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Israeli Nationalist Legislation and Democracy

Even the staunchest defender of Israel is troubled by the approval of undemocratic laws designed to maintain the Jewish nature of the state. For some time now nationalists have been challenging the good nature of Israel’s democracy by passing laws that restrict the rights of the minority community, namely Arabs, from expressing themselves even symbolically. Here are a few examples: Israel’s war of independence in 1948 is called the Nakba or the disaster by the Arabs and it is against the law to use state funds to commemorate the Nakba. Small communities have been empowered to prevent groups from moving into the community. Some have suggested loyalty oaths and there have been laws passed that prevent Palestinian citizens from seeking rights in the courts.

Many of these laws are objectionable to most Israelis and have been rejected by the Knesset. But a certain number of them appeal to a wide variety of people. Israelis fear the loss of the Jewish particularity of the state and even though they struggle with these laws some argue for their necessity. One Israeli leader even proposed legislation that suggested the superiority of the Jewish nature of the state over the democratic nature of the state, and this included rejecting Arabic as a national language in Israel.

What motivates this sort of action? There are a few prime motivators the most important of which is the essential Jewish nature of the state. Israel simply cannot be a strong liberal democracy and privilege Jewish particularity. It’s a contradiction in terms on one level. But on another level Israel has a right to remain Jewish. There is a sense in which the state of Israel makes no sense if it is not Jewish. The question is how Jewish? The answer lies somewhere betweenIsraelas a Torah state sealed in orthodoxy, and Israel as a secular democratic state with the separation of church and state. The balance between the Democratic and the Jewish nature of the state will have to evolve over time.

But there are other causes which include a failed peace process, a public tired of violence and rocket attacks, and the distasteful experience of watching Israeli Arabs cheer Hezbollah rockets. Increasingly Israelis see all Palestinians, even Israeli Palestinians, as the same and do not assume that Israeli Palestinians have any commitment to the state.

Of course, one answer to this reactionary legislation is the two-state solution. But that does not seem to be something bound for the near future; moreover, even with the establishment of a Palestinian state there will be a sizable Palestinian minority in Israel proper. This problem will not go away. This sort of reactionary legislation will not go away but it is more exposed than ever because it promises to threaten the democratic nature ofIsrael. Threats to free speech and the disempowerment of whole groups of people have placed the problem at the forefront of the public’s consciousness. Israeli Arabs are about 20% of the Israeli population and the number is simply too big to ignore.

Israel should guarantee the symbolic rights of all minority groups. The key word here is symbolic rights, the rights to express themselves through protest and the right to propose alternative perspectives on the state. Any culture has a right to protect itself from a genuine threat and Israelis no different. In the same way that the skinheads were allowed to march in the United States, as long as they were not judged to be overly provocative or violent, minority groups inIsraelshould also be allowed to express themselves through acceptable forms of protest. Protected speech is sacred to liberal democracies and, as the observation goes, the best response to unpleasant speech is more speech. Israel should have nothing to fear from the rights of Palestinians to express themselves – again, the right to express themselves peacefully and under conditions that do not promote imminent danger. Stubborn resistance to the rights of Palestinians will only cause the conflict to spiral downward and make the two-state solution even more difficult to achieve.

The Two State Solution Is Workable – or Maybe It Isn’t

The issue of a two state solution continues to loom large in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Quite a number of people, including me, think it is the only answer. But it still remains an abstraction and even though there are numerous documents and plans for instituting two states reducing those documents and plans to actual shovel-ready projects has remained elusive. Actually calling for a two state solution has become a “shibboleth”, a “cliché” that sounds good but is increasingly empty of content. I see two lines of argument emerging in this discussion. The first is that the two state solution is not workable and will disappear. The second is that the two state solution is the only answer and will continue to develop. Let’s take a closer look at each of these alternatives.

The two state solution is not workable

We begin by pointing out that this call for a two state solution has been droning on for years and nothing has happened. This in itself is pretty good evidence that it probably never will happen. Moreover, the Palestinian insistence on the right of return and continued problems over settlement development make the two state solution even less attractive. Both sides are going to have to pay a price for two state solution, and as of now neither seems to be lowering its asking price. Israelis insist on recognition and Palestinians continue to remain firm with respect to their demands pertaining to refugees and settlements. We might even ask whether or not it’s time to start talking about alternatives, according to this perspective, because no progress is evident on any of the issues that divide these two groups. The attempts by the Palestinians to have the UN declare a Palestinian state has been one response to this conundrum.

Others see the Israeli government as moving toward increasing radicalization and away from a peace process that would result in two states. The composition of the Netanyahu government is one example. This is an interesting divide in Israel because while the leadership in Israel has become more recalcitrant and radicalized, the general population has made significant movement toward acceptance of the Palestinians as neighbors. Additionally, as settlers plant their flags in East Jerusalem and the West Bank they intertwine their economies with the Palestinians and make a two state solution even more difficult. In sum, the facts on the ground created by both Israelis and Palestinians are not conducive to the two state solution.

The two state solution is workable

Here the argument changes course. It begins with the notion that even though progress is

slow the two cultures are intertwined and tied to each other in such a manner as to make two states inescapable. If one accepts this point then it’s a small leap to the conclusion that Palestinian recognition of the Jewish state of Israel is not so necessary. Two states can be developed in the interest of peace and democratic expressions, and “official” recognition of Israel as Jewish can come later. This might hold true for the issue of refugees also. The Palestinian claim that they will never give up the right of return might be mitigated when faced with the reality of their own state.

