How Liberal A Zionism?

I’m not asking Israel to be Utopian. I’m not asking it to allow Palestinians who were forced out (or fled) in 1948 to return to their homes. I’m not even asking it to allow full, equal citizenship to Arab Israelis, since that would require Israel no longer being a Jewish state. I’m actually pretty willing to compromise my liberalism for Israel’s security and for its status as a Jewish state.

That’s Peter Beinart, from Part II of his dialogue with Jeffrey Goldberg (Part I and Part III for completeness freaks) prompted by Beinart’s instantly-famous article in the New York Review of Books.

If it’s not obvious, I want to highlight the key words of the paragraph:

[T]o allow full, equal citizenship to Arab Israelis . . . would require Israel no longer being a Jewish state.

Beinart, meet Lieberman Lieberman, meet Beinart.

Lieberman’s perspective on the conflict is admirably direct and clear. He favors a partition of the Land of Israel, such that the Jews wind up on one side and the Arabs wind up on the other, as much as possible. Because there are regions in Israel inside the Green Line with concentrated Arab populations and few Jews, he wants to transfer these regions to an independent Palestinian State, in exchange for the major settlement blocs on the other side of the Green Line. He believes that a “Jewish state” is a state that represents the expression of the national spirit of the Jewish people and whose essential loyalty is to that same people. He wants to define “Jewish people” basically by self-identification – he’s not interested in having rabbis meddling in the matter – and ditto for what the national spirit of that people might be. Anybody who wants to stay in Israel and who isn’t Jewish should somehow formally demonstrate loyalty to the state in order to have the privileges of citizenship.

From which part of Lieberman’s analysis of Israel’s situation does Beinart dissent?

I assume that Beinart would redraw the map so that there wouldn’t be Israeli enclaves within Palestinian territory – but that’s not a fundamental difference. More fundamentally, I assume Beinart would consider the demand that Arab’s take a loyalty oath to retain their citizenship to be insulting and/or racist. But surely he would admit that his own statement – that the Arab population can never be granted equal citizenship without Israel ceasing to be a Jewish state – would be viewed similarly by any Israeli Arab. Right?

The situation of Israeli Arab citizens within the Green Line is in no way comparable to the situation of the stateless Palestinian Arabs on the other side of the line. Israeli Arabs vote, have access to government and the legal system, etc. But Beinart is right to describe them as second-class citizens. In a variety of ways, Israel discriminates in favor of Jewish communities and against Arab ones. While Arabs vote, Israel’s electoral system encourages communal voting, so the Arab vote goes predominantly to Arab parties who would not be accepted as coalition partners even by a left-wing government. Its education system by design keeps the two communities largely separate, but the Arab sector does not have control of its own part of the system. Is this what makes Israel a Jewish state?

And what would truly equal citizenship mean, after all? In a formal sense, the main thing it would mean would be an end to formal discrimination against Arab Israelis, which, in turn, would primarily mean an end to the settlement enterprise within the Green Line. Does Beinart think the end to this enterprise would mean an end to the Jewish state?

For many Arabs, it’s understood to mean granting them national minority status or something similar, which would give them greater communal rights and immunities, including control of their own education system. Does Beinart think granting such a status would mean an end to the Jewish state?

Some would argue that the Law of Return would have to be scrapped, but I don’t see why this would be – by definition, the Law of Return only applies to non-citizens, so it can’t make anybody a second-class citizen. What would have to change is aspects of immigration law that discriminate against the spouses of Arab citizens relative to the spouses of Jewish citizens. Does Beinart think eliminating this discrimination would mean an end to the Jewish state?

Most fundamentally but least-formally, equal citizenship would mean being treated like part of the general polity, and not as permanent outsiders. It would mean that, on questions affecting the country as a whole, Arab votes and voices would count. Which, right now, they mostly don’t.

If the answer to these questions is “yes,” how liberal is this liberal Zionism? And how surprising is it that young American Jews who are comfortable in their liberalism sense something problematic with Israel’s status quo than is not reducible to the problems in the territories?

I’ve argued for years and continue to maintain that the territories are a distraction that have enabled Israel to avoid its most fundamental question: what is a Jewish state? The usual answer is: it’s a state that has a substantial Jewish majority, and which therefore can organize itself around Jewish concerns. But that’s just not an adequate answer. If being a Jewish state just means being a state of refuge for the Jewish people, then yes, a demographic majority matters, but I don’t see the justification for permanent second-class status for the Arab minority, nor for treating their concerns as national afterthoughts. And if being a Jewish state means something more than this, then what is it? The National Religious have their answer. The ultra-Orthodox have their answer. What’s Beinart’s answer? And how is it different from Lieberman’s?