Can Israel be a Jewish State and Not Discriminate Against the Arab Minority

The word on
the street in Israel is that Palestinians don’t have much problem with Israel
being a “Jewish state” but they do have problems with the Zionist
enterprise. Of course, they won’t recognize Israel as a Jewish state just yet
and refuse to recognize its existence as such. This is some sort of symbolic
denial of Israel and silly in many ways because the partition in 1947 was
designed to create a Jewish state. The whole idea of Israel doesn’t make much
sense if it’s not Jewish. And some day in the distant future when and if there
is truly an end of conflict Israel will be known as a “Jewish state.”

The conflict
is heavily driven by the Arab refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
And even though many Palestinians have more problems with Zionism than Judaism,
they use the denial of Israel as a Jewish state strategically to argue for the
rights of Arab citizens. By denying the Jewish nature of the state they leave
the door open for a Palestinian population that will continue to burrow into
the state of Israel. Palestinians have a strong argument in human rights. About
20% of the population of Israel is Arab and they cannot be denied basic human

An interesting
debate emerges, however, by posing the question as to whether or not Israel
being a “Jewish state” automatically means discrimination against
others. Can Israel be a Jewish state and not discriminate against the Arab
minority? Well, probably not in the purest sense. Activist Palestinians use
this point quite regularly; that is, they make the argument that if Israel is
Jewish it will mean discrimination against its minority citizens. There are two
problems and inconsistencies here.

First, what
does “discrimination” mean? That will depend on how Jewish the state
is. If it is an Orthodox Torah state then discrimination will be considerable
against everybody. But let’s assume Israel becomes a “reasonable”
Jewish state that recognizes Jewish history and culture but still makes the distinction
between the public and private sphere. In other words, anyone will be able to
practice their own religion and culture within the private confines of their
own home. The state will make certain accommodations for Judaism such as rules
of kashrut, the Sabbath, the calendar, cultural touch points such as street
names, religious holidays, education, and the like. The United States certainly
is not a Christian state but Christian influences are pervasive. School
calendars, government offices, and institutional life all respond to Christian
traditions. As a Jewish state, public schools in Israel will teach some Jewish
history and Zionism. But the matter of private schools and whether or not it
will be possible to avoid the state religion will be debatable. There is a
distinction between discrimination and differences. Just because two groups are
different does not mean one is discriminated against.

It is also
curious that this problem emerges with respect to the Jewish state of Israel
with little or no mention of other religious states. This is an easy point to
make: a number of countries contain the name of the religion in the name of the
country such as the Islamic Republic of Iran or the Islamic Republic of
Pakistan. Turkey is increasingly an Islamic country even with its secular
military tradition. Jordan’s constitution says that no one can be king who is
not Muslim and this includes converts. All of these countries have minorities,
and to be sure they’re not treated very well, but these countries also come
from different political and cultural histories. They do not have Israel’s
history of democracy and equal rights, a history that should serve them well as
Israel works out these issues.

countries with more democratic traditions such as Denmark, Norway, in England
also have institutionalized religious identities. The Queen of England is the
guardian of Anglican Christianity. The Danes and Norwegians are all part of an
official Church of Denmark and Norway and these are countries that do not
receive the brunt of the world’s criticism.

The problem of Israel being a “Jewish”
state is really very minor. It is true that the legal aspects of certain
minority rights have yet to be argued through, but these problems should not be
insurmountable. And although conservatives in Israel are increasingly trying to
limit civil rights in an effort to ensure the Jewish nature of the state
through legislation, Israel still has no religious test to hold major office
and the Israeli Supreme Court has a strong tradition of guaranteeing human
rights. I understand that some have fundamental objections to any state with an
official religion, but this is a challenge for another time.

About Donald Ellis

Professor emeritus at the University of Hartford.

Posted on August 11, 2011, in Democracy, Israel and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Can Israel be a Jewish State and Not Discriminate Against the Arab Minority.

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