The Anti-Defamation League’s Ken Jacobson wants you to believe that I called Israel racist in my recent article “The Real Reason So Many Republicans Love Israel. Their Own White Supremacy.” “Characterizing Israel as fundamentally racist,” he claims, constitutes one of my “arguments.”
But he has a problem. I didn’t call Israel racist because that’s not what I believe. I called it an “ethnic democracy.” Jacobson calls that a “euphemism” and says my real “intent is unmistakable.” No, “ethnic democracy” and “racist” are different. He’s confusing my motives with his ignorance.
Israel is a democracy inside its original, pre-1967, boundaries because it holds elections in which virtually everyone can vote. It’s an ethnic democracy because it has a special obligation to protect and represent one ethno-religious group: Jews. That means that, even inside the green line, where Palestinians (sometime called “Arab Israelis”) enjoy Israeli citizenship, they lack all the rights of Jews.
Jacobson denies this. “From its birth,” he declares, Israel has offered “full rights for its non-Jewish citizens.” Really? At its birth, Israel’s Palestinian citizens—but not its Jewish ones—lived under martial law. Israel lifted martial law in 1966, but it still legally privileges its Jewish citizens over its Palestinian ones in myriad ways. “Since Israel’s founding,” Haaretz has noted, “about 600 new Jewish communities have been established but not a single new Arab community has been built.” Israel’s immigration policy allows Jacobson and me to move there and gain citizenship on day one. By contrast, many Palestinians from the West Bank can’t move to Israel proper and gain Israeli citizenship even if they’re married to a Palestinian citizen from inside the green line. Israel also privileges Jews in its symbols: Its flag features a Star of David and its national anthem speaks about the “Jewish soul.” If Jacobson doesn’t think that makes Palestinian Israelis feel like second class citizens, I’d invite him to imagine how he’d feel if America’s national anthem spoke about the “Christian soul.”
Does this mean Israel is “racist?” No. For starters, Jews aren’t a race. What it means is that there’s a genuine tension between the promise of “complete equality of social and political rights” in Israel’s declaration of independence and Israel’s special obligation as a Jewish state to protect and represent Jews. (Other ethnic democracies—which feature religious symbols on their flags and preferential immigration policies for one ethnic group—face versions of this tension too).
As a Zionist, I see immense value in having one state on earth that makes protecting Jewish life its mission. But only by being honest about the real tension between that mission and complete equality for Israel’s Palestinian citizens can Israel begin to reduce that tension—for instance, by reexamining its land and immigration laws, and adding a stanza to Hatikva that allows Palestinian citizens of Israel to proudly sing their own country’s national anthem. The goal should be a more inclusive Israel that still offers Jews protection and refuge. And moving toward that goal requires overcoming the denial of reality expressed in Jacobson’s letter.
Jacobson isn’t only upset that I pointed out the tension between Jewish statehood and full equality. He’s also upset that I claimed that many Republicans love Israel because they see it as a model for an America that privileges white Christians. Jacobson objects. Republicans actually admire Israel, he insists, because it’s “a pluralistic democracy in an otherwise authoritarian region.” Really? If democracy is the reason Republicans admire Israel, why do they want it to maintain its blatantly undemocratic rule of the West Bank, where the vast majority of people under Israeli control can’t vote for the government that controls their lives. Jacobson also says “evangelicals see the rebirth of Zionism as a fulfillment of G-d’s promises.” Yes, some white evangelicals support Israel for that reason. But black and Hispanic Christians—even black and Hispanic evangelical Christians—are much less supportive. Which is a pretty good clue that GOP support for Israel isn’t only about religion. It’s about race.
Immigration, more than any other issue, now defines the American right. And America’s most prominent conservative pundits and Republican politicians have said they view Israel’s immigration policy—a policy designed to maintain Israel’s demographic character—as their model. Polling shows a clear correlation between support for Israel and support for less immigration to the US.
Jacobson ends his essay by accusing me of endangering my fellow Jews. “Those who delegitimize the Jewish state,” he declares, “bear some measure of responsibility when Jewish people are victimized by this irrational hatred even here at home.” The words “even here at home” include a link to the ADL’s “Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents” for 2018, which begins with the massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Funny, I thought the people responsible for murderous white nationalist anti-Semitism were murderous white nationalist anti-Semites, not Jews who disagree with the ADL.
In the organized American Jewish world, “delegitimize” has become code for “truths about Israel that we insist you ignore.” It’s an epithet hurled by organizations like the ADL, which cocoon themselves off from unpleasant realities by, among other things, holding entire conferences in which they discuss Israel and the Palestinians without hearing from a single Palestinian speaker. Ken Jacobson may consider ignorance a form of Jewish self-protection. Luckily, a new generation of American Jews don’t.
Peter Beinart is a Senior Columnist at The Forward and Professor of Journalism and Political Science at the City University of New York. He is also a Contributor to The Atlantic and a CNN Political Commentator.