Yes: Jewish and Democratic

"Yisrael Umishpakhat Haamim: Medinat Le'om Yehudit Uzekhuyot Haadam" ("Israel and the Family of Nations: Jewish Nation-State and Human Rights) by Alexander Yakobson and Amnon Rubinstein, Schocken, 476 pages, NIS 95.

"Yisrael Umishpakhat Haamim: Medinat Le'om Yehudit Uzekhuyot Haadam" ("Israel and the Family of Nations: Jewish Nation-State and Human Rights) by Alexander Yakobson and Amnon Rubinstein, Schocken, 476 pages, NIS 95

This book is like a breath of fresh air to all those interested in the image of Israel as a nation-state and in the issue of its Jewish and democratic character. For the most part this debate takes place in the shallow Israeli swamp, as if no other country or nation on earth is tackling similar questions. Isaiah Berlin once quipped that "Jews are like everybody else, only more so." Yakobson and Rubinstein restore the debate on Israel's image to its proper historical and comparative dimensions. Even those who may dispute the authors' position cannot ignore the book itself - the multidimensional nature of its arguments and the wealth of documentation, constitutional and historical, that it contains.

Prof. Amnon Rubinstein, who needs no introduction as a public figure or as the author of one of the basic books on constitutional law in Israel, has collaborated in "Israel and the Family of Nations: Jewish Nation-State and Human Rights" with historian Dr. Alexander Yakobson, who contributes to this book its historical dimension. Together they present, in a sharply focused manner (albeit with doubts and reservations), the book's central thesis: Yes, the State of Israel is - and was intended to be, in accordance with the United Nations General Assembly Resolution of 1947 - a Jewish and democratic state, and these two components do not contradict one another.

The first part of "Israel and the Family of Nations" deals with an issue that is not widely discussed in Israel: the international context of Israel's creation and the debates in the UN General Assembly on the partition of Palestine. There might be those who will say that this first section is superfluous; however, the authors are justified in their perception of that chapter in history as a vital element in the current debate. Because of disputes that later emerged with the UN and because of its development in the direction of hostility toward Israel, there is a tendency in Israel to adopt a disparaging attitude toward that international body. Nonetheless, the cold hard fact is that the establishment of Israel as a Jewish state derives its international legitimacy from the UN's decisions. The Arab states, which have gone to war not only against Israel, but also against the UN's resolutions, naturally tend to ignore this aspect and to portray Israel - not just from 1967 onward, but from its very creation in 1948 - as an imperialist occupying power.

Even those who call themselves post-Zionists find it very convenient to ignore the fact that, were it not for the granting of this international legitimacy based on universal values, Israel would never have been created. One individual who clearly perceived this point was the founder of modern political Zionism, Theodor Herzl. Thus the preamble to the Basel Program called for the establishment in Palestine of a Jewish state "recognized by international law." Moreover, the authors of this book correctly discern that those who claim that Israel cannot be both Jewish and democratic are, in effect, undermining Israel's very legitimacy - although, for various reasons, some of them tactical, the individuals making this claim prefer not to say so openly.

Legitimate aspirations

Yakobson and Rubinstein have conducted a comprehensive study of the debates on the partition of Palestine in UN committees and in the General Assembly. The following points in this study should be mentioned here. The UN's debates and resolutions regarding the partition of Palestine explicitly referred to the creation of two states - one Jewish, the other Arab - as an expression of the legitimate national aspirations of both the Jews and the Arabs. The UN explicitly recognized that one of the goals of the Jewish state would be massive Jewish immigration into its territory, and saw nothing wrong in the principle of what was formulated later as Israel's Law of Return. Quite the contrary: The UN recognized that the Jewish state would be not just a state representing its Jewish (and Arab) citizens, but that the Jewish state's legitimate justification would be that it would be open to Jewish immigration. For that reason, the sparsely populated Negev was included within the boundaries of the envisaged Jewish state.

