Can Israel Be De-Zionized?
Göran Rosenberg, the Swedish writer, was the founding editor
of Moderna Tider.
Stockholm - The Israeli nation, or the major part of it, is rapidly
integrating into a world where technology and economy create an ever-greater
interdependency between peoples and societies. It is also a world that
in one way or the other is characterized by an increasing ethnic and cultural
pluralism. The ideal of national-ethnic separation as a response to ethnic-national
conflict is losing its moral and political clout. The armed conflicts
of the late 1990's have amply demonstrated the brutal face of exclusionary
nationalism and the moral imperative to prevent the re-division of societies
along ethnic lines.
In Kosovo the international community (or a substantial part of it) actually
waged a moral war in defense of the multiethnic society as an ideal. The
European Union is in fact rapidly becoming such a society, further weakening
the traditional links between culture, ethnicity and nation-state. In
the United States, the multi-ethnic society par preference, the apparent
weakening of a common national credo has widened the scope for ethnic
strife, but also for new forms of pluralism.
The multitude of modern human existence no longer allows for societies
based on exclusionary visions of ethnic or cultural homogeneity. No decent
or truly democratic society can pit the will of the majority against the
basic rights of a minority, or the power of the state against the basic
rights of the individual. Democracy is becoming a precarious balancing
act between increasingly transnational principles of justice and the political
desires of culturally embedded national opinions. In the homogenizing
nation-state, justice and majority rule could for some time be perceived
as one and the same. In the pluralizing societies of our times, they no
longer can. Particular cultural, religious or ethnic demands must eventually
conform with and connect to larger systems of justice. The options for
radical separatist or nationalist venues are shrinking.
Israel has so far been a strongly homogenizing nation-state, not only
trying hard to create and organize a common national identity, but also
attempting to fuse it with the state itself. It has thus been a society
with strong inclusionary mechanisms, wishing to make one people out of
many, and at the same time a society with strong exclusionary mechanisms,
wishing to keep out or keep down those who did not ~t into the Zionist
narrative of a Jewish nation. The definitions of whom belonged and who
did not, permeated the institutions of the state and sustained a basic
division between its Jewish and non-Jewish citizens.
In this regard very little has changed. Israel still remains a state that
explicitly adheres to the ideal of an ethnically or culturally or religiously
defined state (depending how you choose to define "Jewish")
and more or less openly shuns the ideal of ethnic, cultural and religious
pluralism. Furthermore, it is a state that continues to define itself
as the national home of millions of people who are not its citizens, while
reducing to the status of "national minority" millions of people
who are both its citizens and its residents (present or involuntarily
absent). Or as the Iraqi-born Israeli scholar Nissim Rejwan puts it in
a perceptive study on "Israel's place in the Middle East": "[A]ny
ethnically designated state must perforce identify itself with those of
its citizens who have the same ethnic designation." This particular
ethnic designation thus perforce also becomes a nationality, to which
a non-Jewish outsider can aspire only by converting to the Jewish religion,
but to which any person born to a Jewish mother automatically belongs.
This fuzzy merger of nationality, ethnicity and religion is still at the
heart of the Jewish State and effectively prevents it from becoming a
state for all its citizens. It also prevents it from tackling the mounting
challenge of its own inherent ethnic, religious and cultural pluralism.
The idea that the State of Israel embodies a worldwide Jewish nationality
is also affecting a large number of non-Israeli Jews who might have another
idea about who they are. From being citizens and nationals of France or
Sweden or the United States, they are redefined as Jewish "nationals"
and potential citizens of the Jewish State.
Comparisons between Israel-Palestine and other contemporary regions of
ethnic and national complexity, concluding that Israel must conform to
the same ideals of non-ethnic nationhood that the Western democracies
have imposed on Bosnia, Serbia and Kosovo, are invalidated with reference
to the specific history of the Jewish people and the circumstances under
which the state was created and still lives.
Moral arguments for the disconnection of ethnicity from nationhood that
seem justified in other parts of the world somehow lose their moral justification
in the Israeli context. The image of an Israeli-Jewish nation permanently
besieged by anti-Semitic enemies from the outside and fifth columns from
the inside has served as an effective moral counterweight and as a strong
ethnic adhesive. This has also had the effect of blurring the distinction
between the arguably illegitimate negation of the State of Israel as such,
irrespective of its fundamental laws and principles, and a legitimate
criticism of these very principles. The idea of decoupling the Israeli
State from its "Jewishness," to separate ethnicity from nationality,
is still considered a de facto negation of the State as such. Not only
is a party that in such a way proposes to "de-Zionize" the state
by peaceful legal means banned from Israel's parliamentary elections,
but also the speaker of the Knesset may still block any bill with such
an intention. Still, current events are relentlessly hammering away at
the idea that ethnicity can and should be the foundation of nationality.
