It is probably a coincidence that last Friday, two articles about Yair Lapid, the big winner in Israel's last elections, ran on the same page of Haaretz. One article reported that Lapid had distanced himself publicly from the possibility of creating a bloc including representatives of the Arab-Palestinian minority in the Knesset – whom he referred to as “Zuabis” – in an effort to replace the prime minister. The other stated that Lapid’s party “celebrated Judaism” and that the party leader himself was close to Jewish Renewal circles.
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There can be no doubt that for many of Israel’s Jewish citizens, Lapid’s reference to Hanin Zuabi – which removes the Arab population’s representatives from the places where the crucial decisions are made for the Jewish state – is a “celebration of Judaism” indeed. Could there be a more “Jewish” statement than one declaring that the Jewish state’s Jewish majority must keep the right of sovereignty for itself?
Yet the prevailing tendency in Israel to see the exclusion of the Arab minority from the state’s sovereign body as an expression of Jewish commitment goes against Jewish history. Let's not forget that Jews lived as a minority, as “the other,” among their host societies, which constituted the majority in the places they lived.
It was this experience as a minority group that contributed to the development of a Jewish national philosophy over the years, which vehemently opposed the subjugation of nationalities and the exclusion of minorities. It is interesting to see that often, those same great Jewish intellectuals, known for their deep “tribal” loyalty, were blessed with great self-awareness as members of a persecuted national minority – and, at the same time, had a gift for translating their group’s feelings of deprivation and oppression into principled resistance against oppression of “the other,” no matter who that other might be.
For example, Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel (1520–1609), better known as the Maharal of Prague, was perhaps the most vigorous proponent of the view that Jewish subjugation to the nations of the world was an abnormal situation. In his late-15th century work, "Netzah Yisrael" ("The Eternity of Israel"), he wrote, “It is not appropriate in the natural order that [the nation of] Israel should be under another authority.” For him, this was a fundamental statement that no nation should subjugate another. In his own words, “According to the natural order, it is not appropriate that one nation should subjugate another and make its burden heavy” ("Netzah Yisrael," chapter 1, page 10).
Ze’ev Jabotinsky, undoubtedly a Jewish nationalist through and through, looked at the world around him, openly and without apology, through the prism of his Jewish national identity. An essential component of his Jewish national identity was his fight for the rights of the Jewish minority in czarist Russia. It was from his ongoing and open relationship with the memory of this Jewish past that Jabotinsky spoke of the rights of all minorities, no matter who they might be, as a sacred political principle. He felt that in a state where several minority groups lived, “multi-national equality should apply strictly to all races throughout the state, large and small alike, whether they made up 90 percent of the population or a tiny, scattered minority within it” (“The ‘bi-national’ Land of Israel,” 1930).
This statement shows Jabotinsky believed that the future Jewish state, in which two nationalities would always dwell, should “be constructed legally as a ‘bi-national’ state” (“On the Land of Israel as a ‘bi-national’ state,” 1926).
In Israel, it seems, the successors to what might be described as the Jewish tradition of viewing oneself as a minority are the “Zuabis” – the Arab members of Knesset. Following recognition of the “self-definition of the Jewish collective” (in the words of “the radical” MK Hanin Zuabi in an interview in Haaretz), these MKs fight against the national subjugation of their own people in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and for the Arab-Palestinian minority’s rights in Israel. Unlike them, the “Lapids,” which call for the continued exclusion of Arab parties, are distancing themselves from this deeply rooted Jewish tradition. Their idea of a “celebration of Judaism” is nothing more than narrow, superficial ethnocentrism.
Hopefully one of these days (hopefully by the next election!) more Jewish “Zuabis” and “Tibis” will appear in Israel’s political arena. These would be Jewish “nationalists” of the old-new kind, who, out of profound and open commitment to Jewish historical values, would promote equal (multi-) national dialogue here in the spirit of the Maharal of Prague and Jabotinsky.