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A Jewish State, Or State of Jews?

The conventional explanation for Israel’s more controversial measures, including in particular the security fence now under construction and the new marriage law passed by the Knesset, is that these are responses to the ongoing conflict. (The new marriage law cancels the automatic citizenship hitherto accorded Palestinian spouses of Israeli citizens.) But underlying that explanation, there is a darker and infinitely more problematic reality: Israel does not know what to do with or about the 1.2 million of its citizens, 20% of the total population, who are Arabs — or, as they increasingly choose to define themselves, Palestinian Israelis.

While all the hubbub about fences and settlements and such continues, at quite a distance from the real-time radar screen, a new drive has been launched in Israel that perhaps more explicitly than ever highlights the issue — or, if you will, Israel’s dilemma. The World Zionist Organization is undertaking a project to build 30 new settlements in the Negev and the Galilee — that is, within the Green Line, the pre-1967 armistice line.

So wherein lies the problem? These are not controversial settlements in the West Bank or Gaza. No one questions Israel’s right to build wherever it chooses to within the Green Line. Everyone knows that too much of Israel’s population is concentrated in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area, and that the Negev and the Galilee are relatively sparsely populated.

The name of this new program reveals its problematic aspect: “The New Challenge: A Zionist Majority in the Negev and Galilee.” Please understand, no test of Zionist conformity will be administered to would-be residents of the new settlements. The word “Zionist” in the title of the project is really a euphemism; the intention is a Jewish majority. But it would be at the least impolitic to say it quite that baldly, so the word “Zionist” is used as a substitute, or subterfuge.

The treasurer of the Jewish Agency for Israel has said essentially as much, explaining that “the settlement drive is the only way to ensure that Israel remains a Jewish state.”

Demography is on everyone’s mind these days. We’re told that such “painful compromises” as Prime Minister Sharon may be prepared to make in negotiations with the Palestinian Authority derive from his appreciation that if Israel retains the West Bank and Gaza, and the Palestinians who live there, it will be only a few short years before Jews are a minority in the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan. So in order to preserve itself as a Jewish state, Israel must disgorge the land it has occupied since 1967 — that, or, as Israel’s far-right members of the governing coalition would have it, disgorge the Palestinians who live on the disputed land.

But demography within the Green Line? Yes indeed, to the tune of $40 million a year for the project’s first two years — that’s Jewish Agency money — plus a promise, not likely to be fulfilled, of an additional $400 million from the government. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports that “To attract Jewish families to Arab regions, the Jewish Agency plans to invest heavily in local educational resources” — better teachers, longer school days, an upgrading of regional colleges. The irony here is that by every available measure — teacher training, dropouts, kindergarten availability, special education, per capita pupil expenditures and so forth — the Arab educational sector has never experienced anything near equality with the Jewish educational sector, nor has it enjoyed the extraordinary infusion of funds that is here contemplated.

Now, put yourself in the shoes of an Arab citizen of the State of Israel, told again and again that you have greater freedom and a higher standard of living than Arabs in neighboring countries. But because you are an Israeli citizen, your natural population of reference is not the Arab citizen of Lebanon or Syria; it is the Jewish citizen of the State of Israel. And now imagine that you are informed that it is a goal of the Jewish people, as represented by the Jewish Agency, to see to it that “real Zionists” — never mind that a large number of those “real Zionists” are non-Jewish immigrants from Russia — outnumber you even in regions within Israel where your ethnic-religious group has long been predominant.

This is not about being gracious to the stranger because we were strangers in Egypt. We are talking here about Israeli citizens.

The fact that 20% of Israelis are Palestinians creates real tensions around the definition of a “Jewish state.” By all indications, Israel has done and is doing a miserable job in dealing with those tensions, aggravating them rather than defusing them. To be sure, the conflict has exacerbated the problem — but think for a moment how very differently the conflict itself might have played out had Israel, from its inception, opted for genuine equality for its Arab citizens. The fact that Israel is explicitly a Jewish state need not have precluded it from making a real home for all its citizens. Instead, it has relied on a mix of crumbs and rhetoric to address the matter. And now, 55 years into a policy of shameful neglect, it finds itself on the brink of a whirlwind and flails about in ways that will newly aggravate the already strained relationship.

It turns out that we here in America are directly implicated in this latest aggravation: the chair of the task force charged with developing the details of the program is the incoming chairman of the board of United Jewish Communities, and the project is part of Partnership 2000, a Jewish Agency program that links Diaspora Jewish communities with Israeli communities.

Sorry, folks. This is not the Zionism in which I was reared, nor the Judaism.

Leonard Fein’s most recent book is “Against the Dying of the Light: A Father’s Story of Love, Loss, and Hope” (Jewish Lights, 2001).

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