Give the Arabs a State to Serve

Arabs should only be asked to serve a country in which their individual and national rights are fully recognized.

Why should Israels Arab citizens be exempt from joining the Israel Defense Forces or performing national civil service? Apparently, Foreign Minister and Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman's demand that Israeli Arabs be drafted makes perfect sense. Apparently, we should not complain that his party abandoned the Plesner Committee talks – addressing the exemption of Haredim and Arabs from army and national service – claiming that the panel denies the voice of reason that calls for all Israeli citizens to shoulder the same civil obligations regardless of religious, race of gender. And apparently, there should be no doubt that citizenship means full equality of rights, not just of obligations.

This is where the problem lies. The Arabs – or more precisely the Palestinians who live in the State of Israel – are not full citizens. The fact that they belong to the Palestinian nation prevents them from enjoying all the rights accorded to the states Jewish citizens. The Law of Return and other laws give Jews special rights. From a legal perspective, as long as Israel is not the state of all Israelis, but rather a Jewish state – for Jews in Israel and around the world – it is invalid to demand that Arabs serve in its army.

It should be noted that the term Jewish and democratic state is an oxymoron in that the state's Jewish component does not allow the existence of a democracy worthy of the name. This is not just because the Palestinians in Israel are a minority who are not given the full civil rights enjoyed by members of the Jewish nation, but also because they lack collective national rights.

The heart of the matter is that the Jewish nation is defined by its religion. A Palestinian who seeks to cross from the minority into the majority cannot do so without changing his religion. In other words, the distinction between the nation's majority and minority is a religious distinction that prevents members of a minority group from enjoying full civil, individual and collective rights. This is the deceptive foundation of Jewish nationalism, which blurs the line between religion and nation and makes the existence of a sovereign Jewish state a political impossibility.

So what is the solution? Since the abolishment of Jewish nationality as a basis for a nation-state is neither just nor possible – in the same way the abolishment of the Palestinian nationality is neither just nor possible – the only solution is to give up the idea of an exclusively Jewish nation-state. This could mean a bi-national state – or a variant of such a state – that would grant collective rights to each of the nations living within it and allow for the existence of a nation-state for Jews and Arabs without undermining democratic values.

Only when the Arabs in Israel enjoy full civil and national rights will it be possible to require them to fulfill their civil obligations by joining the army. This is because the state demanding their service will not be exclusively Jewish, but rather one in which they will be equal partners in both citizenship and nationality.

Professor Hannan Hever is the director of the School of Literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.