Wednesday, June 16, 2021


Weekly column by Vic Rosenthal

For the first time in its history, Israel’s government includes an Arab party.

Arabs have sat in the Knesset since Israel’s founding, both as members of primarily Jewish parties and as representatives of various Arab parties. From time to time Arab MKs have kept a government in office by supporting it from outside the coalition, as happened in 1993 when the Oslo Declaration of Principles was approved. But no Arab party has ever been member of the governing coalition until now.

Some people think this is wonderful. The Arabs are 20% of our population, so why shouldn’t they have a commensurate role in government? Mansour Abbas is a pragmatist who just wants the best for his constituents, they say. Others think it is a disaster. The Arab parties are all anti-Zionist and in some cases disloyal. What will happen when there is an operation against Hamas? Mansour Abbas represents an Islamist party that is associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, the parent of Hamas!

My view is that I honestly have no idea how this will work out, even assuming that the new government lasts more than a few weeks. But one thing is absolutely clear: putting an Arab party in the coalition brings the question of the relationship of the Jewish state to its Muslim Arab citizens front and center in a way that it heretofore hasn’t been.

Indeed, it’s one of those elephants in the room that we have been carefully ignoring for years. But since the formation of the new government that elephant has been tromping around and bumping into things. It can’t be ignored any longer.

Although the law requires that any candidate for the Knesset not “negate” the Jewish and democratic character of the state, the Supreme Court has required a very high standard of proof in order to disqualify an Arab candidate, and has several times overturned the decision of the Knesset’s Elections Committee to do so (the law also bans “incitement to racism,” and this has been invoked several times against Jewish candidates, including of course Meir Kahane’s Kach party).

This is in keeping with the extremely weak interpretation of “Jewish state” that was propounded by the influential former President of the Court, Aharon Barak, in whose opinion a “Jewish” state is little more than one whose values are “universal values common to members of democratic society, which grew from Jewish tradition and history.” The absurdity of this view is evident (it makes the US, for example, a Jewish state), but it is popular among those, Arabs and Jews alike, who are made uncomfortable by either Judaism or Jewish nationalism.

In 2006, a group of Israeli Arab intellectuals (I use this term although some prefer “Palestinian citizens of Israel”), under the auspices of the Arab heads of local authorities, produced a document called “The Future Vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel” in which they declare themselves “the indigenous peoples, the residents of the States of Israel, and an integral part of the Palestinian People and the Arab and Muslim and human Nation,” and call for Israel to relinquish its Jewish character and become a binational state. It accuses the “Zionist-Jewish elite in Europe” of settler-colonial oppression of the indigenous “Palestinian People.” It calls for equal representation of Jews and Arabs in the government, and the recognition of the Arabs as an “indigenous cultural national group” with international protection. “[A]ll forms of ethnic superiority, be that executive, structural, legal or symbolic” must be removed. There is a great deal more, including the placing of all “Islamic holy sites” (which naturally include all the Jewish ones) in Arab hands.

If anything “negates” the Jewish character of the state, this does. And yet, several of the participants in the development of that document, including Ayman Oudeh, the head of the Joint List of Israeli Arab parties in the Knesset, Aida Touma-Sliman, and Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi, currently serve in the Knesset.

One of the reasons that the Nation-State Law was passed was in response to this. It states that “the actualization of the right of national self-determination in the state of Israel is unique to the Jewish people,” and even specifies the flag, the national anthem, and the symbol of the state. The Basic Law (part of what serves Israel for a constitution), which was passed by a majority of Knesset members, is nevertheless controversial. The Jewish Left subjects itself to cognitive dissonance, insisting that it still believes in Zionism while wanting a “state of its citizens” (see the self-contradictory Meretz platform here) and opposing the Nation-State Law.

Jewish Israelis need to face this issue head-on and stop pretending that it does not exist. Our state – our state –  was created explicitly as a Jewish state because the founders were Zionists who believed that Jewish survival depended upon the existence of a sovereign state of the Jewish people. The evidence of the past 73 years of Israel’s existence, especially the burgeoning of Jew-hatred in the 21st century, has only strengthened my belief that they were entirely correct.

Some think that all that’s necessary for Israel to be a Jewish state is that it have a Jewish majority and a Law of Return for Jews. This ignores the real connection that most Israeli Jews have to the ancient homeland of their people, without which there is no reason for a Jewish majority, and no justification for a Law of Return. Possibly “religious” people find this easier to grasp, but it’s not necessary to be observant to see yourself as part of a historic people, a people with a land, a language, a religion, and a culture.

If the Jews of Israel give up the idea of the connection of the people to the land, if they decide to emphasize democracy at the expense of Jewishness, if they stop believing that there is great value in having their capital in Jerusalem instead of Tel Aviv, if they give up their control of Jewish holy places (because, in the words of Moshe Dayan, “who needs all that Vatican?”), they will soon find that there is no longer a Jewish majority in the Land of Israel, and indeed that the Jewish people are again wanderers in foreign lands.

The Muslim Arabs understand this quite well, and the imperatives of their religion drive them to struggle relentlessly to get control back over the entire Land of Israel, which they consider a Muslim waqf, land that permanently and irrevocably must be under Muslim control. This is why they struggle to conquer not only the physical land and temporal assets in the hands of the Jews, but to obtain symbolic and spiritual control. This is why Jerusalem and the Temple Mount are often the focus of their violence. This is why they will never give up.

Mansour Abbas may be a pragmatist in the short term, but he is also an Islamist, which implies the longest of terms. If the Jews are to prevail in the struggle for this land, they too need to understand the limits of pragmatism. They need to learn how to draw lines and stick to them, to understand the importance of symbolism, everywhere in the country, from the Galilee to the Negev. But especially now, they need to wrest control of the Temple Mount and the Old City back from the Arabs, who have systematically undercut Jewish sovereignty there since June of 1967.

We have the power and the resources to do this. Do we also have the spiritual strength, the perseverance, and the ability to sacrifice that will be required?

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