Taking ‘Jewish and Democratic’ Seriously

The Hebrew Republic: How Secular Democracy and Global Enterprise Will Bring Israel Peace At Last
By Avishai Bernard
Harcourt, Inc., 268 pages, $26.00

When Netanyahu appeared at the UN on September 22, 2017 he fretted about Iran, about the instability of Syria, about Hezbollah at the northern border, and Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank. Israelis across the political spectrum worry about knife attacks, car attacks, Hamas rockets, and security. Yet despite these worries, when pushed, Israelis prefer the status quo as the best option available to them. They prefer it to making peace with the Palestinians.

Thinking about alternatives to the status quo, whether it be war or peace, is demoralizing for Israelis, suggests Bernard Avishai in “The Hebrew Republic,” because both war and peace challenge the future identity of the country. “Israel would not come out of a sustained war the same country it was when it went in, but nobody expects it to come out of a peace process the same country, either,” he says. It has caused Netanyahu to work hard for the status quo for 30 years, and it causes Diaspora Jews to turn a blind eye to Israeli politics.

The uncertainty that leads Israelis (and Diaspora Jews) to prefer the status quo, says Avishai, is not limited to Israel’s future boundaries. It extends to the legal, institutional, and cultural limits of the country. Most people in Israel insist that Israel is and must remain Jewish and democratic, says Avishai, “but almost nobody can tell you what this means.” Jews in the Diaspora have the added uncertainty of their relationship with Israel — what is it to be?

“The Hebrew Republic” is an invaluable resource to think through these issues. It is part memoir, part journalism, part political analysis, and part vision for the future of Israel and Palestine. Since the book was published in 2008, Israel has fought three Gaza wars, peace groups have unsuccessfully attempted to breach the Gaza blockade, and the UN has issued a report that life in Gaza will become “unlivable” by 2020. There have been more fruitless “peace talks” sponsored by the U.S., and Jewish West Bank settlements have grown. A model of what Israel is to become is up for grabs: talk of “two states” has receded; talk of “one state reality” and “bi-national state” has advanced. Officials in the Netanyahu government are openly advocating formal annexation for portions of the West Bank. Netanyahu has paid lip service to “two states” yet vowed not to abandon any settlements. Israelis have protested in the streets over economic conditions, while large gas deposits have been discovered just offshore from Gaza and Israel. The Israeli economy has continued to grow at a healthy rate, while unemployment in Gaza tops 40 percent, and unemployment in the West Bank is nearly 20 percent. The separation barrier has hardened. The fundamental questions raised by this book remain at the heart of the question.

The Trouble with the Status Quo

Israelis’ preference for the status quo is troubled by a fundamental question: What are the borders of Israel? The border authorized by UN Resolution 181 (1947) was overrun by Israel’s War of Independence. The ceasefire line of that war (the “Green Line”) was erased in the Six Day War of 1967. Today, the border enforced by the IDF runs from the slopes of Mt. Hermon in the Golan Heights, along the Dead Sea Rift to Taba on the Gulf of Aqaba, then through the Sinai along the Taba to Rafa highway and out 12 miles into the Mediterranean Sea, north to Lebanon, and back to the slopes of Mt. Hermon — Greater Israel. The population of Greater Israel is approximately 13 million, approximately half Jewish and half Muslim. Within this space nearly five million Palestinians lack citizenship and live without democratic rights.

“Obviously, Israel cannot maintain an occupation, denying a great many people political rights, and remain democratic in any ordinary sense,” says Avishai. Yet we hang tapestries of Greater Israel in our sanctuaries and pretend the status quo can be maintained indefinitely.

The state of democracy in Israel is worse than we acknowledge even inside the Green Line, suggests Avishai. “The vast majority of Israeli Arabs (a fifth of Israeli citizens) are now third-generation Israelis,” he notes. It matters that they believe in the state. But how can they believe in the state as long as “their experience confirms, that no matter how well they perform as citizens they cannot aspire to live as equals or even live where they please.” Nor can they marry whom they please.

How are universal ideas of democracy to be made flesh in a state that is “Jewish and democratic?” Avishai refers to V.S. Naipaul who speaks of democratic societies as having an awakened spirit: “the idea of the individual, responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement. It is an immense human idea. It cannot be reduced to a fixed system.” And Avishai notes that “[Naipaul] might have added other attitudes embedded in this idea: scientific doubt, a utilitarian approach to property, the idiosyncrasy of religious imagination, the hybridity of national identity.”

