Encountering Peace: In pursuit of equality— separate is not equal

Israel’s Declaration of Independence has no legal standing in Israel, but nonetheless, this brilliantly crafted document has always served as a statement of intent and a beacon for direction.

The document provides the basis for establishing the legitimacy of Israel’s existence as the nation-state of the Jewish people. When it was drafted 71 years ago, Israel was about to face a battle for life or death – and yet, the founders of Israel deemed it necessary to assert that Israel was committed to democracy and full equality for all of its citizens, even knowing that some of them would be Palestinian Arabs.

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Not only did the document affirm Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, it provided the wisdom for determining Israel’s democratic character by basing it on the prophetic vision and inspiration of the Prophets of Israel. Israel’s Jewishness is inextricably linked to its democratic character and values – and that, as the vision, should be Israel’s foundation and its constitution.

There is no doubt that the continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; the failure of the peace process; the need to confront the ongoing threat of terrorism and violence; the occupation of the Palestinian people itself; and the existence of a significant 20% Palestinian minority of the citizens of the State of Israel, have made Israel a “challenged democracy”.

The challenge to Israel’s democracy has been ongoing, with significant improvements as well as infringements of civil rights happening throughout its history. Overall, despite the rise of nationalism and racism in recent years, Israel has remained a thriving and kicking democracy (within the Green Line pre-June 1967 borders only). The balance between Israel’s Jewishness and its democracy has always been difficult; the judiciary has often had to step in when the executive or legislative branches crossed redlines.

At times, the judiciary failed as well.

OVERTIME THE struggles for freedom, democracy and equality all around the world confront nationalism, racism and chauvinism.

This is happening in Western Europe, which is being challenged by waves of immigration from the Middle East and Africa.

In Israel post-Arab Spring, the benefits of Israel’s democracy have been ever the more apparent to its Palestinian citizens. But the country’s right-wing government and legislators compete for public attention from their base by a stream of proposed laws that impact directly on shrinking Israel’s democracy, and are an affront against its Palestinian citizens.

They may think that they are strengthening Israel’s Jewish identity, but only those who are not confident of Israel’s legitimacy as the democratic nation-state of the Jewish people find a need to over compensate by legislating anti-democratic laws. One such law is proposing to legalize ethnically homogenized residency rights as a means of preventing Palestinian citizens from living in Jewish communities. Some of its advocates have justified their positions for preserving Jewish majority rights by invoking the old and wrong slogan “separate but equal.”

They forget that the US Supreme Court had determined decades ago (albeit in a different context) that separate is not equal.

It is time that we all face what Israel needs to become to genuinely define itself in the world of 2018 – Israel must become the democratic nation-state of the Jewish people AND all of its citizens. A country which identifies itself as democracy cannot accept a set of laws which defines citizens’ rights according to ethnic, religious or national attributes.

ALLOW ME to revisit a not so well know part of Israel’s history. In 1954 the leftwing Hashomer Hatzair movement created the Arab Pioneer Youth Movement. The APYM was established as part of the struggle for democracy in the young State of Israel.

In a pamphlet explaining the movement they wrote: “These youth aim at leading the struggle of the Arab youth in Israel for the removal of the Military Administration, the modernization of the Arab village… the lifting of the shackles of economic stagnation, the establishment of a progressive Arab society founded on relations of brotherhood and equality with its Jewish neighbors, the development of the concept of cooperation and the introduction of the pioneering socialistic spirit in the new Arab generation.”

By 1957 there were 700 members.

Shortly afterwards, the movement died and disappeared. I searched very hard to understand why this successful movement perished so suddenly. When I first began to examine this part of history I thought that perhaps the APYM might have become too nationalistic, turning into a group like Al-Ard, an Arab political movement which was considered anti-Israel and which the Israeli government later outlawed.

I discovered, however, that what primarily undid the APYM was that the Arab members were too successful in absorbing the values and principles of the socialist-Zionist Youth Movement, Hashomer Hatzair. When they completed high school and went on to university or to the working world, they wanted to become members of kibbutzim. In their minds, this was a fulfillment of the values they were being taught. The kibbutzim in question – the Kibbutz Artzi–Hashomer Hatzair movement – had no intention of having Arab members in their closed communities.

After being rejected by the kibbutzim, some members of the movement decided to try and form a kibbutz of their own, for graduates and activists of the movement.

But they soon learned that the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency would not offer them land or any other support for this idea. The movement fell apart amidst its own hypocrisies. Since the establishment of the State of Israel, with the exception of the “reservations” established to concentrate Bedouins off of their land, no new Arab communities have been built in the state.

The currently proposed national law, which attempts to maintain the right and legitimacy of segregated communities, is an anachronism. Israel is a shared society of Jews and Arabs, and within each of those communities there are many sub-groups.

Creating partnerships for building a shared Israeli society across cultural, ethnic, religious and nationalist lines will not diminish the Jewishness of the State of Israel. Legal segregation will do great harm to Israel in the eyes of the world’s nations and will not strengthen Israel’s Jewishness in the eyes of its own citizens. As Israel’s founders understood, building Israel as a society shared by all of its citizens will strengthen Israel and its legitimate right to be the nation-state of the Jewish people.

The author is a political and social entrepreneur who has dedicated his life to the State of Israel and to peace between Israel and her neighbors. His latest book In Pursuit of Peace in Israel and Palestine was published by Vanderbilt University Press.