Is Israel Too Jewish?

Could Israeli Arabs represent the Israeli collective interest? In her weekly column, sociologist Eva Illouz examines whether or not Israel passes the test of liberalism.

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On Friday morning, after I take my 8-year-old son to school, I eat breakfast and read my weekend paper, Haaretz. I start with the Magazine, and the column of Sayed Kashua. In his distinct style − a blend of self-irony, muted sadness and controlled anger − Kashua describes in crisp vignettes the difficulties of being an Arab in contemporary Israeli society. This morning, his column has an even bleaker tone than usual: His wife is more tired; he is collapsing under the ever-increasing weight of his hyper-modern life; and mostly, the ongoing dilemma of his Arabness in Israeli society seems more intractable than ever.

This morning he illustrates the tragicomic life of an Arab living in Israel with the following story: A rich Arab friend has given him a present, an expensive painting, which Kashua and his wife are delighted to receive. Undoubtedly, its economic value is a testimony to the friend’s affection. Kashua wants to hang the painting in their living room, but realizes it depicts the houses of Yemin Moshe, the first Jewish neighborhood built outside the walls of the Old City in the 19th century, and now a luxurious neighborhood reserved mostly for rich Jews from abroad.

Kashua struggles comically with the question of whether to hang this painting in his living room, and seems to resign himself not to; as always, he leaves it to the reader to ask herself why. The answer seems obvious: As much as he is a part of Israeli society, Sayed remains an Arab, committed to his people. When he looks at the luscious colors of the painting, he will take part in their implied celebration of the Jewish presence in Jerusalem. And if he puts the painting in the living room, he will do so publicly. In this minuscule vignette told in a minor key, Kashua has portrayed a large political drama painted on the vast wall of history. But his story left me perplexed. Kashua is a model of Arab integration: He writes in Hebrew, lives in a Jewish neighborhood, and works for an Israeli-Jewish newspaper. Why couldn’t he hang a picture of a Jewish neighborhood in his living room? Why does such a trivial act as receiving and displaying a friend’s gift generate such agony? Why couldn’t he enjoy the image of the Jewish Yemin Moshe? I wasn’t sure. I would find an answer to this question later that day.

Liberalism doesn't equal democracy

I continued my Friday morning in a typical Jerusalem fashion: I went to a lecture organized by a new and energetic think tank, Molad, whose mission is to rethink the meaning of Israeli democracy. The lecture was given by one of the best-known Israeli philosophers, Prof. Moshe Halbertal, who is in some ways the Jewish equivalent of Kashua. He has a dual membership in two communities that do not always live peacefully with each other: the religious-Orthodox Jewish community, and the secular academic community, committed to defending the values of democracy. It occurred to me later that day that both Halbertal and Kashua were mirror images of each other, each struggling with Israel’s contradictions through their membership in contrasting communities.

Like most people in Israel, Halbertal believes a Jewish democratic state is both desirable and possible and proceeds to defend it with fresh, sharp arguments. To readers who think a Jewish democratic state is the most natural thing in the world, it turns out that for most political philosophers, a “Jewish democratic state” poses a serious problem not to theories of democracy per se, but to “liberal” theories of democracy. Liberalism is often confused with democracy because it has accompanied it, but it is different in important ways. Ancient Athens, for example, had a democracy, but was not a liberal political regime.

Democracy is a way of governing that provides an answer to the question of how to make ordinarily powerless people politically empowered. It aims to prevent small groups or single families from running the political affairs of a country. Liberalism is the true great political invention of modernity and answers a far deeper and more complex set of questions. How do we make groups of people who believe in different gods live peacefully with each other? The question came to haunt the political thought of Europe because of the wars of religions between Protestants and Catholics that devastated the continent for 300 years. Philosophers from the 16th to the 18th centuries slowly understood that religious majorities − especially when they were supported by a dominant political regime − will persecute, exploit or ignore religious minorities.

Liberalism is a political philosophy that starts from an abhorrence for the cruelty exercised by majorities over minorities, and for the fear such majorities create in minorities. Liberalism wants to create the conditions for each individual or group to pursue their definition of the good life ‏(provided it does not hurt someone else‏). Ultimately, the liberal state is thus supposed to contain varied groups that are nonetheless committed to it.

