Is a Liberal Democracy a Frightening Prospect for Israel?

Yakov Rabkin
February 2009

Is a Liberal Democracy a Frightening Prospect for Israel?

The recent election in Israel still keeps many guessing about the eventual composition of the governing coalition.  However, a larger question – about the nature of the Israeli state – was [MR1] raised on the very day of the election by no less a personality than the President of Israel. (“One Region, Two States”, Washington Post, February 10, 2009) Like Queen Elisabeth II, Israel’s President reigns but does not rule, and is not supposed to voice a political opinion. His concern must be truly pressing to prompt him to take up the pen.

Sixty years after the state of Israel was established, President Peres reaffirms its “right to exist as a sovereign Jewish state in the land of my forefathers”. He does not argue Israel’s right to exist because it is a vibrant modern society, a pioneer of new technologies and a formidable military power. His argument is taken almost verbatim from Israel’s Declaration of Independence and relies on an ideological myth.

A book by the Israeli historian Shlomo Sand, which stayed on the bestsellers’ list in his country for weeks, has debunked that myth. The book, titled How the Jewish People was Invented (to appear in English later this year), proves something that has long been suspected: namely, that Jews do not descend from the Judeans exiled by the Romans from the Holy Land two millennia ago. The Jews have been historically and sociologically a religious community, not a people of a common origin.  He quotes David Ben-Gurion, the would-be founder of Israel, and Itzhak Ben-Zvi, the country’s second president, who believed that if there were any biological descendants of those Judeans they would be most probably … Palestinian Arabs. No wonder that to reclaim “the land of his forefathers”,  President Peres, born Szymon Perski in Poland, resorts four times to the term “Jewish people” in his brief article.

President Peres seems to reply to Libya’s leader Muammar Qadaffi who had argued that the West Bank settlements left no room for a Palestinian state to be created next to Israel. It had been deemed sufficiently important to be found “fit to print” in the wake of President Obama’s inauguration. A few days later, Thomas Friedman was lashing at the nearly half a million West Bank settlers who were precluding any two-state solution. The following Sunday a candid CBS documentary let some of these settlers voice their determined rejection of any Palestinian independence, and showed the appalling conditions that most Palestinians must endure just because they are Palestinians. They suffer solely because of their ethnicity.

The alternative, i.e. the one-state option of a common democratic state for all those living between the Jordan and the Mediterranean is not new. The majority of the country’s inhabitants – Christians, Jews, Muslims – wanted to live in such a state when the United Nations voted to partition Palestine in November 1947. In the following months the Zionists, then a minority, albeit a militant and well-connected one, expelled a majority of the indigenous Palestinians, whose descendants still languish in refugee camps. Israeli historians, including the unapologetic advocate of ethnic cleansing Benny Morris, have documented this premeditated military campaign against civilian population (Plan Dalet). Some Palestinians were killed, some ran away, others were marched away.

Ethnic cleansing has not lost popularity in Israel, as President Peres knew the election would show. The insistence on keeping the country “Jewish” (or non-Arab) has caused incessant violence, destabilized the entire region, and made Israel appear as a major threat to peace in the world public opinion. This is why President Peres claims “it is not possible for the Jewish people to accept an arrangement that signifies the end of the existence of a Jewish state”. Yet, the majority of the world’s 14 million Jews, including over a million Israeli citizens, prefer to live in liberal democracies rather than in the perennially threatened “ethnocracy”, whether the ethnicity itself is an invention or not. Many prominent Jews, among them the New York University historian Tony Judt, have called for a regime change in Israel. They want the state of Israel to compensate Palestinians for the injustice, stop the bloodshed, and guarantee everyone in the Holy Land equal rights.

While the election results make the Israeli society appear colonialist, the new spirit in Washington affirms the values of desegregation and equality. As the outgoing Prime Minister Olmert once warned, if a Palestinian state is not established, Israel would find it difficult to argue against the principle of  “one man – one vote”. Indeed, some people, believing that all men are created equal, suggest bringing forth a new Israeli-Palestinian nation, conceived in liberty and accepted by all. Israel may be obliged to give up its principle of separate development and become a modern democracy, which grants equal rights regardless of ethnicity and religion. It is to forestall this frightening change that the President of Israel must have taken up the pen.

Yakov M Rabkin

Sam Leibowitz

Yakov Rabkin is professor of history at the University of Montreal; his recent book is A Threat from Within: A Century of Jewish Opposition to Zionism (Palgrave Macmillan). Sam Leibowitz is an American-Israeli lawyer working in Washington, DC.

[MR1]rephrase – fred’s correction seems awkward

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Is a Liberal Democracy a Frightening Prospect for Israel?