More discrimination would be bad for Israel

A new bill being considered by the Knesset would be harmful, says David Aaronovitch

July 12, 2018 12:57

"Are we, in the name of the Zionist vision, willing to lend a hand to the discrimination and exclusion of a man or a woman based on their background... (to) allow virtually every community, without any limitation or balance, to establish a community without Mizrahim, without ultra-Orthodox, without Druze, without LGBT members?”

This is what the Israeli President Reuven Rivlin asked members of the Knesset this week, urging them to amend a bill being pushed by the Israeli government for passage by the end of the month. The bill is yet another refinement on the vexed question of what exactly is the Jewish character of the Jewish state. Among other things it makes the Hebrew calendar the official state calendar, which is the kind of gesture that makes everyone’s lives unnecessarily complicated, and it seeks to remove Arabic as one of the “official” languages and relegate it to a “special status” language. And, of course, it uses all kinds of fruity language to emphasise just how very particularly Jewish, more Jewish than you could ever imagine, how super-Jew the state of Israel is. Just in case you had mistaken it for Paraguay or Bhutan.

However even these are not the bits that have most animated the President. The bill includes provision for “followers of a single religion or members of a single nationality, to establish a separate communal settlement.” The key word here is “separate”. The suggestion is that in Israel people will be able to establish exclusive, self-governing settlements in which their own particular preferences would be allowed to prevail and in which discrimination against others on whatever grounds the community chose would be legal.

Quite why Mr Netanyahu and his government would want to support such a measure is baffling. Especially since he has apparently received legal advice that the Israeli Supreme Court would be likely to strike down such a provision.

Rivlin can see what Netanyahu either cannot see or does not care about. The provision is extremely likely to be used by some people to exclude unpopular minorities from areas of Israeli life. When and if that happens the result would not just be bad in itself but, in Rivlin’s words, would “harm the Jewish people, Jews throughout the world and the State of Israel, and can even be used as a weapon by our enemies.” And, he might have added, would distress and discomfit Israel’s friends.

And for what conceivable gain? Is the problem in Israel is the problem in the world one of too great a mixing of people and ideas, of too much coexistence and not enough separation? Is the difficulty we have that we cannot get far away enough from each other?

The idea of a Jewish state has always been more problematic than its supporters have allowed, and less problematic than its detractors have insisted. Less problematic because quite a few countries other than Israel use the notion of a “people” as the basis for their nationality. In the post-war period Germans, Czech and Poles born and living in entirely different countries had citizenship bestowed upon them because of their ethnicity. To be consistent, an opponent of a Jewish state which permits a “right of return” would also have to question how Germany accommodated the volksdeutsch. And somehow they never do.

But it’s more problematic because the usual definition of what the country has to remain a Jewish majority state requires conditions that the Germans or the Czechs are unlikely to demand. Put simply a non-German in Germany after a while becomes a German. A non-Jew in Israel does not after a while become a Jew. A person of Turkish origin in Berlin is not held officially to somehow dilute the very character of the country in which she lives. A non-Jew in Israel does.

I know. This is obvious and we know it all and Jews are in a unique position and have a history that Germans don’t. But it isn’t obvious to the wider world and to younger generations. The maintenance of a Jewish majority in Israel as an objective of state policy is an increasingly hard thing to argue. And that is before the right-wing nationalists now dominant in the Knesset start their narischkeit with downgrading the language of the largest minority and encouraging separatist settlements that discriminate against other Israeli citizens.

It has always been vital for Israel, above almost all nations, to stress the connection its people have with others, and its tolerance of difference. Unfortunately, as President Rivlin is finding out, one-eyed nationalists never quite see the world like that.

July 12, 2018 12:57

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