Woodward: The Specter of Zionism

by Aylin Woodward | 1/22/15 11:05pm

The state of Israel, as declared in 1948 by first prime minister David Ben-Gurion, was founded with the goal of “complete equality of social and political rights for all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.” Nearly 70 years later, that basic tenet of the Israeli state has yet to be fully realized. Ben-Gurion failed to follow through on Israel’s “democratic” character, neglecting to create a codified constitution, a bill of rights and the legal separation of church and state . The absence of these elements has led to a fundamental tension in Israeli democracy — can the state be both democratic and Jewish? The answer seems to be no.

The status quo in Israel today — where Jews are recipients of state-sponsored privilege in areas like public land allocation, where the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate has a monopoly on judging those aspects that characterize a Jew — paints a somber picture that brings Israel’s liberal democratic character into question, especially by its “non-Jewish” citizens, namely, Israeli Arabs. A secular democracy cannot simultaneously serve the political or cultural self-interests of a single group (in this case, Jewish people worldwide). Unlike the genesis of most nation-states, Israel’s origin charter was born out a people united by a religion, Judaism and a cultural ethos, Zionism, with the task of providing for the uniting of Jews in the face of almost certain, eternal oppression. Therein lies the obstacle to the divorce of Jewishness and democracy in Israel.

Ben-Gurion prioritized the notion of unity and transformed the assembly in to the first Knesset, postponing the constitutional process for future generations of leaders. For the sake of coalition, Ben-Gurion ceded control of Jewish religious affairs to the Orthodoxy, leaving the issue of legal separation of church and state unresolved.

The legacy of Zionism, too, prevents Israel from achieving its democratic aims. Israel’s modern history prior to statehood was built on Zionist institutions like the Histadrut and the Jewish National Fund. The remnants of Zionist institutions continue to influence Israel today. These organizations, though they played an important role between 1900 and 1948, are now anachronistic.

Zionism should have been let go as the basis of Jewish unity. Its prioritization of Jewish aims above all else was directly at odds with Israeli leaders’ visions for a new liberal democracy in the state of Israel. It remains now as a crutch to what should be a free-standing legal system, perpetuating a de facto apparatus of discrimination against those who are not legally Jewish. The erosion of that democratic ideal is caused by the absence of a Constitution and a Bill of Rights. Simply put there is no way for citizens, especially non-Jews, to effectively legally challenge Jewish privilege in Israel.

In many ways, Israel is democratic — it has its Basic Laws, which provide for voting rights for all citizens, judicial protection and fundamental civil liberties for Israeli citizens. It has free and fair elections and a popularly elected Knesset parliament. But these things are not apt placeholders for a written constitution. Israel needs to provide equal treatment for its Arab citizens under law. Institutional discrimination against individuals due to birth or profession of faith outside the bounds of Judaism should not be acceptable. Moreover, the 1950 Law of Return grants immediate citizenship to any immigrant who can claim Jewish ancestry or heritage. This “certified Jewish” status, which is determined by the Chief Rabbinate, facilitates unequal privilege to citizenship in Israel. It is impossible to have a democratic state where being “something” — whether it be Jewish, or white, or black or Buddhist — inherently confers privilege on one group of citizens over others.

How then, might Israeli citizenship be more democratic? As suggested in “The Hebrew Republic” by visiting professor of government Bernard Avishai, the Hebrew language could make Jewishness a more inclusive concept. Non-Jew or Arab can acculturate to the Hebrew language of the Jewish people. The language offers a way to preserve the Jewish culture and heritage of Israel without privileging any one group over another in terms of citizenship and other legal protections. This can provide the basis of an Israeli democratic state that is also Jewish in character.