comes to our aid with a great idea about how we can perpetuate a tyrannical and undemocratic regime for the Palestinians while still being called a democracy. That is, to have our cake and eat it too. The solution is simple. She writes: “the Israeli people is composed of a Jewish majority and a Palestinian minority of 20%. There is no reason why the rules in such a state should not be set to a great extent by the Jewish majority, on the condition that they take into consideration the equal rights and the way of life and preferences of the Arab minority, and not harm them in any way. (‘emotional injuries’ on both sides will need to be clarified)”. She revisits this idea in an additional form when she explains, “despite the Law of Return that applies only to Jews and members of their families, if the Jewishness of Israel is delineated in the framework of the components of identity mentioned above (and here she describes the wonders of the Jewish identity which I will not repeat here), and by virtue of the Jewish majority, its basic function is to constitute a safe haven for members of the Jewish people, and its definition as a Jewish state does not contradict the principles of democracy – as long as the rights of the minorities who are not Jewish are protected in it exactly as are the rights of the Jewish majority. The Law of Return ensures that the Jews of the world will not remain defenceless, as happened during the Second World War, and at the same time it is part of the critical rights of the Jewish majority, which wants to preserve Israel as a state that is intended to defend the life and heritage of the Jewish people.”

Greenfield proposes a very interesting exchange: Israel will preserve the rights of the Arab minority, and in return, the Jewish majority will keep its rights as a majority. And what are they? As a majority it has an identity, an identity that includes the Law of Return and the principle of asylum for the Jewish people – basically, the principles of Zionism. And since that identity is the majority’s, it is – yes, democratic. The objective has been achieved, Israel is a democracy! In fact, from Greenfields’s convoluted definitions one principle emerges, to which all the nationalists in the world subscribe: the majority rules, and we are the majority.

But for all that, some questions remain. First, if equal rights for Arabs is the condition for a democratic Israel, what remains to be discussed? Does anyone deny that that condition has not been met in Israel? So according to Greenfield’s own terms, Israel is not a democratic state. And if that’s the case, another question arises: in a situation in which there is no equality for Arabs in Israel, should the Jewish identity be repealed? Other questions remain open: what about before 1948, when the majority was Arab? Did that majority too have the right to impose its identity? And what would the Jewish residents have said about that? And the question: if the Palestinians feel that the Jewish identity harms their “sensibilities” and their “way of life” and all their rights in this country, what should they do? Apply to the proposed clarification committee? Does anybody accept the current joke according to which national identity in general, and Jewish in particular, is democratic by nature? And this is before we have raised a simple question, do the Jews of the world accept Zionism as their identity? The American Jews are an example that undermines it. There are even those who claim that since the birth of the State of Israel, more Israelis have emigrated to the United States than American Jews have immigrated to Israel. Is not the concept of a (Jewish) national identity nothing more than a pretext to rule over another people “democratically”? It turns out that under the cover of the Jewish identity it is possible to act in as racist a manner as one wants – an art of which Netanyahu is a master.

There is nothing new under the sun, we read in Ecclesiastes, and the thing that hath been it is that which shall be. And indeed the promise of equal rights to the Arab minority in the State of Israel is not new. After all, already in the Proclamation of Independence we guaranteed the rights of the Arab minority. We promised it in black and white. And we didn’t merely promise “equal rights”. No, we emphasized: “complete” equality of rights! And how well have we kept our promises? As soon as the State was created, regardless of the lofty and sublime declarations of complete equality of rights, the first thing the new government did was to impose a military government on the Arab population in Israel. And then we expropriated about 80% of the land in Israel (before the 1948 war only 5-7% of the land was owned by Jews). We turned the Arabs into “present absentees”, a concept that was coined in the 1950s to refer to the Arab residents of Israel, who had been declared absentees, and whose property was confiscated under the Absentee Property Law. The writer David Grossman wrote about this that “the Jewish majority in Israel relates to all the Palestinian citizens as present absentees – as a group that does indeed exist, but without faces or names”. According to him, if in 1948 the Palestinians in Israel were “those who are not, but, in fact, are”, with the passage of the years they became “those who are, but actually are not”. That is, we took their land and did not allow them to return, all in accordance with the Absentee Property Law. Then the expulsion of the Arabs on the one hand and the right of return for Jews on the other, as befits a “democratic” state. In all other areas, life for the Palestinians in Israel was as Grossman described it: they are but they are not. The discrimination and denial of rights of the Arab residents of Israel did not leave any aspect of their lives untouched: work, justice, education, health, development budgets (not a single Arab community has been built since the birth of the State), and so on. It would be superfluous to point out that today the disregard of their rights continues unabated.

None of this should surprise anyone, or at least, no one who knows Zionist history. After all, Herzl himself proposed in his diaries how to get rid of the Arabs: by denying them employment, then barring their return when they leave to seek work elsewhere. Israel Zangwill, one of the founding Zionists, called for a people without land to be given a land without people. And it is not as if they did not know that the land was inhabited. Herzl wrote in his foundational book, The Jewish State: “We should there form a portion of a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism.” [2] The Zionist settlers in Palestine acted like colonialists all over the world: the set up a small state of their own and built institutions separate from the natives. The first objective was to achieve a majority, and the intention was clear even without being declared overtly – eventually to take over the whole country. In the Palmach they sang “From Metulla to the Negev – from the sea to the Jordan”. Ben-Gurion gave free rein to his innermost feelings after the first conquest of Sinai in 1956, when he proclaimed the Third Kingdom of Israel. I am not sure he dreamed of a “democratic kingdom”. And when he made his famous hand-gesture indicating that the Arabs of Lydda were to be expelled, he wasn’t thinking much about democracy either.

And now along comes Greenfield trying to sell us Israel as a democratic state. As if she does not know the history of Zionism in this country. As if she does not know that Zionism never gave equal rights to the population it found here. Her and her friends’ hypocrisy is such that she knows very well that it is impossible, because the Zionist identity – past and the present – contradicts democracy. All who truly aspire for Israel to be a democratic state need first of all to free themselves from the chokehold of Zionist clicheology and look again, through a democratic prism, at the reality in this country. And to the headline of Greenfield’s article, the answer must be: no! There is not and never was a democratic state here!

Translator’s notes

1. In the original Hebrew text the adjectives “Jewish and democratic” appear in the feminine form.

2. English translation:

Translated from Hebrew by George Malent

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