But after conceding to Kushner some of the problems inherent in the Jewish regime founded in 1948, Beinart offers his own reasons for rejecting Kushner’s call for transforming Israel into a more democratic and less ethnically exclusivist state.
Traditionally, statist Zionists have claimed that Israel is faced with two alternatives: either a Jewish state like the one founded in 1948, or a secular state of all its citizens, which, at best, is binational. That stacks the deck in favor of a Jewish state, since one need only argue that binationalism is unworkable, and that only the Jewish state founded in 1948 can serve as a refuge for Jews fleeing persecution. The conclusion? Israel as an imperfect Jewish democratic state is preferable to Israel as no Jewish state at all.
These once-debated Zionist claims have solidified into dogmas over the years. Through endless repetition they have been seared into the Jewish consciousness. They represent the frozen thinking of somebody like Yitzkhak Shamir, who famously remarked about Zionist dogma that the Arabs wanted to throw the Jews into the sea, “The Arabs are the same Arabs, and the sea is the same sea.” Nothing has changed.
Are “Jewish ethnocracy” or “secular binationalism” really the only alternatives? Are there no other possibility for creative arrangements? In the over sixty years of Israel’s existence, the only attempts to recognize the rights of the Palestinian minority as a native, homeland minority have been rejected as threatening to the Jewish state. The Palestinian minority has never been invited by the Jewish majority to articulate its concerns and offer possible solutions. That in itself would be too dangerous.
History is dynamic, not static; 2011 is not 1948; there have been enormous changes, especially in the demographic facts of Israel. Yet Israel and its supporters cannot free themselves from their postwar neuroses. Beinart writes:
Israel was created not merely to be a Jewish democracy, but to be a Jewish refuge, and even though most American Jews can’t imagine needing one, the long history of Jewish persecution suggests that we should not blithely assume that diaspora Jewish communities will always be as fortunate as us.
Let us all recall on Israel Memorial Day that the Jewish community that has suffered the most deaths and injuries since 1945 – per capita, if you like -- is the Jewish community in Israel. The long history of Palestine suggests that we should not blithely assume that the Jewish community in Israel will always be as fortunate as us. Moreover, there are other ways to ensure that Israel can serve as a refuge for persecuted Jews besides a blunt instrument like the Law of Return.
Secondly, while there is certainly a tension between Israel’s Jewish and democratic character, Israel’s Arab citizens (those within its 1967 borders) do serve in Israel’s parliament and supreme court. Indeed, they enjoy more rights and live better lives than do their cousins in most of the Arab world, which is why most Israeli Arabs would rather live in a Jewish state than a Palestinian one.
There is no evidence whatsoever that “most Israeli Arabs would rather live in a Jewish state than a Palestinian one.” There is considerable evidence that most Palestinians Israelis would prefer to live in their native homeland – Palestine – and their native state – Israel – than be expelled on the basis of their ethnicity to foreign places. The Palestinian citizens of Israel are in their homeland, with their family and friends. Are we to take pride that they prefer staying in their home as second class citizens to being forced to become refugees like their relatives? Their situation is getting worse, not better.
And most importantly – after sixty three years, the ethos of the state has always been to allow the Palestinian minority to participate in politics while effectively depriving them of all political power. Supreme court justice? Members of the parliament? Fewer and fewer Palestinians vote (per capita) each election – because the system is absolutely rigged against them. It is getting worse, not better.
The problem with the state founded in 1948 is not that it refuses to grow up, as Tony Judt once said, but that it refuses to deal with ethnic minorities with fairness and dignity. And while some of that decline can be attributed to the xenophobia that is a common disease, especially in our post-colonial world, some of it is directly attributable to the desire to build an ethnocracy that by its very nature perpetuates inequality
Tony Kushner was, in my view, imprecise when he referred to the “ethnic cleansing” conducted by the Zionists at Israel’s founding. The phrase conjures up mass murder and genocide along racial, ethnic, or religious lines. Yes, there was violent uprooting and planned dispossession. But the major crime was the laws and directives barring the return of the 750,000 refugees to their homes on the basis of their ethnicity. This is not so much ethnic “cleansing,” with its implication of blood and destruction, but rather ethnic “dry-cleaning”, ridding the country of most of its Palestinian population through legal stratagems that ensure that the natives of Palestine will be effectively barred from full participation in their homeland. Unlike ethnic cleansing, the legal structures behind ethnic dry cleaning have allowed Palestinians to be around 20% of the population and to be given the vote, but to be deprived of political power. This way Israel can say to itself and to the world that it is a democracy. This ethnic dry-cleaning is foundational to the Jewish state and all who support the 1948 state are complicit in it. In fact the liberal Zionists are arguably more complicit, since they require that Israel be a democracy.
These are not signs of an imperfect democracy. These are signs of a society that is careening towards disaster.