Not a fixed system, but a secular system is what these ideas imply, says Avishai.

Merging Nationality and Citizenship

Pre-state Zionism developed structures geared to Jewish control of the land (the Jewish National Fund), Jewish control of industrial enterprises, a Jewish system of self-government, the Jewish Agency, a Jewish health fund, and a British-sanctioned Orthodox rabbinate to perform Jewish marriages and funerals. These pre-state structures included an all-Jewish defense force, Labor Zionist schools, and Jewish theaters, newspapers, and cultural institutions. These institutions were not democratic, yet they persist as state structures. In order to make the state truly democratic in a way that minorities in Israel can accept, these institutions must be made more Israeli, and less Zionist Avishai suggests.

Democracy is more than a mechanism of majority rule. It embodies principles like liberty, fallibility, equality, and tolerance, says Avishai. “We find these truths to be self-evident…” said Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. And Avishai notes that these universal ideas of democracy, too, are a kind of religious commitment. He refers to Herman Melville. “Thou shalt see it,” Melville wrote in Moby Dick, “shining in the arm that wields a pick or drives a spike; that democratic dignity which, on all hands, radiates without end from God; Himself! The great God absolute! The center and circumference of all democracy! His omnipresence, our divine equality!” The interpretation of religion in this sense, suggests Avishai, is too important to be left to the rabbis.

A constitution would be helpful. But to date, Avishai quotes the writer Yitzhak Laor, “a constitution (has been) impossible because the State of Israel… does not want to open the constitution with a declaration of full equality for all its citizens, and particularly not regarding property rights.” Israel needs to transform itself to become more authentically democratic. Israel needs to adopt a legal standard where nationality and citizenship can merge.

Ending the Folly of Annexationist Policies in the West Bank

The occupation is about more than the IDF. Back in 1967, before the Six Day War, Palestinians had a middle class, which Jordan repressed, suggests Avishai. But even so, there was a Jordanian banking system that served this middle class, there were autonomous Palestinian tourist and construction industries, and there were Palestinian agricultural marketing companies and insurance companies; there were Jordanian telecom, postal, electric, and highway infrastructure. After 1967, while building settlements, Israel replaced the Jordanian banking system, it took over the tourist and construction industries, it preempted Palestinian agricultural marketing and insurance companies, and it replaced Jordanian telecom, postal, and electric companies, bringing in Israeli substitutes. Israel took over the highway infrastructure. It turned Palestinians into wage laborers and destroyed the middle class. Then there is the separation wall, “which does not so much wall Palestinians out as wall them in, creating numerous enclaves running north-south, separated from Jerusalem, their cultural metropolis, and from each other… No Palestinian entrepreneur can hope to build an advanced business under these conditions,” notes Avishai.

No wonder Palestinians have struggled with their own democratic systems. “What the Hamas victory (2006) teaches us,” says Avishai, “is the unappetizing lesson that democratic elections, in nations without a democratic tradition, a substantial middle class, and a viable economy, may result in the triumph of forces even more offensive than the regimes they overthrow.”

These annexationist follies must end, suggests Avishai.

A Secular Republic

Democracy has competitors in Israel. “The National Religious began in Eastern European Orthodox parties, whose leaders attended Theodore Herzl’s first congress. They saw in Zionist return a rapturous messianism, not unlike the kind of notions you find today in evangelical movements in the United States.” This movement was radicalized once the occupation began after 1967. To the extent they participated in democratic processes, “they were opportunistic,” says Avishai. Their view, he suggests, is more like “Arabs should be welcomed in the Jewish state… but they should not have the right to vote.”

Rabbi Meir Berlin—after whom Bar-Ilan Univesity is named—outlined his Jewish-but-not-democratic vision at the earliest Zionist congresses. In Christian countries, he said, Church and state are kept separate: “but our case is different; Torah and traditions are not man-made, but are God’s own law…. We (have never) had laws of an exclusively ‘secular nature.” Today, this kind of thinking is deeply engrained in Israel’s state structures, including in parts of the army. “To be Jewish now means to be somehow identified with the state,” Avishai quotes Menachem Klein, an expert on Jerusalem at Bar-Ilan University. “Many Orthodox Jews say casually that they are for a Jewish and democratic state, but they really mean that the source of all legitimacy is Judaism, that Halakha is supreme.” For them, democracy is majority rule, with utter disregard to the rights of minorities.

Is that what Israeli Jews want? Or will the desire for universal democratic values prevail?