Liberalism’s answer to the question of how to make different ethnic or religious groups coexist with one another was brilliant: Let’s make the state neutral. What does it mean to have a neutral state? It meant that the state would not be self-declaredly and explicitly identified with one religious or ethnic group. The state would be of no one and of everyone. It meant also that the state could not interfere or demand a set of beliefs or religious acts from citizens. The state now had a new role: It protected the freedom and the privacy of people, their right to believe and practice want they wanted.

Liberalism is thus based on a powerful optical illusion: The state seems to recede into the background, to become thin and minimal ‏(it does not interfere‏), but its effect and impact are very strong. In not identifying overtly with a worldview, religion or race, it offers a framework for making social life both peaceful and uneventful. It does this because it is unobtrusive, does not demand from minorities allegiance to a particular worldview, set of beliefs, gods, religion. This is also the reason why in liberal political regimes, culture becomes public and common: The “classical” literary tradition, for example, was invented in the 19th century to provide a common meeting point for different social groups. Jews (and other minorities)have done spectacularly well in liberal countries precisely because liberalism offered them rights, freedom, and the capacity to enter en masse into a cultural realm they now perceived as neutral. ‏(Had liberalism been as developed in 19th-century Europe as it is today, it is doubtful that Herzl would have written his famous plea for Jewish nationalism.‏) More than nationalism, liberalism has brought the highest level of security and flourishing to the Jews in the world.

Mideast's most democratic state

Israel is without a doubt the most democratic state of the Middle East. In 1948, it extended significant rights to the Arab minorities and displayed an astonishing political maturity then. However, Israel’s democracy quickly became organized around principles that were not liberal. What distinguishes it from the liberal democracies of Western Europe or the U.S. is its marked ethnic-religious character. Israel is a self-declared Jewish state for the Jews, run, managed and controlled by Jews. Israel grants instant citizenship to Jews in the world. Its state-funded rabbis decide who will get married and who won’t, who will get citizenship and who won’t, and who will be buried where. Israel has national Jewish holidays during which public transportation and commerce are suspended, in conformity with religious laws. Its army is mostly and exclusively by and for the Jews. Many, if not most, public positions in society can only be filled by Jews ‏(all universities, national museums, large companies, most ministries, TV channels, publishing houses, newspapers are headed only by Jews‏). Its national airline uses racial profiling as an ordinary method of protecting the security of its aircraft. The school curriculum is almost exclusively devoted to Jewish religious and political history. Israel is a Jewish country, for the Jews, run by Jews, in which non-Jews can play only a marginal role, if at all ‏(in that respect, it is much closer to the Arab countries around us‏).

The rather obvious and simple conclusion is that Israel does not fit the model of liberal polities. Israeli democracy is democracy minus the liberalism ‏(Prof. Yoav Peled of Tel Aviv University made a similar point in a brilliant article he wrote 20 years ago‏). But in his Friday morning lecture, Halbertal offered a surprising contention: Liberal states, he claimed, are never neutral. How does Halbertal know that liberal countries are not neutral? Because they have calendars, a national language, a history and a cultural heritage. If they are never neutral, it follows logically and morally that Israel is entitled to its Jewishness ‏(in the same way, presumably, that other countries are entitled to their Christianity‏). Once we establish that liberal countries have only the appearance of liberalism and deep down are Christian, or at least have a very definite and specific culture, it is easier to justify the Jewishness of Israel. From there, one can move very quickly to the core of the legitimation of Zionism. If the world has so many Christian countries ‏(France, Germany, or the U.S.‏), why shouldn’t the world also have a Jewish homeland?

This is where the confusion usually starts. In my opinion, two different questions get mixed up here: One is about the legitimacy of Jewish nationalism and the other about the Jewish character of the state. The first question − whether Jewish nationalism was justified − has, in my view, an obvious answer ‏(I am sorry to part company with my left-wing friends). Although I do not have a single nationalist bone in me and remain committed to internationalism, I fail to see what makes the Jewish project of self-determination worse than others ‏(in this I entirely agree with Halbertal‏). The self-autonomy of people − especially when they are as oppressed and persecuted as the Jews were in Europe − was not only a politically valid answer, but a moral one as well.

If this nationalism was less successful than others, it was because it became entangled with the colonial politics of Europe and the subsequent opposition of Arab countries. It is these circumstances, and not an original sin, that made Jewish nationalism into a messy affair.

