The 'Nations Test'

Israel and its Jewish majority must pick up the gauntlet and enter into dialogue courageously and in good faith, even if they find the dialogue's basic premise unfavorable.

Shalom Dichter
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Shalom Dichter

A few years ago, I spoke at a conference of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the umbrella organization for the 125 Jewish community relations councils in the United States. My host explained to me that the council's member organizations are tasked with doing all they can to ensure harmonious relations between Jews of their communities and the surrounding non-Jewish communities. America's five to six million Jews, he added, see it as being in their best interests to be on good terms with the country's 300 million non-Jews.

This has actually been an imperative throughout Jewish history. It was modern Zionism's founder, Theodor Herzl, who defined our poor relations with the world's nations in the 19th century as the "Jewish problem." The Zionist response was the creation of the State of Israel. But the existence of Israel in itself does not eliminate the need for Jews to have good relations with their neighbors, and in the Diaspora much energy is expended on cultivating such ties.

In Israel, however, where Jews constitute the majority, it seems that many feel they are exempt from the responsibility of seeking good ties with the non-Jews who live among them. I am speaking of course of the country's Palestinian-Arab population, who make up 20 percent of Israel's citizenry. They and the 80 percent who are Jews are like the two tectonic plates on which Israel rests, and the country's future and very existence depend in large part on the relationship between these plates. Unlike in foreign relations, where much is not in our hands, determining the course of domestic relations is largely in the hands of the sovereign State of Israel.

Unfortunately, throughout its history, Israel has acted as though its definition as a Jewish state provides it with a license for favoring the country's Jews over its Arab-Palestinian citizens. This democratically unacceptable favoritism has dictated a policy of institutionalized discrimination toward the country's Arab- Palestinian citizens in all areas of life: community infrastructures, access to health services, education, use of land, water and other natural resources, lack of equal job opportunities, and more.

As a result, there are today wide discrepancies between the country's Jewish and Arab communities, and these gaps constitute a powder keg in the relations between Israel's majority and its minority. We all know that there are those who claim that discrimination is inherent in Zionism, but this was never a principle of the movement, nor does the idea appear in Herzl's writings. On the contrary: Herzl pointedly related to the Arabs in his ideas and plans in an inclusive manner.

Thus far, however, for many reasons, the implementation has gone wrong. Today, not only has discrimination toward Israel's Arab citizens become an integral part of Zionism's prevalent image, it apparently has become axiomatic for too many Israeli Jews. A study conducted this year by University of Haifa Prof. Sammy Smooha showed that only half of the latter think the country's Arab citizens should have equal access to the country's national resources.

It is thoroughly unacceptable that one of Zionism's definitions should be discrimination against the country's non-Jewish citizens. That is neither Jewish nor democratic, and it flies in the face of Zionism. This is the "nations test," which Israel must pass as it stands on the threshold of its seventh decade of existence. No less important than seeking to establish normal relations with the peoples outside its borders, it is critically crucial for Israel to resolve its conflict with the Arab-Palestinian minority within its borders. This is the moral thing to do, it is humane, and, frankly, if it isn't done, those two tectonic plates are liable to end up crashing against one another in an earthquake.

That minority has been evincing signs that it wants to discuss change. In a document called "The Future Vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel," issued in late 2006, the leaders of the country's Arab community called on the Jews to engage in a dialogue over the next two decades. They propose that Israel's minority should be involved at all levels of national life on a democratic basis of full, equal citizenship - as was proclaimed in the state's Declaration of Independence in 1948. However, in contrast with what is written in that declaration, they propose changing Israel's definition as a Jewish state. The response, even among many Jews who see themselves as liberals or left-wing, has been highly negative, and this is a big mistake.

Clearly, there are those in Israel who consider this proposal a threat to Israel's very existence. But that is not sufficient reason for the two tectonic plates not to engage in a dialogue, which represents Israel's best prospect for stability and further development. Israel and its Jewish majority must pick up the gauntlet and enter into this dialogue courageously and in good faith, even if they find the dialogue's basic premise unfavorable. However, in this dialogue, the State of Israel is a key stakeholder with the structural and political capacity to fully influence the outcome. Government moves toward equality and fair treatment for the Arab minority will make it easier for both sides to progress on the issues of shared national identity and inclusive citizenship.

We, Israeli Zionist Jews, have something to learn from our overseas brethren, who do their utmost to ensure harmonious relations with their non-Jewish neighbors. An uncompromising, inclusive application of the principle of equal citizenship for the Arab minority in accordance with Western democratic principles is the minimum condition required to prevent the country from plunging into domestic chaos in the seventh decade of its existence.

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