January 20, 2013

KARR-KAITIN | In Defense of a Democratic Israel

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Last semester, as Cornellians turned their attention to Israel’s military actions in Gaza, I was faced with a test between two competing values: my support for Israel and my liberal-democratic political ideals. I do not mean to speak for all Jewish students on campus, but I do know that many share my views.

I was born to two Jewish parents and raised in a town whose children, regardless of their religion, knew their way around a synagogue. In elementary school, when our Spanish teacher taught us how to sing “Feliz Navidad,” the Christian students in my class insisted that we change around half of the song so as to incorporate my faith. “Feliz Hanukkah” was born.

There were very few Orthodox Jews in my town, and even Conservative Jews were hard to find. Instead I was raised in a bevy of liberal Reform and Reconstructionist Jews. Judaism as metaphysics meant little to me. I’ve never felt a strong connection to the divine. Furthermore, being told I was one of the “chosen people” never sat well with somebody who didn’t feel any better than his classmates hailing from other religious traditions.

What did appeal to me about Judaism was its long history of moral righteousness. I was taught that we, as a persecuted people, understood the pain that can be caused by discrimination and hatred. That was why we needed to stand up and fight oppression wherever we saw it.

To this day, I remain a proud Zionist. The Jewish people, after facing centuries of persecution, culminating in the Holocaust, have a right to a state in their ancient homeland — Israel.

I was overjoyed to learn about the Zionist tradition, beginning with Theodor Herzl, and including such luminaries as Louis Brandeis and Stephen Wise. Their Zionist pursuit was not just about achieving a Jewish homeland, but about intertwining their liberal ideals in that state.

I was proud to learn that the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel (Israel has no constitution) promises “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.” Yet, in the past few decades, Israel has unquestionably moved away from the values it espoused in its Declaration of Independence.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s conservative government is about to get a whole lot more conservative in Israel’s coming election. And with the new government’s arrival, a two-state solution looks more implausible than ever.

Responsible for this new political climate is an Israeli population that looks less and less hospitable to the progressive ideals of its founders. According to a survey by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, 49 percent of Jewish Israelis aged 21 to 24 would not befriend an Arab. Only 19 percent of Arabs between those ages said they would not befriend a Jew. Another survey found that 44 percent of Jewish Israelis believe that Jews should avoid renting apartments to Arabs.

In 2000, the Israeli government created a special commission to study the conditions for Israel’s Arab population. The committee reported that “government handling of the Arab sector has been primarily neglectful and discriminatory.”

Facts like these have forced people like me, and there are many, to try to understand how to feel about Israel in light of our liberal values about democracy and religious tolerance — views that we feel are largely informed by our Jewish upbringings. We do not oppose Israel’s right to exist, but we do question the terms it exists on.

Naftali Bennett, the leader of the right-wing Jewish Home Party, which is expected to place 2nd or 3rd in the coming elections, was quoted in a New Yorker piece as saying, “I will do everything in my power to make sure [the Palestinians] never get a state.”

It is not just Jewish Home who reject the very idea of a two-state solution. Danny Danon, cited in the same New Yorker piece, has argued that, for every missile launched from Gaza, Israel ought to “delete” a neighborhood in Gaza. Danon is a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party. Netanyahu himself has largely only paid lip service to a two-state solution, all while continuing government support of settlement-building in the West Bank.

Of course, it would be wrong of me to look at Israeli action in a vacuum. Israel is faced with a Palestinian population that in some corners is overtly hostile to its very existence.

If the Israeli right-wing get their wish, and a two-state solution never comes to be, then Israel’s existence as a Jewish and democratic state will almost certainly disappear with it.

If a Palestinian state becomes officially unviable, Israel’s legal borders will be expanded to include the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza. The West Bank and Gaza would no longer be occupied territories, but would instead be part and parcel of Israel proper.

These territories would come with their combined populations of four million Arabs. Israel, a nation with six million Jews, will find itself with an additional population of five and a half million Arabs — whose birth rate is 50 percent higher than that of the Jewish population.

If there is no Palestinian state within our lifetimes, there will be more Arabs in Israel than there are Jews. An Arab population with voting rights can then simply vote away Israel’s Jewish statehood.

Israel’s only option to prevent this is to deny voting rights to its Arab population, a prospect at odds with the Israeli Declaration of Independence, the values of the western world and Judaism’s core moral values. Those on the far right do not mind this outcome. To them, what matters is that Israel remains Jewish and occupies the land they feel is, by divine right, theirs.

However, there are those of us who cannot support an Israel that is undemocratic. To us, a democratic Israel is as important as a Jewish Israel.

We must be willing to fight to ensure that Israel never has to choose between democracy and Zionism. It is not opposition to Israel’s right wing that motivates us; it is our belief in the values espoused by Zionists like Brandeis that “it is Democracy that Zionism represents. It is Social Justice which Zionism represents.”

Even an Israel besieged ought to aspire to the democratic values its founders inscribed.

Noah Karr-Kaitin is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be reached at [email protected] Plain Hokum appears alternate Mondays this semester.

Original Author: Noah Karr-Kaitin