The UN anticipated that the two states would establish democratic regimes and that the Jewish state would safeguard the rights of the Arab minority. In accordance with all the accepted norms, the UN saw no built-in contradiction in Israel's being a Jewish and a democratic state. Nevertheless, the authors repeatedly point out that the Arab opposition to the creation of a Jewish state was at the time - as it is, in effect, today - the refusal of Arab nationalism to recognize the existence of a Jewish state. Since the regimes of all the Arab states in 1947 were conservative, one cannot help but smile when reading the words of Syria's UN representative, whose doomsday prediction was the flooding of Palestine with communist masses. The Arabs then accused Zionism of having strong links with communism; today they accuse it of having strong links with colonialism. What has not changed is the refusal to recognize the existence of a Jewish people that deserves the right to self-determination. (On this issue, the authors extensively discuss the contradictory nature of the positions held by intellectuals such as Edward Said and MK Azmi Bishara, who recognize the Arab right to self- determination, but deny that same right to the Jews.)

The authors also note that the attribution of a colonialist character to Israel makes no sense because colonialism is based on the existence of a mother country that, using its military or economic might, sets up and reinforces colonies. That kind of situation obviously did not exist in the history of Zionism. Regarding the argument that Zionism received the assistance of the world powers - that statement is true, of course. However, it should also be recalled that all small nations that have attained independence received the support of the world's powers - for example, Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania - and that Poland and Czechoslovakia attained statehood following World War I thanks to the assistance of the world's powers. Albanian Kosovo will eventually become independent due to the military intervention of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. It should also be recalled that the Arab Revolt during World War I was the fruit of the efforts of British intelligence in Cairo, efforts that were spearheaded by Lawrence of Arabia.

`Diaspora nationalism'

The fact that Jewish nationalism was once a "Diaspora nationalism" is not unique; Greek and Armenian nationalisms were also "diaspora nationalisms," although obviously, one can speak here of only a similarity, not an identity. However, the book primarily deals with the tension between Israel's character as a Jewish state and its democratic values. A central point in the authors' arguments is that those who compare Israel to the United States - a comparison that is favored even by Israel's extreme left - are mistaken: Israel should be compared to modern nation-states, for the most part, the European ones. And, when that comparison is made, three issues emerge.

First, nearly all the world's nation-states have national minorities and, in these countries, the state's public character - as expressed in its emblem, flag and anthem - has been determined by the majority's cultural heritage. Second, in democratic nation-states with an expatriate diaspora, the members of that diaspora have a right of return that is similar to the one articulated in Israel's Law of Return. Third, in some of the leading Western democracies, special status is accorded to the religion that is historically identified with that country's national heritage.

Before we discuss in detail the significance of this comparative dimension, we should mention some of the authors' critical positions toward the Jewish religious nationalist right in Israel. First of all, the authors unequivocally state that the idea of Israel being both Jewish and democratic is not a contradiction in terms - but only if the concept "Jewish" is interpreted in its national, not religious, context. If the intention is to turn Israel into a country whose laws are those of the Jewish religion (that is, a Jewish theocracy), obviously Israel cannot be, at the same time, a democracy. They illustrate this point effectively by pointing out that, just as the accepted day of rest in Western countries is Sunday, whose roots, but not its contents, are religious (there is no obligation to attend church services, and so forth), similarly it is natural that the official day of rest in Israel is Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, although the state does not determine its contents.

The authors also state that religion does not determine the boundaries of the national collective, as has been proved by the country's Russian immigrants and by the extension of the application of Israel's Law of Return. Second, the authors are clearly troubled by Zionism's expropriation by the Zionist-religious right. This is a historical aberration because Zionism started out - despite its respect for Judaism as part of the Jewish people's national-cultural heritage - as a national, not a religious, movement. The authors are also aware of the damage that this expropriation is inflicting on both Zionism and Israel: The identification that is being made by the settlers - and by ideologists such as Yoram Hazony - between Zionism and the settlements on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip have blurred Zionism's historical character and have placed a powerful weapon in the hands of Israel's opponents, who point to the settlers as proof that Zionism is a form of colonial occupation.

The Arab minority

The authors repeatedly warn that the continuation of the Israeli occupation will create an apartheid-like situation. In their view, only the principle of "two states for two nations" is congruent with the universal principles of the Zionist movement in its early stages. The appendices contain fascinating material. Here are a few examples: The Irish constitution contains the phrase "in the Name of the Most Holy Trinity from Whom is all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and states must be referred," and states its relevance for the Irish diaspora throughout the world. The Greek constitution of 1975, which was passed with the consent of the socialist PASOK party and which also bases itself on the Holy Trinity, establishes the status of the Greek Orthodox Church as the leading church in Greece, clarifies the link between the state and the expatriate Greek diaspora, and emphasizes that diaspora's commitment to help the state in the educational field.

