Encountering Peace: A nation like all other nations?

In a recent Facebook post I wrote: “Prime Minister Netanyahu and all of the non-democratic Right and center – pay attention: In order for the State of Israel to be the democratic nation-state of the Jewish people, Israel must be the nation-state of the Jewish people and all of its citizens. Without that Israel is not Jewish and is not democratic.” 

My friend and colleague Aryeh Green responded: “Here’s the thing. France is the nation-state of the French people, with full political civil and individual rights for all its citizens.”

 The same can be said for every other Western nation in the world, save the United States, which by definition is a melting pot of many ethnic identities, most based on previous national identities – think of Irish Americans, Polish Americans and Italian Americans. So what’s wrong with the nation-state of the Jewish people being just that: the nation-state of the Jewish people, with full civil and political and individual rights for all its citizens, whether they are Arab or Jew, whatever their religion or color of their skin or national or ethnic identity? 

Your mantra of “and a state for all its citizens” is extraneous. Just as it is for France (and for the record, descendants of Poles and Italians, Irish and Spanish and other nations, can indeed gain citizenship in the land of their ancestors. Check it out. Jews aren’t unique among democracies in that either.)  

I post this because this is exactly the same argument that I have used many times with Palestinian friends and colleagues, and even wrote this argument in several columns I published in Palestinian newspapers. But today it is no longer true.

There are problems making that argument today after the Nation-State Law came into being; after Netanyahu’s response to Rotem Sela (“Israel is not a country of all its citizens. According to the Nation-State Law that we passed, Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish nation – and its alone”); after a majority a members of the ruling Likud faction oppose the two-states solution, as well as the prime minister himself apparently; after the push by Netanyahu to empower the radical Right that supports annexation of the West Bank; and after the total delegitimization of the Arab electorate and their representatives by the majority of the Right and center-right in Israel. There is no equality in Israel for non-Jewish citizens.

In this election campaign, there isn’t even the appearance of equality for the Arab citizens. There has never been equality for the Arab citizens of Israel. Some gaps in disparities have narrowed. None have been closed. Arabs remain the poorest sector of Israel. They suffer from discrimination in every field of life possible. There used to be an appearance or a claim of equality under the law, but we all know that is not true.

There is no equality in the allocation of budgets by the state. There is no equality in labor opportunities, in transportation planning, in education, in social welfare, in public building, in public land-use planning, in policing, in the courts and in the prisons. Some justify the discrimination by declaring that the state has the right to provide benefits to those citizens who serve in the army – which are not Arabs.

BUT THIS falls short on two elements. Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) who don’t serve in the army have more benefits from the state than do the Arabs; and Arabs are not relieved from military service like the haredim, who don’t serve but are simply not drafted. Not being drafted, they are not eligible for certain benefits for those who served in the army.

We are all familiar with shops and companies looking for employees that emphasize “after army service” – a code for Arabs need not apply. We all know how difficult it is for Arab students to find a place to live in Jewish cities. Discrimination is not only legal and by the government, it is deeply rooted in Israeli society as well. We all know how underdeveloped the Arab neighborhoods are in the mixed Jewish-Arab cities, as compared to the Jewish neighborhoods within the same jurisdiction.

How can we continue to lie to ourselves about equality in the State of Israel? Israel is not a new-born state with a weak economy. Israel is strong and developed and rich. After more than 70 years, it should not be acceptable to any of us that this discrimination continues.

Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people is not like France – the nation-state of the French people. Anyone can potentially become part of the French nation-state. This is not the case with the Jewish nation-state. A non-Jew cannot become a member of the Jewish nation-state without changing their religion. Being Jewish is not only being a member of a nation – it is also being a member of a religion. If we talk about the nation-state of Israel, perhaps we can talk about real equality, or the possibility of real equality between all of its citizens. But if Israel is not the state of all of its citizens, there cannot be equality for all of its citizens.

If Israel would end its occupation of the Palestinian people, and the Palestinian people could assert their national identity within a given territory and achieve self-determination, perhaps we could speak about the possibility for the Palestinian citizens of Israel to express their national identity within the Palestinian state. Perhaps even holding dual citizenship with their Israeli citizenship – and then we could revisit the possibility of achieving equality for all Israeli citizens.

Israel can be the nation-state of the Jewish people, but it must also be the state of all of its citizens. Our Declaration of Independence – our vision and mission statement as a nation – emphasized the principle of equality, the principle that Netanyahu and his government have killed.

For now, I suggest we stop lying to ourselves about equality in our so-called democratic country. I hope that after the elections, we will begin to count the Arab citizens of Israel as full citizens, that the new government will once again strive for genuine equality in all fields, and that we will return to the peace process to end our occupation over the Palestinian people. Until then, let’s try to be honest – at least with ourselves.

The writer is a political and social entrepreneur who has dedicated his life to the State of Israel and to peace between Israel and her neighbors. His latest book, ‘In Pursuit of Peace in Israel and Palestine,’ was published by Vanderbilt University Press. 

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