Jewish, Democratic and Equal

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There is a necessary condition that must be fulfilled for the existence of our nation-state to be justified: there must be an unconditional guarantee of civic equality for our national minorities. In this area, there is still much to be done.

The State of Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people. This is reflected in Israel’s immigration law, which grants a right of return to Jews; its national calendar, which is built around the Jewish Sabbath and festivals; its national flag and anthem, some aspects of its public space, its primary language, school curriculum and more. All these express Israel’s commitment to realizing Jewish interests, promoting Jewish values, and preserving and developing Jewish identity.

Accusations against Israel, both in Israel and abroad, allege that a democratic country cannot have a particularistic identity. Some believe that a state must be neutral and that preferential treatment of any national group unjustifiably compromises the equality of citizens of other nationalities. These voices contend that in order for its large Arab minority – some 20% of the population – to be treated in a manner befitting a democracy, Israel must be a “state for all its citizens” rather than a Jewish state.

These arguments are unfounded.

Political scientists distinguish between two models. In a “civic nation-state,” the nation is defined by citizenship. For example, every citizen of the United States – whether Black, Hispanic, or Japanese – is a member of the American nation. In contrast, in an “ethnic nation-state,” ethnic, religious, or cultural identity determines who is a member of the nation. Almost all European countries are ethnic nation-states. Their public space has a distinctive national identity that is not shared by all their citizens, and their laws and practices express preferences, tastes, and memories of a particular nation, just like in Israel.

Thus, for example, Germany, Switzerland, Greece, and Armenia grant an automatic right to immigrate only to members of their ethnic Diasporas. Dozens of countries have a cross – the symbol of Christianity – on their flag. Many also have an established religion or church, including England, Scotland, Finland, and Cyprus.

As such, there is no justification for condemning Israel for having a law of return that applies only to Jews, for displaying the Star of David on its flag, or for the special status that Judaism has in the public sphere.

The prevalence of ethnic nation-states today is not surprising. Beyond a desire for rights as individuals, people want to belong to groups. “Nation,” “religion,” and “culture” are deep affiliations that give people a sense of meaning. It is natural for majority groups to want to realize their self-determination in a state. Economic and cultural globalization has not changed this.

It is possible, of course, to express group identity without a state. This is evidenced by the Jewish people, who existed as a people in the Diaspora for almost two millennia. But a state is an important means for promoting identity. The Jewish nation-state enables Jews to develop and realize their identity as a group that is responsible for a public sphere, for running a government, wielding military force, and providing for minorities.

Israel’s Arab minority has equal political rights. Its members can vote and hold office, and its representatives are members of the Knesset. Arabic is Israel’s second official language, and Israel’s Arab minority has the right to state-funded education in its own language and culture – a right that national minorities in democracies such as France do not have. There is no doubt, however, that Israel’s national minority does not feel at home. Such is the fate of minorities all over the world, and such was the situation of the Jews for generations before us.

It would be absurd to assert that for the sake of minority equality, Jews must forgo realizing their identity in the State of Israel. The British political philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin observed that “equality” is an important value, but like all values, it must be balanced against others. In Israel, “equality” must be balanced against the Jewish people’s right to self-determination in a sovereign state, on a piece of land that has been the focus of Jewish history, prayers and dreams for ages.

But no matter what, there is a necessary condition that must be fulfilled for the existence of our nation-state to be justified: there must be an unconditional guarantee of civic equality for our national minorities. In this area, there is still much to be done. Because make no mistake: Israel’s commitment to civic equality derives not only from democratic values, but also from Jewish values:

“There shall be one law for you, for the stranger and citizen alike” (Lev. 24:22).

When we assert that Israel is a Jewish and democratic state, we must add, in the same breath and with the same conviction, “an equitable state for all its citizens.”

Prof. Yedidia Stern is Vice President of Research at the Israel Democracy Institute.


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