The Jewish and Democratic State: Zionism is Not Racism

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In an op-ed in Haaretz, IDI researcher Attorney Amir Fuchs asserts that Israel is both the nation-state of the Jewish people and a democratic state, despite the confused Zionism of Mayor Shimon Gapso of Upper Nazareth.

The primary flaw in the op-ed piece by Upper Nazareth Mayor Shimon Gapso ("If you think I'm a racist, then Israel is a racist state," August 7) stems from his confusion regarding what Zionism, nationalism and racism actually are. In the article, Gapso attempts to defend the shocking anti-Arab rhetoric that he has used in his mayoral re-election campaign, slogans that have included: "Upper Nazareth will always be Jewish! No more with turning a blind eye, no more adherence to the law allowing citizens to live wherever they please. This is the time to protect [our] home." Gapso argues that if he is a racist, so is the founder of the Zionist movement, Theodor Herzl, so is Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, and so are others. In effect, Gapso is identifying Zionism with racism.

The response from the radical left to his article and other similar arguments includes a measure of agreement with Gaspo's comments, suggesting in effect that Israel's identity as a state that is both Jewish and democratic is not possible. The result is a consensus between the radical extremes on the political spectrum. On the far right, they claim that, since the country cannot be both Jewish and democratic, its identity should be only or primarily Jewish. Those on the other extreme claim that Israel's Jewish and democratic character cannot be squared, resolving therefore that it should be the state of all of its citizens (including Israeli Arabs).

But that is not the way it is. There is no conflict between a State of Israel that is the nation-state of the Jewish people and is also a democratic state, even if there is an inherent tension between the two. In practice, there is indeed a dangerous tendency towards reliance on the state's Jewish character to the detriment of its democratic character, but it doesn't have to be that way. Nation-states can also be democratic. They can adopt a policy encouraging immigration, such as the Law of Return, which gives Jews the right to immigrate and become citizens of Israel. They can make use of a national anthem and flags and other symbols relating to that nation and give special status to its language. But when it takes steps that discriminate against the minorities in its midst as citizens with equal rights, a line is crossed and it is transformed from a democratic nation-state to a nationalistic and racist state.

Ben-Gurion's declaration of Israel's independence, which Gapso relied on in part as evidence of manifestations of racism, included the following, which Gapso did not cite: "The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace, as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants, irrespective of religion, race or gender; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture. ... We appeal, in the very midst of the onslaught launched against us now for months, to the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve peace and participate in the building of the state on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions."

That declaration is a clear call for the establishment of a democratic nation-state; a state in which it would be unthinkable that a mayor would flaunt his desire to exclude and discriminate against Arabs, even though he acknowledges that the law allows Israel's citizens to live wherever they please. (Is he perhaps referring to that horror of a constitutional provision, the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Freedom?)

And, as a side note, one should not be surprised by the trend of thought that Gapso represents. As long as admissions committees continue to be allowed to screen prospective residents of small communities and reject applicants on the basis of their unsuitability to a community's social and cultural fabric, the residents of adjacent cities will feel discriminated against. And why for some reason, is it only they who are not allowed to be racist? 

Amir Fuchs is a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute.

This article was originally published in Haaretz as "Not Just for Jews" on August 12, 2013, and has been reprinted with permission.