Jabotinsky's Vision of a Democratic, Jewish Nation State
In honor of Israel's Independence Day in 2013, IDI published an English translation of Ze’ev Jabotinsky on Democracy, Equality, and Individual Rights. In this op-ed, Attorney Amir Fuchs, who co-authored that booklet, shares thoughts on whether the reality of today's Israel is in line with Jabotinsky's vision.
Beyond the celebration of the establishment of the Zionist state, Israeli Independence Day is an opportunity to reflect upon whether the state adheres to the values of and fulfills the vision of the early founders of its existence. On Yom Haatzmaut this year, a short booklet entitled Ze'ev Jabotinsky on Democracy, Equality, and Individual Rights, edited by the Israel Democracy Institute's Prof. Mordechai Kremnitzer and this author, was released in English. In the booklet, the words of Ze'ev Jabotinsky—soldier in the Jewish Legion in WWI, ideologue, and leader of the nationalist, pre-state Revisionist Zionist movement—are used to attest that, despite an opposing perspective which is growing in Israeli public discourse, there is no contradiction between nationalism and the commitment to liberalism, democracy, freedom, and equality.
Jabotinsky's commitment to equality was total and complete. In particular, his attitude toward the Arab minority in the Land of Israel and his vision for the Jewish State stand in stark contrast to the philosophy underpinning recent attempts to introduce illiberal legislation in the Knesset.
Though Jabotinsky was the leader of the nationalist camp, which advanced the idea of the Jewish state with all its might, he declared over and over again that Arabs must be granted absolute equal rights within that state.
Jabotinsky based his beliefs on the assertion that "every man is a king"—hence no man is superior to another.
Moreover, Jabotinsky explained that equal rights are not an abstract idea, but one that must be anchored in reality: complete equality before the law for individuals, groups, and languages.
"Democracy means freedom. Even a government of majority rule can negate freedom; and where there are no guarantees for freedom of the individual, there can be no democracy. These contradictions will have to be prevented. The Jewish State will have to be such, ensuring that the minority will not be rendered defenseless."
Jabotinsky clarified that if Arabs in Israel do not enjoy a political, cultural, and economic existence that is honorable, the whole country will suffer:
"[Even] after the formation of a Jewish majority, a considerable Arab population will always remain in Palestine. If things fare badly for this group of inhabitants then things will fare badly for the entire country. The political, economic and cultural welfare of the Arabs will thus always remain one of the main conditions for the well-being of the Land of Israel."
In the draft constitution presented in his book The Jewish War Front, Jabotinsky conferred equal status on both Hebrew and Arabic, provided for cultural autonomy for the Arabs, and mandated that land be distributed without consideration of nationality and without discrimination.
Is the reality today in Israel in line with Jabotinsky’s vision? His uncompromising notion of equality was never realized in Israel. Nonetheless, for decades, a delicate balance has existed between Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people (which justifies the Law of Return, use of Jewish symbols, etc.) and Israel as a democratic state committed to equality for all its citizens. This balance has been disturbed in recent years.
The previous Knesset passed several troubling laws, including the Admission Committees Law. This law, which was designed to block Arabs from being accepted into small communities, places a question mark on the state’s commitment to equality. Many other legislative proposals—which were thankfully shelved—were liable to disrupt this balance as well.
One such bill, “Basic Law: Israel – Nation-State of the Jewish People,” now resurfacing in the current Knesset, is diametrically opposed to Jabotinsky’s worldview. This bill gives clear precedence to the Jewish nature of Israel over its democratic character. It differentiates between the treatment of Jews and Arabs in areas such as the allocation of cultural resources and land distribution. It goes as far as to state that Arabic is not an official language of Israel. Most significantly, it does this in the context of a Basic Law, which carries constitutional import.
To those who would assert that such legislation is necessary to preserve the Jewish nature of the state, Jabotinsky responded years before the state was established:
I do not believe that the constitution of any state ought to include special paragraphs explicitly guaranteeing its "national" character. Rather, I believe that it would be better for the constitution if there were fewer of those kinds of paragraphs. The best and most natural way is for the "national" character of the state to be guaranteed by the fact of its having a certain majority"
Attorney Amir Fuchs is a researcher for IDI's Democratic Principles project.
A version of this article was published in The Times of Israel as "Guess Who Demanded Equal Rights for Arabs?" on April 23, 2013.