Tough Questions

Controversial Panel Debates Whether Israel Is A Democracy

04.05.13 9:00 PM ET

A controversial panel on whether Israel is a democracy, originally scheduled to take place at the Ansche Chesed synagogue in Manhattan, took place last night at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah instead. One thing emerged clearly from the discussion: Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky, the leader of Ansche Chesed who attempted to cancel the event for fear that it might touch on BDS, needn’t have worried. The bogeyman he imagined would haunt the discussion wasn’t its focus at all; in fact, “BDS” wasn’t uttered until 8:59 pm, exactly one minute before the panel was scheduled to end.

What’s more, the central question and ostensible raison d'être of the panel—can Israel be a Jewish and democratic state?—wasn’t addressed head-on until the very end, when an audience member raised it in the Q&A period. “Is there not a basic contradiction between a democracy and an ethnic definition of a state?” she asked, and was greeted by applause from an audience apparently equally hungry to hear the answer.

“I don’t have an answer to that question,” panelist and Americans for Peace Now board member Kathleen Peratis answered honestly. She joked that though this was the event’s central question, it was one she was hoping no one would ask. “I still want to figure out a way to maintain a Jewish majority. I don’t know how I square that with my civil liberties values. I want a Jewish state, and I want equality for Palestinians. I’m struggling with that.”

While Peratis made it clear she hoped the two could be squared, her co-panelist, professor and activist Marilyn Kleinberg Neimark, made it equally clear she thought that was impossible. “Do you still believe in the tooth fairy?” she asked Peratis. “Everything you have to do to keep a Jewish majority is undemocratic. It’s a contradiction.” Neimark acknowledged University of Haifa sociologist Sammy Smouha’s argument that ethnic states can become democracies by enabling minorities to become full citizens, but stated that Israel, committed to maintaining a Jewish majority, is incapable of this. “The majoritarian ethos is in its essence undemocratic.”

By contrast, panelist J.J. Goldberg, a Forward editor-at-large, noted that many countries have an ethnic majority, and that it’s only when you try to preserve the privilege of that majority that you start suppressing minorities. Israel wouldn’t have to do that if it went back to its 1967 borders, becoming a country where the vast majority of people under the state’s control are Jewish.

Leaving aside the question of whether Israel can be a Jewish democratic state, the question of whether it currently is a democracy spurred heated debate. Faced with the common refrain that Israel is a democracy within the Green Line, though not beyond it, Neimark challenged the basic validity of that distinction. She argued that, when asking whether Israel is a democracy, we have to look at the total area that Israel controls. “Since settlers [who live beyond the Green Line] vote in elections, how can we only look at Green Line Israel as the state we are interrogating?” she asked. “Green Line Israel is a fiction or fable that we tell ourselves to sustain some shred of hope. Some citizens of the land Israel controls vote, and many others do not. That makes a slam-dunk case that Israel is not a democracy.”

Meanwhile, panelist Rebecca Vilkomerson of Jewish Voice for Peace challenged the idea that Israel is democratic, even within the Green Line. “It’s often argued that because Palestinians in Israel have the right to vote, Israel is a democracy,” she said. “But non-Jews are second-class citizens.” She asked the audience to consider, among other things, that no Arab party has ever been part of a ruling government coalition; that Palestinian students receive less funding and study in vastly inferior physical structures; and that Israel’s flag, anthem, and other symbols are Jewish. “This creates an undeniable system of second-class citizenship that limits just about every aspect of Palestinians’ lives.”

Peratis acknowledged these flaws, but countered that discrimination against Palestinian Israelis is not structural, and could change if they were to vote at a higher rate than they currently do: increased democratic participation would produce increased representation in parliament, and more opportunities to make changes. As Neimark pointed out, though, this view elides the fact that Arab MK hopefuls are restricted in the opinions they’re allowed to publicly espouse; if they don’t sign on to the founding notion of Israel as a Jewish state, they’re locked out of the political process. Arguably, the fact that there are ideological restrictions on who can run for office itself constitutes structural discrimination. This point went unanswered by the other panelists, as did Neimark’s even more fundamental challenge to the validity of the Green Line distinction.

Neither the panelists nor the audience in the room had any delusions about the efficacy of the panel; everyone acknowledged that they’d barely scratched the surface of these important questions, and one audience member summed up the event as “a lot of liberal talk without exact conclusions.” What’s more, it was clear that the impact of such a discussion was limited, even within the American Jewish community. “We’re in this room, but we are such a blip,” Peratis said. “AIPAC owns the American Congress, more so now than it did 20 years ago.” And yet, as one audience member pointed out, the conversation itself was cause for hope; after all, 20 years ago, a panel discussion like this would not even have gotten off the ground in the American Jewish community.