But from the fact that Jews were morally entitled to self-determination, it does not follow that the state must be Jewish. Halbertal claims that if all states lack neutrality, then Israel’s lack of neutrality is as acceptable as theirs. For Halbertal, the key to advancing the situation of Arab minorities is not to make the state more neutral, but to provide greater rights to the Arab minority. In my opinion, this is a misunderstanding of the neutrality of liberal states. It is also a mistake to assume that all states are non-neutral in the same way. To understand what I mean, do the following mental/political exercise, which the great American political philosopher John Rawls described as putting oneself behind a veil of ignorance. This exercise will help us decide how to build a society that is fair to everyone. Suppose you don’t know whether you were born Jewish, Arab, Korean, Filipino, African, or Christian. Not knowing this, you have to decide where you would like to be born ‏(and live‏). Would you prefer to be born as a member of a minority in Israeli society or in a liberal Western European society? Would you prefer to be a Jew ‏(or a Korean‏) in a Western European/American society or an Arab or Christian in an Israeli society? I believe most of us would choose to be born into a liberal Western European society. Why? Because of how we guess we would fare if we belonged to a minority group: As minorities, some would think they would have a better chance at becoming more educated and wealthy. Others would think they would be more readily integrated into the language and culture of the liberal country. But I would add a third and crucial argument: In liberal countries, the measure of whether the rights of minorities are equal to those of the majority is this: Can representatives of minorities act as representatives of the majority, of collective and national interests? This, I would argue, is the true mark of a liberal society: not only whether minorities have rights, not only whether they have access to material resources, but most crucially, whether members of minorities are authorized to represent the body collective ‏(like Benjamin Disraeli, born a Jew in 19th-century England; the Jew Leon Blum in France; or Barack Obama today in the U.S.‏).

The test of the liberalism of Israel, even after rights are extended to Arabs, is thus simple: Could Israeli Arabs represent the Israeli collective interest? I do not think I even need to respond to this question. They cannot. And if they can’t, it is not because they represent a “security threat.” It is because the identity and culture of the state are too thickly Jewish, precisely in a way that precludes the possibility of a non-Jew representing the interests of the Jewish majority.

The problem is precisely that Israeli-Jewish culture contains far more than a language or a calendar. The thinness and neutrality of liberal cultures are other names for a legal, cultural and political order based on neutrality, which is itself a code word for universalism. Universalism is and feels thin because it does not rely on thick and binding traditions or religions; it does not rely on symbols that are so tightly and exclusively associated with one group that they ipso facto exclude other groups. Liberalism creates broad social covenants. How? It offers a notion of nationality which de facto contains different ethnic and religious groups ‏(you can be French or German and Jewish, too‏) and, mainly, it offers secular cultures that are meeting grounds for different ethnic groups. Secular cultures are much greater containers of cultural diversity. What is lost in thickness is gained in width.

Non-Jews excluded

The reason for Kashua’s unhung painting became clearer as I conducted an internal dialogue with Halbertal’s lecture. Kashua can work and live in a Jewish neighborhood, but cannot consume its “thick meanings,” because the culture of the Jewish state unavoidably excludes non-Jews. Of course I also realize that Israeli Arabs have their own set of loyalties, but Jewish nationalism makes it very difficult for non-Jews to even try to recognize themselves in and enter its culture. More than that: The collective symbols of Israeli society are not just symbols of Jewishness; some of them actively exclude non-Jews. The Israeli flag, the holidays of Purim ‏(Haman should be destroyed‏), of Pesach ‏(the wicked Egyptians who drown‏), the Shoah ‏(in which the whole world abandoned us‏), Memorial Day ‏(our soldiers who were killed by others‏), are all about “us” ‏(the Jews‏) vs. “them” ‏(the rest of the world, the Nazis, the Arabs, the Amalekites‏). I am not in any way suggesting that Israelis abandon these holidays. I am simply suggesting that we – Israelis and Jews – should work harder at emphasizing their universal content.

Israeli “national” culture differs from the national cultures of liberal countries because of the entirely original and unique way in which Israel was created. Whereas most countries have diasporas that depart from the core territory, Israel was a nation created by diasporas that preexisted the country itself. Diasporas have this characteristic: They are obsessed with their identity, with what distinguishes and marks them off from people outside the group, with the ways in which the majorities of their adoptive countries treat them. The fact that Jewish nationalism started in a diaspora and not on a territory had a central effect: It made the State of Israel conceive of itself as an extension of the Jewish ethnic unit, more distinct from non-Jews than from other nations. This is entirely legitimate for a diaspora, but far less suitable for a liberal state.

