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Israel’s Search for Validation Sends a Message of Exclusion

 By Shira Herzog, Globe and Mail

2.11.2010
via Globe and Mail (Click for original)

Given their past and present, Israelis and Jews understandably feel vulnerable (reports of terrorist plots against Chicago synagogues fuel the instinct to close ranks). That’s one reason why Israel continuously seeks validation as the Jewish homeland. But two recent efforts to do so are ill-conceived.

A cabinet decision originally intended to add a pledge of loyalty to Israel “as a Jewish and democratic state” to the citizenship oath for new, non-Jewish citizens generated controversy because of its emphasis on ethnicity over citizenship (and may not survive the legislative process). And Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s demand that the Palestinian Authority recognize Israel as the Jewish national home strikes a similar note.
 
Israel’s commitment to “Jewish and democratic” values is largely accepted and respected domestically and internationally. Its Jewish majority hotly debates what its Jewishness means: Some define it religiously, some in Hebrew language and culture, others in ethnocentricity. Its Arab minority, for whom civic rights are key, challenges its ethnic character (20 per cent of citizens are Arabs from areas originally part of the state as established in 1948). Israel’s Supreme Court has defended a democratic framework that guarantees equal rights for all citizens.
 
But politics have interfered again, in a coalition dominated by nationalist voices. The citizenship oath is one of several “loyalty laws” sponsored by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who sees himself as the Israeli right’s future leader. He represents an Israeli version of what political scientist Alberto Spektorowski calls “post-territorial nationalism” that’s based on ethnicity rather than geographic space; Mr. Lieberman’s loyalty is to Israel’s Jewish ethnic, rather than civic, character.
 
In a future peace deal, Mr. Lieberman wants “demographic borders,” meaning exchange of areas heavily populated by Arab citizens in return for West Bank areas populated by Jewish settlers. His narrow interpretation of loyalty makes it tough for Israeli Arabs, most of whom are law-observing citizens and who accept status as a minority in a “Jewish and democratic” Israel, especially once a Palestinian state is established.
 
But Mr. Lieberman is not alone. Israel has gone through a decade of disillusionment with Palestinians and heightened mistrust of its Arab citizens. In 2000, the failure of peace talks sparked Palestinian violence that spilled over into Israel from the West Bank and Gaza. In 2007, Arab intellectuals published a “vision document,” which rejected Jewish historic ties to Israel and proposed an alternative “state for all it citizens.” Mr. Lieberman plays on the majority’s fear of more radicalization and, in turn, further alienates Israeli Arabs. He has already presented several other bills that send a clear message of exclusion, one that Mr. Netanyahu hasn’t opposed.
 
The demand for Palestinian Authority recognition of Israel as the Jewish national home has similar ramifications for Israel’s Arab minority. On the face of it, Mr. Netanyahu is asking for acknowledgment of historic rights as a litmus test for Palestinian intentions. But with talks stalled, the demand seemed to be largely aimed at blaming the Palestinians and, again, has stoked domestic Jewish-Arab tensions.
 
Tellingly, Israel didn’t make this demand in peace treaties with Egypt (1979) and Jordan (1994), which recognize the “state of Israel.” Palestinian leaders say the state of Israel’s ethnic-national character is an internal matter.
 
Given the complexity of Israeli and Palestinian history and conflict, narratives need to be addressed – but not as preconditions. And if approached thoughtfully, a mutually acceptable formula that respects competing narratives as well as Israel’s Arab minority can be found. For example, the 2003 informal Israeli-Palestinian Geneva Accord recognizes the right of the Jewish and Palestinian people to statehood without prejudice to their respective citizens and Israel and Palestine, respectively, as their people’s homelands.