Then there are all the arguments pointing to a parade of horrors if the two state solution is not implemented. The two state solution, as the quarrel goes, must be implemented because the one state solution is so unacceptable and probably means the end of an Israeli majority. A one state solution with all of its conflicts about identity, national recognition, cultural preferences, and political complexities is so unacceptable that a two state solution is the only viable alternative.

Part of the founding narrative in Israel was that it had returned to its homeland which was a “land with no people.” This just simply was not true, and all of the arguments about who is at fault notwithstanding, there were people living in the land of Israel who were displaced and must be dealt with. The Palestinians are a people – even if many aspects of their political nationality have been recently constructed – and must wiggle out from under the weight of the Israeli presence. A state of their own is one solution to this problem.

The clarity and distinctiveness of the Jewish nature of the state is important in Israel. Of course, there are many future arguments and problems to be solved with respect to just how Israel expresses itself as a Jewish state and remains democratic. But from a philosophical level Israel is simply not Israel if it doesn’t devote itself to Jewish particularity (again, recognizing the difficulties with respect to the meaning of “particularity”). The only way for Israel to retain its Jewish nature is by ensuring that the Palestinians have a state of their own in order to allow its particularity to flourish.

Gingrich and the “Invented” Palestinian People

Speaker Gingrich caused a small stir the other day when he referred to the Palestinian people as “invented.” Gingrich typically prefaces these statements with phrases like “let’s be honest.” The preface “let’s be honest” is designed to signal the hearer that Newt has the truth and you are about to hear it. It implies that up until now all discussion about the point (in this case the construction of Palestinian national identity) has been tainted by indirectness, vagueness, avoidance of what’s “real,” and the dreaded political correctness.

Newt Gingrich considers himself an intellectual and a historian. And although I cannot imagine myself voting for Gingrich, I do enjoy listening to him and appreciate his argument-based approach to politics. Newt can make an argument and offer a perspective, something which I enjoy and appreciate always keeping in mind the difference between “perspective” and “bias.” But the speaker can tout his historian credentials all he likes; he remains shallow and incomplete with respect to a variety of issues – Palestinian peoplehood in particular this time. I’m waiting for one of Newt’s challengers to point out that all collectivities, all national identities, all “peoples” are invented.

Gingrich’s claim that the Palestinians were Arabs living on the outskirts of the Ottoman Empire and never constituted a national or political entity – complete with state institutions, internal infrastructure, and recognition – is defensible enough. He is sort of technically correct. When the state of Israel was declared in 1948 there was no existing Palestinian state in the full sense of the term that was displaced by Israel. In fact, there was no consistent and organized call for a Palestinian state until about 1967. Many Arab leaders in that region of the country considered themselves to be part of Syria. Evidence has been marshaled to defend this point, namely, that most of the land acquired by Israel up until 1948 was purchased legally, the Arab Muslim population was migratory, and that some testimony before the Peel Commission suggested that the word “Palestine” was a Zionist invention.

But none of this matters. Gingrich doesn’t understand that all political and national entities are “constructed” and come into being over time. 100 years ago there was no Saudi Arabia or Lebanon or Syria. These “peoples” were formed as a result of political alliances. The speaker has perhaps fallen into the trap of believing that because his own national group (American) is older and more established it is somehow more authentic. A society and its national institutions are constructed on the basis of cultural unity. If a group of people live amongst one another long enough they have the basis for inclusion and exclusion (ancestry, language, religion,). The attachment to a collective category such as national group (e.g. Palestinians, Canadian, French, Saudi) is primarily symbolic and utilitarian in some important ways. Thus, any time a collective group mobilizes in pursuit of goals and has a loyalty to this collectivity, including a preoccupation with its preservation, they are cementing their sense of peoplehood.

Even if we accept a conservative estimate the Palestinians have been organizing themselves around instrumental societal institutions for 50 years. They have constructed themselves in a manner consistent with acquiring control over resources, the solution to problems, and a defense against enemies. The basis for inclusion in the Palestinian national identity is no different than any other; it is by birth, language, and a commitment to the well-being of the collective identity. There are few, if any, national categories or groups in reality. There are always influences from other groups, languages, and ideologies and definitions of collective identities vary somewhat on the basis of emphasis or orientation. Hence, there are Christian Palestinians as well as Muslims and groups whose ethnic descent varies somewhat from others.

There are a few common characteristics that describe the development of a national identity. These characteristics tend to represent a pattern of evolution from scattered bands of people to a cohesive collective identity that has persistence. First communities undergo changes from a minority to majority conception of themselves. They see themselves as the dominant voice and presence in a geographic area. This process is still incomplete in the case of the Palestinians but is clearly moving forward. Gaza, the West Bank, and other disputed land must be settled first. Related to this, is the fact that Palestinians have moved from a pan Arab sense of themselves to a more precise definition of their own boundaries as a collectivity. Secondly, the Palestinians have increasingly focused their attention on development in the future rather than surviving the past. This too is still in the early stages and will progress as the Palestinians acquire structures and control of resources that have an impact on their own political well-being. Third, the act of inventing one’s sense of being a “people” is advanced as institutions advance for the realization of group interests. Turning to institutions as a mechanism to satisfy collective interests is superior to relying on tribal or ethnic affiliations and begins the process of transcending ethnicity and forging a civic identity rather than an ethnic one.

Speaker Gingrich needs to develop a more refined sense of how a people come to be. Why would a possible president of the United States even make such a statement? It is not only shallow but unproductive and certainly not conducive to a peace process. As of now, the speaker is stuck in simplistic categories of what groups are deserving of national identities. He thinks of these categories as finite and established; he thinks of them as nouns when in actuality they are verbs.

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