'Jewish and Democratic': A Hollow Definition

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
The spiritual leader of Israel’s Druze community Sheikh Muafak Tariff in April.
The spiritual leader of Israel’s Druze community Sheikh Muafak Tariff in April.Credit: Fadi Amun
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The spiritual leader of Israel’s Druze community made two puzzling claims Monday. In an essay published Monday on Hebrew news site Ynet, Sheikh Muafak Tariff wrote that “[Israel’s] Druze citizens are not mercenaries in the service of the state, nor are we visitors here.” He added that the community demands an amendment to the nation-state law “because we are born-and-bred residents of Israel.” The claims are puzzling because they are so self-evident, as if he sought to argue “I am human because I am human.”

But the puzzlement is even greater because Tariff knows full well that a Druze (or Muslim, Christian, Armenian or Baha’i) citizen of Israel is not like every other person in the Jewish state. It’s not enough that he was born and bred here. Not even his military service or his economic contribution to the state’s existence and prosperity can give him equal status. He must meet a nonnegotiable, fundamental condition – to be Jewish. No other interpretation of the nation-state law is possible, even if it is fixed up to give the Druze special status, as Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman has proposed.

That proposal is actually a sign – maybe more so than any of the provisions already included in the law – of its inherent distortions. Because this law destroyed the equality granted to all Israeli citizens by the Declaration of Independence, any deviation from it, even if it’s meant to improve the status of a particular community or sect, redefines equality as at best a reward for good behavior or, in the context of the Druze, for their military service. After all, had it not been for the disclosure of the identity of Lt. Col. Mahmoud Kheir el-Din, a Druze officer who was killed in a covert military operation in the Gaza Strip in November 2018, it’s unlikely that Lieberman would have been moved at this particular moment to suggest amending the law and admit that a mistake was made in its wording.

This equation is patently ridiculous, because in theory, it also allows Muslims, Christians, Bedouin and non-Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are currently serving or have previously served in the Israel Defense Forces to demand the same equality given (or to be given) to the Druze. When the criterion for granting the “equality reward” to non-Jews is military service, or a share purchased in the “covenant of blood,” then it should seemingly be possible to obtain equality on an individual basis rather than as a community or a sect, as if it were a prize awarded to a person’s contribution to national security.

The absurdity of Lieberman’s proposal can of course be extrapolated endlessly. But at the same time, it’s impossible to ignore the Druze’s own contribution to bolstering the lack of equality in Israel. When Tariff wrote that “In his life, as in his death, [Kheir] el-Din was the essence of a Druze Israeli patriot. He was proud of his ethnic affiliation and of his country,” he reinforced the power of “the blood and equation” and contradicted his own, correct, statement “against promoting a law that ignores the Declaration of Independence, which advocates for equality for all citizens of the state. … The Druze community together with the Jewish people celebrated Israel’s founding on the basis of the Declaration of Independence, and answered the calls of its founders to take part in building its future based on full equality.”

But even in that statement, Tariff tread too cautiously. Because anyone who accepts the Declaration of Independence must wholeheartedly reject the nation-state law, which abolishes the very principle of equality on which the declaration is based. And that remains true even if his community is granted some benefits, such as construction permits or increased government funding.

Yet the argument over the status of Israel’s Druze community about more than a particular religious and ethnic community that is harmed by the nation-state law; it is evidence of just how hollow the state’s definition as “Jewish and democratic” really is. When the state’s national agenda and raison d’etre are its Jewishness, it will always seek to diminish the status of those who are not Jewish.

This definition views every minority, even if its members serve in the army or were killed in daring operations on the state’s behalf, as a threat to its identity. Such a state, by its very nature, must practice discrimination, because it fears that without it, its reason for existence will disintegrate. Such a state cannot permit itself to be democratic. It cannot even allow itself to be fair.

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