Or that a state can and should be defined by other principles (or serve
other purposes) than those set forth by its own citizens. Not even the
Jewish-Israeli case, with its undoubtedly specific characteristics, can
in the long run withstand the ideological impact of global interdependence
and individualized human rights. The former is rapidly changing Israel
from a self-contained and inwardly looking society to an outward-looking,
buoyant and competitive player on the global economic scene. The latter
is effectively undermining the old Zionist institutions of collective
identity and creating new room in Israeli society to a multitude of cultural
and individual expressions.
The irreconcilable "pluralism" once associated with the Jewish-Arab
divide is now supplemented by a growing pluralism within Israeli-Jewish
society itself. The Jewish-Israeli recognition and the prospective creation
of a Palestinian state, and thus of a distinct Palestinian nationality,
might eventually lead to a reevaluation and redefinition of Israeli plurality
itself. The idea of a Jewish State expressing a particular Jewish nationality
is thus not only challenged by its non-Jewish citizens but also by diverging
and at times fiercely antagonistic expressions of Jewish-Israeli identity.
The most decisive event in this development is undoubtedly the mental
and physical demilitarization of the border between Israeli Jews and Palestinian
Arabs. Whatever the political merits and faults of the Oslo peace process,
it has irreversibly changed the way in which Israel must relate to its
There is no longer an indefinite interregnum (awaiting Peace and Normality)
to justify the exclusion of Israel's Arabs from the fullest participation
in the affairs of the State. There is also no longer any justification
for waiting to confer Israeli nationality on the "Palestinian"
Arabs who choose to be citizens of Israel rather than of a future Palestine.
The demand for a democratic State based on individual, non-ethnic, citizenship
rather than on a preordained nationality will become ever more intense
as the Arabs of Israel face a clear choice of national allegiance. This
will subsequently highlight the long-term impossibility of a "clean"
solution to the conflicts of ethnic and cultural pluralism in the region.
No matter how you partition the tiny territory between the Sea and the
Jordan River, there will be "wrong" peoples on both sides of
the border. Israel will continue to house a very large and fast growing
Arab minority, not to mention a swelling number of non-Jewish immigrants
A future Palestine might have to contend with a number of Jewish settlements
that will not agree to be dismantled. The enlarged territory of Jerusalem
is in fact a "labyrinth of ambiguity," to borrow an apt phrase
from the Israeli daily Ha'aretz (Jan 12, 2000). When the municipal authorities
belatedly discovered that the tiny Arab village of Birauna actually belonged
to the city and set out to inspect their "new" subjects, they
discovered that the only way to get to Birauna was to go via Beit Jalla,
which is under exclusive Palestinian jurisdiction. In the refugee camp
of Kalandia the municipal border actually crosses right through the camp,
"so a camp school on one side of the road is actually located in
Israel. Should a Palestinian walk his or her child to school, it means
It is not hard to imagine hundreds of similar "border" problems
in any future scenario of ethnic-national separation, and the ensuing
temptation to "straighten out" existing patterns of ethnic and
national entanglement. This goes to show that any long-term solution of
the Jewish-Arab conflict within the combined territories of Israel and
Palestine (based on respect for individual human rights) must be founded
on the acceptance of ethnic and national plurality.
The historical and psychological need for territorial separation cannot
conceal the fact that such a separation can only be temporary, symbolic
and illusory. As Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs cannot (and will not)
be territorially separated within Israel proper, neither can they effectively
be so within the larger area of Israel-Palestine. The future of both states
thus depends on their ability to overcome ethnically based institutions
and reinvent themselves as truly pluralistic societies with open and transparent
borders. It is also hard to imagine a future Israel-Palestine not developing
common institutions and close cooperation in a number of political and
History is certainly not a rational process nor is it a progressive march
towards a harmonious consummation. Perhaps is it not a process at all.
Events and ideas combine and recombine in ever new and unpredictable patterns
of individual and collective action. In unstable political settings like
the Middle East, the potential for chaotic developments is high. Deep-rooted
eschatological ideas and schemes of action remain powerful agents in this
designated territory of messianic redemption.
Strong national-religious myths and symbols can still trigger the most
"irrational" events. The short and erratic rule of Ehud Barak,
the breakdown of the Oslo process and the electoral landslide of Ariel
Sharon may serve as a case in point. These events have seemingly given
new credence to the old idea that Israel can "unilaterally"
separate itself from its Palestinian neighbors, secure for itself the
"safe" borders it needs, build for itself an impenetrable fence
of security, and go it alone. This was in fact the ultimate vision of
Ehud Barak, which in fact is very similar to the vision of Ariel Sharon,
which in fact is the vision of an Israeli State with as many Jews as possible
- and as few Palestinians.
