Can a Jewish state be democratic?

By Vic Rosenthal

Adalah, a legal advocacy organization for Israeli Arabs has drafted a “democratic constitution” for the State of Israel (or whatever it will be called). You can read the complete document here and read about it in Ha’aretz here.

Adalah claims that the very idea of a Jewish state is undemocratic.

In recent years, Israeli groups have put forward several constitutions for the state of Israel. However, these proposals are distinguished by their lack of conformity to democratic principles, in particular the right to complete equality of all residents and citizens, and by their treatment of Arab citizens as if they were strangers in this land, where history, memory and collective rights exist only for Jewish people. It is no coincidence therefore that these proposals have been preoccupied with the question of, “Who is a Jew?” and have neglected the primary constitutional question of, “Who is a citizen?” — draft Democratic Constitution, p. 3

The draft cannot be taken seriously. It implies a massive transfer of property from Jews to Arabs, and possibly grants all Palestinian refugees and descendants thereof full citizenship. A special ‘multicultural’ committee, half of whose members are from Arab or Arab/Jewish parties, will have veto power over all laws made by the full Knesset. Israel is expected to bear the responsibility for the ‘nakba’ (catastrophe) of 1948 and the occupation; and to compensate the ‘victims’. No responsibility is taken by Arabs for terrorism and war (I presume that these fall under the rubric of ‘legitimate resistance’, etc.).

However, it raises a question that I find extremely interesting. It is based on currently accepted principles of human rights, especially the right of a ‘people’ to self-determination:

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, which enshrined the human rights lessons of the evils committed during World War II, and the international human rights covenants, which were subsequently ratified, state that: All human beings are equal; antidiscrimination is an absolute principle which cannot be compromised; all peoples have the right of self-determination; no nation possesses rights that are superior to those of another nation; and it is essential to ensure the personal liberty and economic and social rights of the individual for freedom, equality and justice to be achieved.

The question is: assuming that civil rights and liberties are guaranteed to all citizens of a state, and discrimination in education, housing, employment, etc. is prohibited, is it necessarily undemocratic for a state to have a “national character” associated with a particular ethnic group? In other words, can a Jewish state be democratic if it has an Arab minority?

First of all, we recognize that many states are considered democratic which do have a strong association to a majority ethnic group. France, Germany, and the UK come to mind immediately. So it is not the close association to a majority ethnic group that bears on whether a state is truly democratic; rather it is whether there is institutionalized or legalized discrimination based on ethnicity. A paradigm case of an undemocratic state, also cited by Adalah, is apartheid-era South Africa, where laws were made that explicitly discriminated against some citizens because of their race.

In the case of Israel, an objection is often made to the Law of Return, which states that any immigrant Jew can (almost) automatically obtain Israeli citizenship. This quite clearly is a law which makes distinctions on ethnic grounds. However, it does not compromise the democratic nature of the state for the following reason:

Every state must have an immigration policy; it would be impractical and destructive to grant citizenship to anyone who wants it. So it must discriminate on some basis — economic, ethnic, educational, etc. And all states do discriminate in this sense, and many do so in part by ethnic criteria. But the discrimination is not between citizens of the state — it applies only to potential citizens, who do not enjoy the rights and privileges of citizens. As long as the immigration policy is democratically determined by the actual citizens of the state, it is not undemocratic. Note that the question “Who is a Jew”, which causes so much consternation for Adalah, only applies to the immigration policy and does not have any significance for Israeli citizens.

Adalah also makes reference to areas in which they claim that Israel does discriminate against her Arab citizens, such as land use decisions, allocation of resources, etc. These types of claims have legitimacy if they are true, and should be dealt with. Mechanisms do exist in the Israeli legal system for solving such problems. No nation is perfect in this regard, particularly when it is at war with external entities of the same ethnicity as an internal minority, and with whom many members of the minority openly sympathize and identify! Many so-called democratic nations, such as the United States (viz. the detention of ethnic Japanese), have much poorer records in this regard than Israel.

The fact is that being in an ethnic minority has its downside, as Diaspora Jews should know. However, in a democratic country, they are guaranteed their rights and have the opportunity to thrive, as Jews in the United States have done. The basic idea of democracy is that the majority rules, within the limits that it must not deny basic human rights to minorities. By this definition, I believe that Israel is both a democracy and a Jewish state.

Technorati Tags: , , ,

Comments are closed.