Israeli politics is conventionally described as a contest between Left and Right. The Left favors withdrawal from the territories conquered in 1967 and the Right wants to hold onto them. The Left believes that the Palestinian Arabs can be “peace partners” and the Right does not. The Left wants more government involvement in the economy and more expenditures on social programs, and the Right prefers a free market and fewer social programs. The Left wants religious pluralism, civil marriage, and public transport on Shabbat, while the Right opposes these things. And so on.
Like most generalizations, there is some truth in this, some exceptions, and a great deal of imprecision. But there is an issue that is more important than any of the above, and which delineates the deepest ideological chasm that divides Israelis.
It is nothing less than the question of Zionism, pro or con.
Most Jewish Israelis will tell you that they are Zionists because they favor the continued existence of Israel, the Jewish state. But that isn’t really sufficient, because the kind of state that they support is all over the map. I want to be more specific about the meaning of Zionism today: I say it is the belief that the State of Israel is the state of and for the Jewish people (the extent to which this includes those who live in the diaspora varies), and not a “state of its citizens.”
Our Declaration of Independence established a Jewish and democratic state. It is not a trivial thing for it to be both of these, given that 20% of its population is not Jewish. But how one deals with the issues that arise as a result determines where one falls on the Zionism axis. Former President of Israel’s Supreme Court Aharon Barak prioritized democracy over Jewishness to the point that he in essence factored out Jewishness. He wrote,
The content of the phrase “Jewish state” will be determined by the level of abstraction which shall be given it. In my opinion, one should give this phrase meaning on a high level of abstraction, which will unite all members of society and find the common among them. The level of abstraction should be so high, until it becomes identical to the democratic nature of the state.
At the same time, he considers himself a dedicated Zionist, having once insisted,
My story is a Zionist tale and it is a story of human dignity, of human rights. I learned a double lesson: one lesson is Zionism – the existence of the state of Israel. If we had had a country then, it (the Holocaust) would not have happened. Therefore this country is dear to me and imperative to me. The security of this country is as important to me as it is to all those Israelis who are more right-winged [sic] than I. The existence of this country is the key to the existence of the Jewish people. And therefore I am not a post-Zionist.
But I have also learned another lesson: the Germans tried to turn out [sic] humanity to ashes. My top priority is to [sic] the rights of every human and the rights of every minority. The dignity of every man born under God is very very dear to me.
With all due respect, Barak is wrong. Zionism is more than caring about the security of the country. I agree that the existence of the state is crucial to the survival of the Jewish people. But in order for that to be true, it must be a Jewish state and not just a democratic one that protects minority rights and happens to have a Jewish majority.
There were many democratic states committed to human rights during the Holocaust, and they did not save the six million. The USA protected the rights of its Jewish minority as well or better than any other nation, and it did not prevent an intermarriage rate of 70%. If Barak had his way, and the Jewishness of the State of Israel was reduced to no more than its “democratic nature,” then she could not continue to be either the physical refuge for the Jewish people, or their spiritual haven.
This is the ideological line that, more than any other, divides Jews, in the diaspora as well as in Israel, much more significantly than their views about peace negotiations. On one side you have those like Barak who prioritize democracy and equality for all, while on the other are those like MK Betzalel Smotrich, who once told Israeli Arabs that “It’s not your national state. You can live here as individual citizens with individual rights if you accept Israel as a Jewish state.” Politically, it is often expressed by whether someone supports Israel’s Nation-State Law, which is an attempt to explicate in concrete terms the ways in which she is a Jewish state. I suggest that everyone read it. It’s short, and helps answer the question posed by the title of this post.
The law’s most controversial part is its statement that “The exercise of the right to national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish People.” That implies that Israel is not and will not become a binational state, or even a state of its citizens. It specifically mentions the ingathering of (Jewish) exiles and the Jewish settlement of the land as national values. It states that “Jerusalem, complete and united” is Israel’s capital. Such things as the national symbols, the Jewish holidays and calendar, the Hebrew language are also included.
Ideology as expressed in law can have very real practical implications. If Israel became first and foremost a democratic state whose “top priority is the rights of every human and the rights of every minority,” in Aharon Barak’s words, what would justify keeping the Law of Return for Jews and not for Arabs? Why wouldn’t we make Nakba day a national holiday?
I wonder how many who are quick to call Smotrich a racist or fascist or who think the Nation-State Law should be repealed have thought about the implications of giving up on the idea that Israel is a Jewish state – in more than the accidental sense of having a Jewish majority?