In the Danish and Norwegian constitutions, the Lutheran Church is recognized as the state's official church. In Great Britain, in the absence of a constitution, the status of the Anglican Church, or Church of England, and the Church of Scotland, is ensured as the state church of England and Scotland respectively. Likewise, the authors stress that arrangements somewhat similar to Israel's Law of Return exist in Finland, Ireland and Greece, as well as in Eastern Europe's new democracies - Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic - and that no international agency (such as the UN, the Council of Europe or the European Union) has found any fault in such arrangements. Opposition to the Israeli Law of Return has nothing to do with universal or humanist concerns; it is simply a basic opposition to the existence of a Jewish state.

In the book's final section, the authors discuss the status of Israel's Arab minority. Obviously, the situation is far from perfect and the authors are especially sensitive to the gap between legal norms and the day-to-day social reality. Nonetheless, they stress - and justifiably so - that Arabic's status as Israel's second official language and the right enjoyed by all of Israel's Arab citizens to an education in their own language place Israel on the road toward multiculturalism far in advance of what is the accepted practice in most democratic countries. Had Israel emulated republican France, for example, in its perception of citizenship as an entity devoid of national, cultural and historical aspects, there would, of course, be no Arab-language schools in Israel today and Israel's Arab citizens would be forced to attend schools where the language of instruction was Hebrew, in accordance with the Jacobin principle of a "single, indivisible republic."

Yakobson and Rubinstein applaud those court rulings in Israel (such as in the Katzir case) that have removed some of the discriminatory practices that still exist in Israeli society and which are aimed at the country's Arab community. Readers interested in studying these issues more extensively and in the ongoing debate the authors, as they study their texts under the microscope, are engaged in with scholars such as Baruch Kimmerling and Sammy Smooha, should read those sections carefully. They will then realize that there is more than one option available as far as the treatment of national minorities is concerned. Even those who disagree with the authors' position will be forced to admit that it is an irrefutable fact that the situation of Israel's Arab minority is at least partially attributable to the Arab-Israeli dispute. It is hard to think of many examples of a democratic country with a national minority that identifies with a nation that is at war with that country.

It is very convenient to compare the situation of Israel's Arab minority to what was experienced by American citizens of Japanese origin during the World War II. The treatment of Japanese-Americans is a blot on American democracy, just as slavery's existence in the U.S., 90 years after the Declaration of Independence, whose preamble states, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal," is a blot that remains on American history to this very day. However, no one would ever argue that such blots - and Israeli history has a considerable number of them, of which the authors are well aware - would lead anyone to question the legitimacy of America's existence. When one takes into consideration the fact that Arab members of Knesset sometimes openly express doubts as to Israel's legitimacy and articulate themselves in ways that some members of the Israeli majority consider to be tantamount to support for terrorist acts against Israeli nationals, it is obvious that here is a heavy burden that few democracies have ever been forced to contend with.

One of the cruel paradoxes of Israeli political life stems from the fact that the stunning achievements of the Six-Day War of June 1967 ironically contained, dialectically speaking, the possibility of challenging Israel's very legitimacy because of the continuation of the Israeli occupation and because of the continued oppression of the Palestinian population. It was the settlers and their backers who undermined, with a considerable degree of success, the extensive international support that Israel enjoyed and which stemmed from the finest traditions of liberal and democratic thought. To ensure that Zionism will continue to be part of those traditions, Israel must free itself of that occupation - even if only unilaterally - as quickly as possible. This is the message that emerges from this book.

If the occupation is not ended, it is doubtful whether a book along the lines of this one can be written 10 years from now. History has already seen revolutions that have liberated the masses and which have then deteriorated. The author's articulate defense of both Zionism and Israel is a warning of what might happen in the future.

Prof. Shlomo Avineri, together with Prof. Zeev Sternhell, edited "Europe's Century of Discovery," published by Magnes Press.