Intolerable inequalities

What is my point? Simply this: A country based on Jewishness that exists in so many institutionalized ways creates intolerable inequalities and exclusions. I will not bore you with the revolting racism of a state that refuses to marry a Jew to a non-Jew; to bury a non-Jew who has died in a military operation with his Jewish fellow soldiers, or a state that sends back African refugees to a certain death ‏(because they are not Jewish‏). These practices entirely deviate from what the rest of the enlightened world understands as universal rights. But now comes a more surprising fact: The Jewishness of the state creates deep inequalities among Jews themselves; the Jewishness of the state of Israel is a problem not only for Arabs and non-Jews, but for most Jews as well.

Israel has a caste of religious people, exempt from work and military service, supported through the hard work of a multitude of others who see a chunk of their taxes redistributed for the purpose of sustaining this caste, rather than improving their schools or cleaning their cities. What has made this abhorrent form of inequality possible? The very ethnic and religious foundations of the country. It is the fact that these religious people were viewed initially as “real Jews” that entitles them, ipso facto, to a privileged status.

No other country I know of would have agreed to such an arrangement, which springs from a primordial, mystical vision of ethnicity based on religion. Or think of the state supremacy of ultra-Orthodox vis-a-vis Conservative and Reform rabbis on numerous topics such as state funding, conversions, the possibility of performing marriages, and more. This inequality is possible because Jewishness is mystically associated with the essence of the state. ‏(What a bitter irony to think that for the same reason, Judaism is more alive and pluralistic in liberal countries than it is in Israel.

Think of another example: In 1985, Yitzhak Shamir justified freeing the members of the Jewish underground, who had plotted to destroy Muslim shrines on the Temple Mount. Shamir saw them as “flesh of our flesh” − meaning the simple fact that they were Jews entitled them to freedom. Try to imagine a German or French citizen who planned a major terrorist act against Jews, and, after being jailed, being graced by an important official because he was of the same “flesh.” Wouldn’t you be amazed? But somehow, Israelis view as entirely acceptable what would be revolting elsewhere. This is only because of the deep ethnic and religious affinity between the state and Jewishness.

Proof of this analysis can be found in examining Israel’s historical direction: This country is more closed to foreigners today than it was 20 years ago. A political position that is not self-declaredly Jewish and Zionist is carefully scrutinized and delegitimized. The Knesset passed anti-Arab legislation and demanded precisely what illiberal states demand − namely, pledges of loyalty to Jewish symbols.

A radical right-wing Jewish party based on ethnic-religious principles like Habayit Hayehudi can become the natural ally of a so-called centrist party. There are increasing numbers of racist attacks by Jews on non-Jews. And now legislation is proposed to make the democratic character of the state superseded by its Jewishness. In short, Israeli politics has become far more extremist because it has become far more committed to the logic of its ethnic-religious foundations. A Jewish state predicated on Jewish identity was bound to become what it has become: morally repulsive to the liberal sensibilities of Western Europeans; a source of deep inequalities between Jews and Arabs and of incomprehensible inequalities among Jews themselves; and worst of all, a state that makes racism a natural way of conducting its affairs.

If Israel does not want to become a politically improved and militarily more powerful version of dark ethnocratic regimes, it must not only insure that the rights of minorities are protected, but also become forcefully universalist, go back to the universalist strands of Jewish tradition and align itself with the neutrality of liberal states. Israel can and should have a national Jewish culture, but this culture should be, like its Western liberal counterparts, far thinner and more neutral. This would imply treating Jews and non-Jews equally in more domains than is practiced today; dismantling the state rabbinate (Halbertal himself proposes this); encouraging religious pluralism and treating all Jewish denominations equally; making religious symbols into universal ones; teaching the history of other traditions; creating a canon of Arab and Jewish literary classics; making it easier for non-Jews to become citizens. All these measures would maintain Israel’s Jewishness. Israel would still have the same calendar, symbols, and language. It would become non-neutral in the same way as liberal countries are, because various groups would be organized in a broader and more inclusive framework. We want Sayed Kashua to remain committed to his group, but we also want him to be able to hang a painting of Yemin Moshe in his living-room and be at peace with it.

Israeli society; an illustration. Credit: Yael Bogen
Ultra-Orthodox men praying.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen

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