Secular admiration for the Jewish State is misplaced

Secular admiration for the Jewish State is misplaced
Many say Israel is a beacon of democracy in a sea of autocrats. They are very wrong.
5 min read
01 Dec, 2014
Ben Gurion said Israel was the home for Jews, wherever they may be [Getty]

A law recently approved by the Israeli cabinet defining Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people in the Basic Laws of Israel, the equivalent of Israel's constitution, adds nothing new except that it makes existing de facto practises de jure. Israel has always been a Jewish state in nationalist rhetoric and practice.

The issue goes beyond the persistent Israeli attempt to have the world, especially Palestinians and Arabs, to recognise Israel as a Jewish state, and touches on the foundational discourse of this country, which is based on settling Jews in lands populated by Arabs by displacing them - that is, ethnically cleansing the land of them.

As Israel's first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, said, Israel is not just a state with a Jewish majority, but the state of the Jews wherever they may be. The so-called Law of Return, whose first clause grants every Jew the right to migrate to the country, confirms this.

A secular movement based in religion

In the Israeli state, there is an explicit conflation of ethnicity and religion. Jewish identity is the foundation of state and citizenship.

Zionism is a secular movement, but it has used religious justifications for the establishment of a state and the imposition its sovereignty over the land. Its claim to ownership of the land has been based on historical-religious arguments. Not only that, the Zionist movement has used religious concepts like redemption and salvation to rally, mobilise and stimulate Jewish migration to Palestine.

In the Israeli state, there is an explicit conflation of ethnicity and religion. Jewish identity is the foundation of state and citizenship in Israel, and no definition of Judaism outside the explicitly religious is accepted. For this reason, anyone who converts to Judaism becomes an "ethnic" Jew in Israel, and is entitled to Israeli citizenship.

Israel cannot separate religion from state. It insists on defining itself legally as a Jewish state, yet Western secular states support this. Oddly, Israel has even been praised and admired by Arab secularists for its democracy.

These people are mostly fond of self-flagellation or are self-haters who glorify the US and Israel. These voices concede "Arab civilisation" has been defeated by the US and Israel, and want to assimilate with them. They promote Israeli democracy and contrast it with Arab dictatorship, echoing Western politicians and the media in promoting Israel as the only oasis of democracy in the region in a sea of authoritarian regimes.

US academic Charles Tilly once argued that any treatment of an issue such as democracy must address the principle of citizenship in a fundamental way. Tilly stressed that the broad inclusion of the populace in the political process and equality among them were essential in a democracy, and rejected any differentiation on the basis of which citizen rights are granted.

According to Tilly, all citizens must have the same rights and responsibilities in their interaction with the state.

This requirement is not met in the state of Israel. Israel is not only a colonial entity based on the displacement and dispossession of Arabs, the seizure of their lands, and the prevention of their return, but it is also a fundamentally racist entity that discriminates between Jews and non-Jews.

Returning to the essence of this state is enough to expose its fundamental contradiction with democratic values. Because Israel is a Jewish state, it enacts laws to perpetuate this identity, undermining the native Arab population's rights to, among other things, the ownership of land.

There is also discrimination against Arabs in employment and other areas, and what is happening now is an attempt to cement already existing practices with a law that undermines any attempt to raise the issue of the Palestinian refugees' internationally recognised right of return.

A fundamentally undemocratic democracy

Israel's settlement policies and its attempts to displace Arabs living in the lands it occupied in 1948 continue unabated.

In recent years, Israel has stopped worrying about its reputation as a democracy in the West.

Under the threat of Arab demographic expansion within the Green Line and pressures associated with the issue of Palestinian refugees, Israel implemented several measures to reject any questioning of its identity as a Jewish state. It enacted laws defining the state as Jewish, and several years ago conditioned its approval of the roadmap for peace upon Palestinians waiving the right of return and recognising Israel as a Jewish state.

Furthermore, Israel's settlement policies and its attempts to displace Arabs living in the lands it occupied in 1948 continue unabated. They were openly supported by former US President George W Bush, who spoke about a Jewish state, and reaffirmed by US President Barack Obama more than once in his speeches.

The most recent law defining Israel as a Jewish nation state is only the latest chapter seeking to prevent the return of Palestinian refugees and to take this issue off the negotiating table. Israel wants to make it clear to the Palestinian Authority this issue will never be discussed, and that it will use any and all legal means to close the door to any such discussion.

Yielding to this Israeli insistence on defining Israel as a Jewish state means more than "de facto" surrender to US and Israeli supremacy. It means acknowledging the Israeli historical narrative and its religious-historical claim to the land, effectively acknowledging the validity of Zionist ideology.

It means admitting the historic Arab struggle against Zionism was wrong, and that surrender is not only a political and military defeat, but also a national, cultural and moral one. Bear in mind it will be the Palestinian refugees who pay the price for this surrender, if it happens.

Israel is not adding a new chapter to its racist history in passing these laws; nothing in our perception of Israel as a colonial enterprise has changed as a result. However, these laws should be an embarrassment to all those secularists who promote the notion that Israel is a democracy, and to those who oppose Islamist movements while endorsing the centrality of Judaism in a colonial entity that continues to dispossess an entire people.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.