Open Zion

09.29.13

J Street Debates How Israel Can Be Both Jewish and Democratic

“Some say the notion of a Jewish democracy is an oxymoron. Does it have to be?” That’s the question Open Zion columnist Emily Hauser posed at the start of a lively J Street panel, which she moderated Sunday, on “How Israel Can Represent All Its Citizens While Staying True to Its Jewish Character.” The panelists—fellow Open Zion columnist Bernard Avishai, Member of Knesset Ruth Calderon, and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Amal Elsana Alhjooj—took turns addressing the thorny question, which Israel has yet to resolve in a constitutional framework and which is currently the subject of warring Knesset bills, including one by Calderon.

A secular scholar whose inaugural Knesset speech took the form of a Talmud lesson, Calderon seemed most attached to the idea of preserving the state’s Jewish character. “I don't think that complete separation of religion and state is necessary for a liberal state,” she said, emphasizing that Israel provides an atmosphere of Jewish culture and that that's valuable, particularly for secular Jews who wouldn’t otherwise be immersed in it. She added that her parents’ generation was the first to “live the miracle of feeling at home” in Israel, and that that feeling constitutes a deep human need. To her mind, a state is not—and should not—be neutral; she wouldn’t want to raise kids in "a state without a flavor."

But Alhjooj pointed out that, as a Bedouin citizen of Israel, she’s the one who has to live with the consequences of Israel’s decision to give Jews preferential treatment. She highlighted the plight of the Bedouin apt to be displaced by the Prawer-Begin Plan. “I also want to feel at home, just like your parents,” she told Calderon. “And I don’t feel at home when this is the way the Jewish state is implementing its policy, based on preferring you and your son over me and my daughter.”

Alhjooj also said that those who advocate for the Jewish character of the state typically support equality in theory, but tend to be short on details when asked how exactly equality can be compatible with preferential treatment. “Show me the policy,” she implored Calderon. But Calderon, whether for lack of answers or simply lack of time, didn’t supply details.

Avishai, on the other hand, put forward a very detailed argument in opposition to Calderon’s view. To his mind, the problem is that in Israel every person has two forms of legal status: one is as a citizen of Israel, and one is as a member of a nationality, which is important for according material privileges. This discrimination on the basis of “J-positive blood” is entirely inconsistent with democratic life, he said. Many of those inconsistencies are holdovers from an earlier phase in the development of the state.

One example he cited was the Law of Return, “which was sensible in 1948 but makes zero sense in 2013.” Today, Israel could update its immigration law by stipulating that if you qualify for landed immigrant status and learn Hebrew, you then become eligible for citizenship. Those who believe Israel should continue to be a place where refugees from anti-Semitism are given preference need not worry; Avishai is “perfectly agreeable” to the idea that refugees should have an easier time gaining landed immigrant status. After all, that’s already the case in America, where you get preference as a resident alien if you can show you’re fleeing religious persecution.

Another unfortunate holdover has to do with land policy. Israel has failed to privatize the lands that were considered national or public lands at the time of the state’s inception, and has only exacerbated that problem by giving preferential treatment to Jewish settlers, “as if this were 1920 and we were still trying to outfox the British,” Avishai said. Today, state lands should be subject to settlement according to ordinary property laws, instead of being controlled by anachronistic Zionist institutions that made sense decades ago but are now inappropriate.

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Emily Hauser and Bernard Avishai participate in a panel at J Street's national conference on September 29, 2013 in Washington, D.C. (J Street)

The good news for Calderon is that Israel’s majority can still maintain some kind of national distinction. How? “The same way France, Denmark, and Quebec do it: by legislating an official language,” Avishai explained. He also said that if a majority of Israelis wanted to take Jewish festivals off work, there would be nothing wrong in declaring them statutory holidays.

Judging by the applause, the audience found Avishai’s case more convincing than Calderon’s. But Calderon didn’t seem to mind. In true Talmudic fashion, she thanked him, saying, “I love dispute, and this is a good and deep one.” Yet as Alhjooj reminded the audience, for Israel’s minorities, it may not be “good and deep” so much as urgent.