Thursday, February 20, 2014

We Are Not Strangers in Our Homeland. By Avi Sagi and Yedidia Stern.

We are not strangers in our homeland. By Avi Sagi and Yedidia Stern. Haaretz, March 23, 2007.

Sagi and Stern:

The wheel comes full circle. Not long ago, we sinned by asserting lordship – “There is no Palestinian people.” Over the years this view was shorn from the marketplace of ideas of the Jewish majority in Israel, and we no longer reject the national identity of these others. Now however, leading figures among Israel’s Arab community are paying us back in a similar coin: Several recently published documents laying out their vision for the future call for the annulment of the Jewish identity of the State of Israel, from which it follows that they are rejecting a central element of identity of the Jewish people in our generation. This is a strategic move by a substantial portion of the leadership of about a fifth of the country’s citizens, and it should be taken seriously.
We pushed the Arab citizens into an alley with no exit: they are experiencing prolonged discrimination that cannot be justified. Their right to full civil equality is not being realized. Decent Israelis cannot remain silent in the light of the state’s ongoing failure in its treatment of minority group. Moreover, decent Jews cannot ignore their responsibility to protect the national minority from manifestations of racism. We did not make an effort to consolidate civil partnership; we did not create inviting conditions for honorable coexistence. The outcry of the poor Arab, who is discriminated against as a person and who feels excluded and alienated as the member of a minority group, is resonating across the country. It raises doubts about the depth of our true commitment to the values of a “Jewish state” and a “democratic state.”
However, the new initiatives of the Arab leadership in Israel are not making do with a call to rectify the wrongs done to the minority. The central innovation of principle in these documents lies in their categorical assertion that proper equality will not be achieved as long as Israel is a Jewish state. Accordingly, they launch a frontal assault against the state's Jewish character. If the previous generation of Arabs, the “stooped generation,” was content to aspire to civil equality, the present “erect generation” is challenging the right of the majority to maintain a Jewish nation-state.
Conspiracy of elites
The broad context of the “Future Vision” document arises clearly from its opening lines. The reproof sticks out like thorns in one’s eyes: “Israel is the outcome of a settlement process initiated by the Zionist-Jewish elite in Europe and the West and realized by colonial countries.” The voice that is speaking here is none other than the National Committee for the Heads of the Arab Local Authorities in Israel. These people, Israeli public representatives who live in close proximity to us Jews, believe that the State of Israel is not the realization of generations of Jewish longing to return to Zion, but a conspiracy by elites seeking to impose Western control over the Middle East. “Next year in Jerusalem, As long as deep in the heart . . . My heart is in the East and I am at the ends of the West” – none of these are authentic expressions of the Jewish soul across the generations.
This is historical nonsense. Postcolonial theories cannot transform a full life into a fiction. Even those who feel victimized by the Nakba cannot erase the fact that “The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped,” as Israel’s Declaration of Independence states. Israel’s Arabs lose our attention if they refuse to recognize the fact that, as the declaration states, “After being forcibly exiled from their land, the people kept faith with it hroughout their dispersion, and never ceased to pray and hope for their return to it and for the restoration in it of their political freedom. We are not strangers in our homeland.”
The Arabs’ visions also offer concrete solutions. They are striving to shape Israel as a multicultural state. However, the Arab leadership is not content with protecting certain public spaces, which are populated largely by members of the Arab minority, as areas in which Arab culture and identity will be embodied. They want much more. They are demanding that all the elements of the Israeli space – sovereignty, territory, norms and symbols – be freed of any specific identity. They are unwilling to make do with the rights accruing to a cultural minority. They want the Jewish majority to narrow its identity and apply it only in sub-state spaces. The state will be a neutral playing field, transparent and hollow, possessing a universal character.
An attempt to fashion a multicultural state of this kind will not succeed. History shows that multiculturalism has blossomed only when it is cultivated in a stable national-political space. The leadership of Israel’s Arabs is seeking what no one had dared call for: for the overwhelming majority of the country’s citizens to withdraw their collective identity to outside the public space, which is so vital to realize identity. In the absence of another Jewish state, the import of their demand will be to dwarf and diminish Jewish identity in our generation to its private and community dimensions, just as it was for two thousand years, when we were a people in exile.
Moreover, states need a unifying national ethos. Without it, a state is liable to become a random federation of communities that will find it difficult to exist as a homogeneous unit. This is even more acute in the Israeli context. The Arab minority is tied to social-cultural communities that exist in the Arab states and it is part of the Palestinian nation, which is in the process of establishing an independent state abutting on Israel. Is it far-fetched to be concerned that the Arab minority is actually interested in a two-state plan: voiding the existing ethos and replacing it, when the time comes, with a different national vision that will integrate into Arab or Islamic visions that are shared by the rest of the Palestinian nation, across the border.
If the State of Israel is voided of identity components, it will lose one of the crucial elements of national resilience which that its continued existence in a hostile arena. Will Israeli youngsters – to whom the whole world is open – respond to a mobilization call that asks them to give up their best years, and sometimes also their very lives, for an organizational framework that does not provide them with meaning? The internal centrifugal forces will make us fall apart from within, and the opportunities that beckon in the global village will hasten the process from without.
Behind the multicultural rhetoric
The suspicion arises that behind the multicultural rhetoric lies the aspiration to liquidate Israel as a political entity. Implicit in it is the ouster of the Jewish nation from the world’s nations. Academic language possessing political charm might turn out to be a weapon in the struggle against the State of Israel. The Arab elite is leading its followers into dangerous realms. They must understand that the members of the Jewish people, including the salient supporters of civil equality for all, will not forgo the realization of their right to self-determination in this space, the cradle of the Jewish nation. The Jewish people has an inalienable right to the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish state.
Israel’s Arab citizens have to demand – and the Jewish majority must agree to – a fair division of the public space between the two groups. The Jewish majority will have the larger part of the realization of identity in this space, and the Arab minority will be left with the smaller part. Any other alternative will undermine, and ultimately void of content, the concepts of identity that underlie multiculturalism.
However, not all the public assets are amenable to division between majority and minority. Thus, for example, the definition of the state’s character as “Jewish,” to which the documents of the Arab vision object, is indivisible. This is the source of the argument that the right of the Arab minority to equality in the public space is infringed upon. Even though this is true, it cannot lead us to hesitate in our insistence on preserving the state’s definition as “Jewish.”
Isaiah Berlin stated that “[equality] is neither more nor less rational than any other ultimate principle.” The basic point of departure of a liberal society is that equality is the primary value that must be applied, but it is possible to depart from this value if there is sufficient cause. Indeed, in Berlin’s view, the majority of social disputes are related to the question of the nature of the sufficient cause to depart from equality.
As we noted, the demand of the Arab minority for civil equality is meritorious because no sufficient cause to justify its rejection is posited against it. In contrast, their demand for equality in the public space, to be achieved by removing the collective identity of more than three-quarters of the country’s citizens from the sovereign space, is intolerable. Posited against it are extremely cogent sufficient causes, above all the discrimination against the Jewish national identity (vis-a-vis either national identities which find expression in a political space, including the Arab identities) and the degeneration it is liable to suffer as a result. To this we must add the concrete concern that the Israeli political state will be disassembled into unconnected sub-units, and the danger that strategic harm will accrue to national resilience.
The Arab public in Israel would do well to direct its energy to a struggle for civil equality, in which it will find many partners among the Jewish people. But continuing to build verbal sandcastles in the form of documents of the vision is pointless. The Jewish people does not intend to divest itself of its aspiration to realize its nationhood in the political space of the State of Israel.