Is Israel Actually a Jewish State?

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The history and landscape of Israel tells a story of junctions and junctures: The establishment of independence out of an admixture of diplomacy, fire and ashes; the falsification of security “conceptions” in the lead-up to the Yom Kippur War; the shifting from “wars of no alternative” to “wars of choice” in the Lebanon War; and the beginning of the recognition of longtime enemies as peace partners following the end of the Cold War.

So too, drive around Israel and you’ll absorb how the landscape is demarcated by junctions. Soldiers stand at crossroads, hitching rides as they await their next set of orders. Residents and tourists can choose to drive east to soak up the heady divinity of Jerusalem or west to the pleasure-seeking center of Tel Aviv. Go southwest to stand in solidarity with the communities under rocket fire, and meander northeast to help monitor the fragile levels of the Kinneret. From the northern tip all the way southward you can hike the Israel trail, feeling the country’s past decisions and possible futures under your feet.

A new ad campaign from Peace Now exploits this notion of junctions and junctures. Featuring an imagined highway sign, the copy reads, “A historical juncture faces you.” Turn left and you get a “democratic, Jewish and Zionist” Israel. Turn right, and you’re left with an “isolated, binational and messianic” Israel. On the left, the sky is a perfect blue. On the right, it’s grey and menacing. At bottom, Netanyahu silently studies his options.

This used to be called Israel’s “triangle dilemma.” Among remaining a Jewish State, being a democracy, and filling out the borders of greater Israel, Israelis must pick only two. To seek all three is to live a contradiction.

But today, with the discourse of international criticism having shifted the landscape towards philosophical -- not just political -- anti-Zionism, and the Israeli settler and ultra-Orthodox population growing, the campaign no longer seems as simple.

Let’s consider the left-hand side of the ledger. What are the ethical implications of wanting to preserve a “Jewish” majority? Can a democracy “lock in” the flavor of a particular demographic configuration, banking on it not changing? And does aiming to preserve the “Jewish” in Jewish state have the same unsavory moral connotations, as Israel’s harshest critics have said, of any given Western state claiming it wants to preserve its “White” character?

There are good answers to these questions, answers that liberal Zionists have been putting forth as these debates continue to unfurl. But gone are the days when these terms can be thrown around without being problematized and parsed. Ironically, the international isolation that the Peace Now campaign warns against is being fueled by some of the messages being promoted in this very campaign.

Let’s consider the remaining two signs on the right. Leaving aside for the moment the fact that the most ideologically driven in the Middle East don’t worry about international “isolation” when they’ve got God, Allah, and Moshiach on their side, there is something not a little uncomfortable about flagging the term “binational” as something to flee from.

Of course we know that binational is often a synonym for the “one-state solution.” Most commentators, along with the international community, remain convinced that the two-state solution is the only pragmatic way forward. I happen to agree with them.

But isn’t Israel, with its Jewish majority and Arab minority, already a sort of “binational” state? Israel already runs multiple state school systems representing two separate languages of primary instruction: Hebrew and Arabic. Most of Israel’s Jewish citizens serve in the military. Hardly any of Israel’s Palestinian citizens do. And Israel’s founding narratives are riven along national lines, with 1948 being a cause for giddy celebration each year by the Jewish nation, and a commemoration of atrocities and dispossession by the Palestinian nation. Leaving aside the West Bank population for a moment, both of these nations, in an 80/20 split, reside within Israel’s formal borders.

Part of the problem is that Israel’s NGO landscape has long enjoyed a division of labor between those, like Peace Now, B’Tselem and Gisha, which focus almost solely on the Green Line and beyond. Other groups, like the New Israel Fund and The Association for Civil Rights in Israel, focus almost solely on domestic issues. But with binational (and, with the addition of 50,000 asylum seekers, multinational) possibilities becoming more of a reality, we need a more comprehensive discussion around what Israel is, and what Israel wants to be. If the settlers don’t want to leave, and if the Palestinians demand refugee return, these realities are going to be even starker.

Peace Now’s campaign rightly asserts that Israel must make tough choices if it wishes to retain its core identity of being Jewish and democratic. But it may be time to uncover some of the unspoken assumptions underlying what liberal groups like these seem to think is worth preserving and what is necessary to run from.

A Peace Now ad points left to a 'democratic, Jewish and Zionist' Israel and right for an 'isolated, binational and messianic' state.Credit: Peace Now Facebook
A Peace Now demonstration near the Tel Aviv District Court.Credit: Nir Keidar

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