The combination of Education Minister Yuli Tamir’s Green Line textbook proposal and the recent document issued by the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee laying out the envisioned status of Palestinian citizens of Israel has gotten Israelis across the spectrum into the familiar cacophony of outrage. Like a spring, whenever issues come up (and there is no shortage of them) that raise tough questions about Israel’s performance as a Jewish state, the community lashes back with blind obstinacy, making every effort to quell the matter.
The Education Minister has been attacked every which way for her proposal, be it by religious fundamentalists who insist on the innate Jewish right to “Judea and Samaria,” or academics that see it as a double standard in light of textbooks across the Arab world marking the entire region as “Palestine.” No one has been able to separate political and religious ideology from the fact that the Green Line is an important historical mark on the Israeli map, just like any other line or border based on agreement, and thus deserves representation.
The Palestinian citizens of Israel have put forward an official motion to be recognized as a national minority within Israel. The threat many feel this poses to Israel’s integrity as a Jewish state demands examination in light of Israel’s claim to be a democracy. Israel indeed has laws that promise equal rights, but it also preserves the ultimate right to Jewish hegemony as part of its determination to be a sovereign Jewish state. As a result, non-Jews are by definition inferior, and indeed, Palestinian citizens of Israel are discriminated against on the sole basis of their ethnicity. From a political science perspective it is legitimate to say that this makes Israel de facto more of an ethnocracy than a democracy, and it makes the minority’s plea much more understandable.
Everything that Israel does – in security, education, economics, public policy – is contingent upon how it chooses to conduct itself on the axis between Jewish character and democratic standards. In some cases Israel employs universal values of equality and social justice, and in other cases, it asserts the privilege to overlook these values in order to safeguard the Jewish majority and its interests. The lack of a clear system of conduct has always, and continues to pose essential problems of identity and management that Israel cannot evade. The question is what to do.
The worst situation is the status quo, where what Israel says and does are very different things, where accountability is non-existent (not by coincidence, the word accountability was only recently inaugurated into the Hebrew dictionary) and where the Supreme Court ultimately decides the fate of many laws instead of the body that should be doing this – the popularly elected parliament.
If Israel wants to continue to be an ethnocracy, then it should declare it openly and clearly, defend itself as such, and suffer the consequences. The employment of even one ethnocratic policy automatically refutes Israel’s ability to be a democracy. It is a zero-sum issue. Alternately, if Israel decides to align itself with democracy over all else, then it should act accordingly, and it may even find out that enforcing equal rights and accepting certain demographic realities does not necessarily contradict the preservation of Jewish identity.
Some may argue that Israel can and must, for existential reasons, continue to walk this tight rope, oscillating back and forth between concepts of religion and heritage and concepts of liberalism and democracy. Some may claim that the price that Jews must pay for their homeland is the struggle to maintain this tenuous balance, no matter how inconsistent, inefficient or immoral it may at times be. But if you look inside the fabric of Israel society today, it is evident that things are not functioning properly (i.e. committees formed to investigate all our major institutions, education at an all-time low, the Gaidamak phenomenon, and on and on) and that Israeli society is paying a very high price for this imprecise system of rule. In order to address the problem, the first step is to account for it existence.