A Hebrew Republic

Most of the heavy lifting for a Hebrew Republic has been completed, says Avishai. Zionism has created a nation state with 8 million Hebrew speakers and a booming $318 billion economy that is a world leader in many fields.

This democratic Hebrew Republic needs borders, notes Avishai. He is thinking of the two-state solution along the Clinton parameters: border on the Green Line with mutually agreed swaps, and a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem and an Israeli capitol in West Jerusalem. It needs “a bill of rights and a formal constitution, guaranteeing all of its citizens an impartial state apparatus such as the one promise in Israel’s 1948 Declaration of Independence.” He is thinking of federal arrangements with the Palestinians. The country needs a single Israeli nationality, one that is not based on religion. This Hebrew Republic must belong to its citizens, including its Arab citizens, not to all Jews world-wide—even those who have never set foot in the land; and it needs a regular immigration law that recognizes preferences, yes, e.g. to Jews escaping anti-Semitism, but that is not exclusive to Jews, and that does not grant automatic citizenship to Jews. The state needs to guarantee equality of property rights. It needs to separate religion and state, and offer civil marriage, divorce, and burial.

“A Jewish state,” says Avishai, “does not have an identity like that of a Jewish person. A state is also not a family, or a club, or a congregation. It is a commonwealth, a social contract, in which individuals who are subject to equal rules of citizenship work out their lives—if they wish, in voluntary association with people, families, clubs, and congregations.”

Updating Israel to a Hebrew Republic, suggests Avishai, would not fundamentally alter the look and feel of what has become modern Israel: a place where the lingua franca is Hebrew, a place that runs on Jewish time, a place that teaches Jewish history in its schools, a place where the currency is the shekel, and a place that can serve as a haven for Jews suffering from anti-Semitism.

Why wouldn’t Israelis want to do this?

The Business of Integration

Avishai sketches the political roadblocks blocking a Hebrew Republic, and they are daunting. What makes it possible, he says, are the currents and requirements of business in Greater Israel to integrate with each other, and to integrate with the regional and world economies. The country enjoyed a trade surplus of $5 billion in 2015 on $64 billion of exports, most of this to the US, and European countries. Israel shares the world with modern democracies. It should join the club.

In order to meet its social tensions, Israel needs robust growth, Avishai says referencing Bank of Israel governor Stanley Fisher. With peace, expected growth is 50% higher than with the status quo, Fisher told Haaretz in 2007. And the prospects for peace would be greatly enhanced by upgrading to a Hebrew Republic.

“One needs a certain political imagination to see two states, two parliaments, two language communities, and so forth,” says Avishai. “But one needs no imagination at all to see the impossibility of two economies, that is, two disconnected states. Think again of building tourist infrastructure, or just coping with labor migration from the Nile. Think of electrical power, or water, or telecommunications, or the currency, or management of investment zones, or air and sea transport—the list goes on.”

“Over 90 percent of Palestinian exports go to Israeli markets,” says Avishai. West Bank towns are really suburbs of Jerusalem. Palestinians are very aware of this dependency; they are also aware that the Israeli annual per capita income is more than 20 times more than what Palestinians beyond the wall average. Israel should have every interest to build up a Palestinian middle-class and to incorporate it into the business of the region. The Palestinians have that same interest. To do this effectively will require peace. And peace needs an updated Israeli democracy.

An Integrated Region

The book suggests that language, culture, and a globally integrated economy are ultimately more important than military might for achieving and sustaining peace. In 2005 the Rand Corporation issued a study on Palestine that included a vivid idea of a transportation arc connecting the major towns in Palestine: high speed rail and overpasses making it possible to travel from Nablus, Ramallah, Jerusalem, Hebron, to Gaza City in less than 90 minutes. “Each rail station, located several miles from existing historic urban cores,” quotes Avishai, “would create a focal point for new development and would connect to a historic core via a new boulevard and an advanced from of rapid bus transit.” Along the path of the train new commercial and residential neighborhoods would be developed, to accommodate population growth.” The transportation arc, Avishai continues, “would pump economic activity into the historic centers of Palestinian cities and assure their preservation and revitalization, creating ‘a ladder of linear cities along the defining mountain ridge of the West Bank, and preserving open land for agriculture, forests, parks and nature reserves.”

This Rand plan, notes Avishai, is simply a mirror image of contemporary Israel within the Green Line. The Jewish arc faces an Arab one. “With peace, and in time,” says Avishai, “how many will care where the border is?”

If you care about “Jewish and democratic” and what that means in today’s Israel, read this book.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

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