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June 8, 2014

Israel: Jewish and Democratic?

Reuel S. Amdur

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Can Israel exist as both Jewish and democratic? That was the question at issue in a debate on May 22 between Max Blumenthal and Mira Sucharov, held at the University of Ottawa. The debate was co-sponsored by Independent Jewish Voices and the university's Interdisciplinary Studies program on human rights.

Sucharov, who took the affirmative, is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Carleton University, and Blumenthal is a journalist and author of a highly critical book about Israel, Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel.

The debate had Blumenthal aggressively pointing out the injustices and inequities in Israel and Sucharov responding that these injustices and inequities are not inevitable and can be changed.  He pointed to them as making it impossible for Israel to be both Jewish and democratic, while she saw them as blemishes that do not preclude Israel from being both.

In beginning, Blumenthal focused on his opponent’s difficulty in publicizing the debate.  Her synagogue refused to allow her to put up a poster announcing the debate, and the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin, for which she writes, prevented her from mentioning the event.  There were two reasons—his participation and sponsorship by Independent Jewish Voices.

Blumenthal dwelt for a time on the historical background.  He cited Ze’ev Jabotinsky, father of Revisionist Zionism, who favored forcible expulsion of Arabs to make room for Jews, but he noted that it was David Ben Gurion, the mainstream “socialist” Zionist who implemented the Revisionist program during the independence struggle.  In fact, the expulsion of Palestinians actually began the previous year, with the forcible emptying of hundreds of Palestinian villages.

He noted that the Arab political party Balad, which advocates Israel as a state for all its people, was barred by the electoral commission for this stance, a decision which was reversed in the courts.  The mainstream Jewish political leadership sees this position as one that would be the end of Israel as a Jewish state.

Sucharov agreed with Blumenthal that debate on issues such as those discussed that evening are more vigorous in Israel than in the diaspora, and she related that fact to the shadow of the Holocaust.  Jews in the diaspora see Israel as “an insurance policy” in case anti-Semitism should flourish. 

Blumenthal cited a position expressed by Israeli leaders such as Ariel Sharon and Binyamin Netanyahu that Jews need to be at least 70% of the population in order for the country to remain Jewish.  That requires, Blumenthal argued, manipulation and engineering of demographics.  He pointed out that some African refugees being detained in camps have expressed an interest in converting to Judaism, to give them the “right of return.”  Rabbis, who are government employees, have been ordered not to perform conversions on them.  However, and Blumenthal did not note this fact, Israel has brought in people from India on the grounds that their group may have Jewish ancestry.  They are being put through a conversion process.

Sucharov was challenged to justify Jewish nationhood.  She defined it as a people having a common past and destiny, possessing a collective narrative.  Zionism as a movement does not fit comfortably with that definition.  The common cultural heritage of East European Jews is based on Yiddish culture, which Israel rejected.  Instead, it opted to rejuvenate the ancient Hebrew language, which had served just for liturgical purposes.  Zionists chose as well to break with the Jewish past by creating the image of a “new Jew,” not an Israelite but an Israeli.

Her definition of a nation raises question about there being a single Jewish nationality.  One could argue for an Ashkenazic nationality, a Sephardic nationality, and others.  And are the recent Ethiopian Jewish immigrants part of this nation with a common past and collective narrative, or is theirs quite different?

The central issue in the debate is the word “can.” That word was addressed by Sucarov who argued that bad laws can be changed and that there are organizations in Israel trying to change them.  Blumenthal, on the other hand, argued that the movement on the ground is in the opposite direction, with younger Israeli Jews more hostile to the Palestinians and more anti-democratic in their views than their elders.  He saw the only hope for change coming from outside pressure such as the BDS movement  (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) or from the unlikely event of an Israeli F.W. de Klerk, the Afrikaner who threw in the sponge and handed power over to the blacks. 

Sucharov alluded to this approach in her reference to the insurance policy.  Israel maintains and promotes a narrative of victimization, like the one that Hitler promoted with reference to Versailles.  We look to intergroup relations theory to see the institutionalization of a system with dominant and a subservient groups in conditions of considerable separation.  The dominants see the outgroup as a threat.  Their resistance, in whatever form, calls forth a demand for tighter controls.  Sucharov spoke of a dominant narrative defining a nation.  Well, the “liberals” in Israel are not part of a dominant narrative.  Then we come to history.  Israel began with a combination of an attitude of superiority with regard to the Palestinians but also of kibbutz egalitarianism.  Today’s kibbutzniks are seen as being a handful of quaint oddballs.  Whatever kind of “socialists” were in vogue politically back in the early years of Israel’s existence have been replaced by far more reactionary forces, who are more robust in their hegemonic attitudes and behavior.  Blumenthal’s observations about current thinking among young Israeli Jews give every expectation that the situation will get worse, not better.  That in fact has been the long-term trend in Israel—toward greater inequality and discrimination, less democracy.

After the debate, we spoke to Sucharov about her support of Israel as a Jewish state.  Her concept is cultural rather than religious, so we asked her how she would feel if Canada were to declare itself to be a nation of the “two founding races,” English and French.  She made the mistake of calling attention to the Aboriginals who were here first.  And, of course, who was in the Holy Land before the Zionists arrived?  She really had no substantial response to our analogy.

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