Political parties in Israel usually crop up prior to elections, and then the parties are launched with a press-conference in which principles are stated and members are introduced. Avrum Burg, former MK from the Labor Party, Speaker of the Knesset, and head of the Jewish Agency, decided to launch his new party (does it exist yet?) with an op-ed in Haaretz. You have to wade through two-thirds of the piece before you get the money passages:
The time has come for an Israeli party, a Jewish-Arab party, that will carry the banner of total commitment to equality, without a trace of discrimination and racism. It will be without Meretz's complications and Hadash's baggage. A party that will sail far beyond the paradigms of classic Zionism, which to this day ignores the place of Israel's Arabs. A party that will demand full equality for all Israel's citizens, the kind of equality we demand for the Jews in the Diaspora wherever they live.
The party Israel Equality (Shivyon Yisrael -- with the acronym Shai in Hebrew, gift -- will fight for a state that will be a total democracy; everything else will be either personal or on the community level. The party will wrestle with the sanctimonious internal contradiction of "a Jewish and democratic state," which means a great deal of democracy for the Jews and too much Jewish nationalism for the Arabs. It will be the party of those who are committed to the supreme universal and Israeli cultural values of human dignity, the search for peace and a desire for freedom, justice and equality.
Those who vote for it and its candidates will accept the definition of Israel as "a state whose regime is democratic and egalitarian, and which belongs to all its citizens and communities. The state in which the Jewish people have chosen to renew their sovereignty and where they realize their right to self-determination." The practical expression of this commitment will be a supreme effort to change the social balance of power, which is unjust, to give equal opportunities to the entire population in Israel, regardless of national background, ethnic origin, race, sex or sexual preference.
Hats off to Avrum Burg for thinking outside the box. Politically, this is very different from the Jewish parties that trace back to 1948. And he talks the language of liberal democracy unapologetically.
Most Zionists will label Burg's party as "post-Zionist" but it is Zionist, since Israel is described as "The state in which the Jewish people have chosen to renew their sovereignty and where they realize their right to self-determination." But Burg and his party need to elucidate more here, and I have some questions:
- Exactly how is Jewish sovereignty realized in a state of all its citizens? What is the relationship between Jewish sovereignty and Israeli sovereignty, between the Jewish nation and the Israeli nation? A people can have self-determination in an ethnic state, or as an ethnic majority in a multiethnic state, or even as an ethnic minority in a multiethnic state. But sovereignty? That sounds odd, unless Burg is referring to sovereignty over the Jewish people, not the Israeli people.
- Why does Burg use in his op-ed the old-fashioned term "Israeli Arabs" rather than "Palestinian Israelis," which is preferred by many of them? Sometime in the late sixties, American blacks starting calling themselves, "Afro-Americans" or "African Americans" rather than "Negroes" or "Colored." That decision was respected by the white majority. Is he using the old Zionist term to appeal to a traditional Israeli electorate?
- Is the new party a Jewish party with a sprinkling of Arabs, or a genuine Jewish-Arab party? If the latter, then wouldn't it have been better to have a roll-out with a Jew and an Arab? Once again, my fear is that sensitivity to the electorate's ethnic biases and paternalism will doom the partnership from the beginning.
- In the op-ed Burg says the party will be free of the "complications" of Meretz and the "baggage" of Hadash. To what "baggage" is he referring? To its origins as the Israel Communist Party? Surely that means nothing nowadays to its electorate. Or does he mean the "baggage" associated with an Arab-Jewish party that has been regularly demonized by the Jewish electorate and permanently in the opposition? I suspect that Burg's new party is intended to be a hybrid of both Meretz and Hadash without the associated stigmas in the eyes of the Israeli Jewish electorate. Ideologically, however, it appears closer to Hadash. And so then the question becomes, why add a new party? And the answer presumably will be pragmatic; even though many more Jews vote for Hadash than ever before, the party's attractiveness to Jews is limited. So we now need a Jewish version of Hadash to appeal to a progressive Jewish electorate (and its supporters) who cannot bring themselves, for ethnic reasons, to support Hadash. If that is the case, then the party will not hurt Hadash as much as it will hurt Meretz.
If this party is really a new and improved version of Meretz, a Meretz, "re-Gifted," as it were, then that would indeed be interesting, but not sufficient. Meretz was combined originally from the parties of Mapam, Ratz, and Shinui. I would be happier with a party combined of Hadash and Shay – a "New Gift", as it were. That would be not just interesting but exciting
But it is still much too early to form a final judgment. Welcome back, Mr. Burg, to Israeli politics.