It is true that Ehud Barak seemed more prepared than Ariel Sharon to exchange
land for "an end to the conflict," but it is also true that
he endeavored to expand and strengthen the Jewish settlements on occupied
land, in order to make the "Jewish" territory larger. It is
true that Ehud Barak seemed more prepared to accept a Palestinian mini-State
(including certain quarters of Jerusalem), but it is also true that he
never envisaged the Palestinian State as an equal partner in the region,
or the border between them as open and transparent. He entertained in
fact far-reaching plans to build an advanced high-tech fence along the
future borderline in order to separate effectively the two populations
from each other. It is true that Ehud Barak strove for an Israel that
would be both Jewish and democratic, but it is also true that he did not
utter a word of regret when Israeli police in September 2000 shot and
killed thirteen of his own (non-Jewish) co-citizens. It is also true that
in Ehud Barak's vision of Israel the Palestinians remain a problem, not
necessarily because they are a threat to State's security, but because
they are a threat to its "Jewishness." It is for this reason
also true that Ehud Barak did not lift a finger to deal with what the
former Israeli chief of the security police, Ami Ayalon, has characterized
as "Jewish democracy with apartheid."
The historical difference between the visions of Barak and Sharon has
thus largely been about the means and not about the goal. Barak wanted
to rule over as few Palestinians as possible by separating the Jewish
society from a future Palestinian. Separation was more important to him
than continued occupation. The Jews of Israel would no longer be burdened
with the necessity to suppress another people, having to worry about its
political ambitions and birth rates, having to suffer from the conscientious
conflict between democracy and Jewishness. In the world of Ariel Sharon
Jewish territory is more important than democracy, colonization more important
than separation. In the extreme version of Sharon's ideology, "transfer"
of the Palestinian population is still an option, but in that ideological
mainstream to which Sharon now purports to belong, continued Jewish-Israeli
rule over the Palestinian population is a necessary and sufficient condition
for the survival of the Jewish state.
In spite of the rhetorical difference between the two strategies, they
nevertheless come together in the vision of an Israel where the Palestinians
no longer constitute a "problem," whether by as far as possible
separating from them, or by as much as necessary suppressing them. The
latter strategy has since long come to road's end, whether Ariel Sharon
realizes it or not. Continued occupation is not only politically impossible
but also militarily. Perhaps less evident is the fact that Barak's strategy
has also collapsed. The vision of a final separation from the Palestinians,
of a "Jewish" democracy without apartheid, finally came to an
end with the killing of thirteen Arab-Israeli citizens by the Israeli
police. And by the resounding official silence that followed.
Nevertheless, certain events irreversibly change the prospects for certain
ideas. The idea that Israel must go it alone, that it must remain a fortress
among eternal enemies is rapidly losing its force and credibility. The
prospect of a permanent peace settlement with the Arab world, the ongoing
"Orientalization" of the Israeli polity itself, the recognition
of a Palestinian nation and its claims to parts of the "promised
land," have all clearly limited the political latitude for ethnically
self-contained ideas and actions-on both sides. The religious-nationalist
Zionist zeal of the 80's and the early 90's is waning in the face of yet
another territorial-ideological border closing.
The internal pressure for an Israeli civic order based on individual rights
rather than on collective identity is mounting, and I see no reason that
it will abate anytime soon.
Another manifestation of this process is the ongoing academic "post-Zionist"
reevaluation of Israel's political and ideological past, a group of "new
historians" (as well as other academics and intellectuals) hammering
away at the tenets of Zionist founding mythology. Israel is thus facing
the continuous weakening of its ideological foundations and the growing
need to reformulate basic tenets of its polity.
Can the vision of a "Jewish" State be reconciled with the vision
of a non-ethnic Israeli nationality? Can the "artificial and baseless
opposition between Arab and Jewish Nationalities" (being propagated
from both sides) give way to the true variety of the Middle Eastern scene?
No matter how we delineate its nations, "the Middle East seems destined
to continue to accommodate a rich mosaic of cultures, languages and religious
groups: Syrians, Iraqis, Palestinians and Israelis; Arabs, Turks, Persians,
Kurds and Armenians; Muslims, Jews, Christians and Druse." As former
Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban remarked long ago, "the destiny
of this region lies in a pluralistic interaction of Asia, Europe, Africa;
of Judaism, Christianity and Islam." And as Nissim Rejwan logically
concludes: "In a pluralistic Middle East-where Asia, Europe and Africa,
Judaism, Christianity and Islam interact freely-the Israelis too, will
be called upon to cease viewing their country in exclusively Jewish terms."
The Oslo process started with the right end in mind-by the mutual recognition
of the two peoples of the region-but ended in the unrealistic and destructive
concept of their ultimate separation from each other.
Notwithstanding the physical impossibility to separate two peoples, who
are so deeply intertwined in each other's lives and territories, the dream
of Jewish democracy without apartheid can never be achieved by means of
demographic dominance. The insistence on demographic dominance will only
produce "Jewish democracy with apartheid." The demographic trends
are in this respect unequivocal. Already within five years the Palestinians
will constitute the majority population within the combined region of
Israel-Palestine. Within Israel proper (the prewar borders of 1967) their
share of the population will grow from 18 to 25 percent by the year 2020.
By the year 2050 the Jewish majority of Israel proper will have been reduced
to a narrow 60 percent.
The time has thus arrived for wholly new visions of how the long-term
existence of an independent Jewish polity within the region of Israel-Palestine
shall be secured and developed. These must be visions built on the true
challenge of transnational partnership and power sharing, not on the false
dream of separation and dominance. Israel's most crucial choices still
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