Both Jewish and Democratic

Israel’s self-definition is far from an oxymoron

Last month, the British Israel Communications and Research Centre published a series of essays on “the current state and future prospects of Israel’s democracy.” One week later, the journalist Ben White insisted that BICOM was wasting its time. Israel is an “ethnocracy,” not a democracy, White argued, because its “legal framework as a Jewish state” mandates discrimination against non-Jews.

White’s argument has unfortunately become quite prevalent in recent years. In his book “One Country,” for example, Ali H. Abunimah argues that Israel’s “insistence on maintaining its exclusivist Jewish character…is a chauvinistic appeal to ethnic tribalism.” On his Huffington Post blog, Ahmed Moor recently posited that “Israel cannot be both Jewish and Democratic,” and accused those who insist on the “right of Israel to exist as the Jewish state” of “appalling” racism.

But simply because this argument is pervasive doesn’t mean it’s even remotely accurate. Although there is indeed often tension between its Jewish and democratic nature, Israel is firmly rooted in the realm of international legitimacy. Those who argue against Israel’s right to constitute itself as a Jewish state are effectively denying Jews their fundamental right to self-determination.

The first question, of course, is what is a “Jewish state?” Israelis continue to wrestle with this question, but at an absolute minimum, we can use the definition expounded by Israel’s former chief justice Aharon Barak. “A Jewish state,” Barak explains, is a state that “fosters Jewish culture, Jewish education, and love of the Jewish people,” and one to which Jews possess “a special key to enter” because of the necessity of a Jewish homeland after centuries of persecution. In other words, a Jewish state privileges Jews in its immigration laws and maintains a culture that reflects the beauty of the Jewish tradition.

There is absolutely no reason a state cannot possess both of these attributes and still be a liberal democracy.

Consider Israel’s Law of Return, which grants automatic citizenship to anyone who would be considered Jewish under the Nuremberg Laws. Abunimah claims that this is “an Israeli policy not grounded in any international law.” Clearly, he is unfamiliar with Germany’s law of return, which allows ethnic Germans to “return” to Germany even if they have never set foot in the country. Finland had a similar law until 2010 regarding descendents of ethnic Finns. Ireland, Armenia, Poland, and Bulgaria all currently have similar immigration policies. Indeed, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination explicitly asserts that nothing in the Convention should be interpreted as affecting a state’s laws “concerning nationality...or naturalization,” as long these laws don’t specifically discriminate against a particular ethnicity. Israel’s Law of Return fits this description perfectly.

Now consider Israel’s Jewish national culture. Critics often argue that Israel cannot be both a state of the Jewish people and a state of all its citizens. The scholars Alexander Yakobson and Amnon Rubenstein, however, respond that those critics should look at Slovenia. Slovenia’s constitution insists that it’s “a state of all its citizens,” despite the fact that it emerges from the “right of the Slovene nation to self-determination” and thus maintains a distinct Slovene national culture. The constitution further acknowledges the existence of Slovenian citizens who aren’t Slovenian nationals—such as indigenous Italians and Hungarians—and vows to provide them with equal rights. The European Union admitted Slovenia in 2004, the obvious implication being that the international community firmly believes that a liberal democracy can possess a proud national identity, as long as its minorities are extended full equality.

To be sure, Israel often falls short in this regard. Although Arabs receive equal civil rights to Jews on paper, Israeli Arabs in practice face enormous discrimination in government land allocation, education funds, and infrastructure funding. There is still much work to be done in correcting this, and advocacy on behalf of full equal benefits for Israel’s Arab citizens is a noble goal.

But only by distorting international norms does this mean advocating that Israel forsake its Jewishness. Israel has every right to maintain its Law of Return and its Jewish culture under international law, and the Jewish people have every right to self-determination under the United Nations’ International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Those who seek to promote a “one-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—in which Israel ceases being Jewish—in the name of “rights,” therefore, are actually denying the Jewish people their legal and moral right to foster a Jewish state, something that the Jews have hoped and prayed for throughout the last two thousand years.

Of course, individuals like Ahmed Moor can claim, if they so desire, that Israel is fundamentally a “racist” state. But you have a choice, dear reader. You can either side with the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the European Union, the United Nations, and indisputably liberal democracies like Germany, Finland, Lithuania, Slovenia, Armenia, and Ireland…

Or, you can side with Ahmed Moor.

Avishai D. Don ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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