People born in this country before the state was established, whether Jews or Arabs, had experienced the British colonial administration in Palestine, hardly a model of democracy. As a matter of fact, it was only the small community of “Anglo-Saxons,” those that arrived in Israel from the English-speaking world, who had had experience living in a democracy and brought that tradition with them to Israel.
So it’s been “one man, one vote,” whether Jew or Arab, since 1948 in Israel. Certainly not Apartheid, as is so frequently charged by Israel’s enemies, and even some of its friends. After all, the fight against Apartheid in South Africa focused on that simple demand – one man, one vote – that was denied to the black population there.
But equality in the polling booth is not the only element of democratic government. It may be the most important one, but it is not the only one. Equality of rights and obligations for all citizens is also required. And don’t forget equality of opportunity. It is surprising how easy it seems to be to forget or neglect to apply these “equalities” to all of Israel’s citizens.
Let’s start with universal military service – the obligation to defend our country. By all accepted standards of democratic government, that should most certainly be applied to all. As if we needed a reminder, the latest Israel Defense Forces statistics show that a very large number of ultra-Orthodox Jewish youth do not fulfill this obligation. This has been true ever since 1948, and the number seems to be growing exponentially. Now along come our Knesset members, and instead of rectifying this matter, they renew the infamous Tal Law, which legitimizes this injustice, for another five years.
The ultra-Orthodox Jewish youth are not the only ones to benefit from this inequality. If you are an Israeli citizen of the Islamic or Christian persuasion, you also are not required to defend your country. That is unless you are a Circassian, who even though Muslim, is subject to compulsory military service. Poor Circassians!
Last week the Knesset passed in preliminary reading a law that would require the Jewish National Fund (JNF) to allocate land that it owns only to Jews. Presumably this means that Jews who are not citizens of Israel would qualify, but Israel’s Arab citizens would be barred from access to land owned by the JNF. A blatant violation of the norms of democracy.
But wait a minute, you might say, was not the Jewish National Fund founded in 1901 so the Land of Israel could be redeemed and come under Jewish ownership? Yes, of course, but something else happened in the meantime. In May 1948, the State of Israel was established, guaranteeing equality to all its citizens. The ultimate purpose of the Zionist Congress that decided on the establishment of the JNF – the establishment of a Jewish State in Palestine – has been achieved. In a democratic state one cannot condone laws that discriminate between citizens on ethnic grounds. That was certainly not part of Herzl’s vision of the Jewish State.
So what about the Law of Return? Does it not provide a special privilege – the right to immigrate to Israel – for Jews only? Yes, but that is the foundation stone of the State of Israel – to provide a haven for any Jew in the world in need of a haven; so that what happened in the years before the Holocaust and during the Holocaust would never happen again. That is the mission of the State of Israel. A most humane mission by any reckoning. In fulfillment of this mission the Holocaust survivors from Europe, the Jewish communities from the Arab world and Iran, Soviet Jewry and the Ethiopian Jews were absorbed in Israel. Maybe even some of Israel’s non-Jewish citizens can identify with this mission, and those who cannot must recognize that this is the reason the State of Israel was established.
The proposed JNF law has nothing to do with this mission. Hopefully, it will not go beyond the preliminary reading in the Knesset.
Published in Haaretz, 7/31/2007