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The Israeli journalist and scholar Bernard Avishai said in Washington, D.C. at the J Street national convention earlier this month:

For most Israelis and American Jews, the “Jewish” part of the phrase “Jewish and democratic” implies many things, which don’t necessarily work together: a Jewish majority, political representation for world Jewry, the incorporation of Jewish law into civil affairs, an historical attachment to the land of Israel,…

Ask Israelis on the street and most will just default to the idea that a Jewish majority justifies privileges for Jews, individually as well as collectively, [and that] meant that the Jewish state would give privileges exclusively to individual citizens, legally designated as Jewish owing to rabbinic decree or J positive blood.

Jewish prerogatives and democratic rights for Israeli citizens (80% Jewish/20% other within the Green Line) raise confusion about the meaning of citizenship and nationality in Israel. Avishai continues:

…the Jewish state apparatus came to recognize two forms of legal status: citizenship and nationality. Israeli citizenship entitled you to civil privileges: equality before the law in courts of law, the right to vote, etc. Jewish nationality entitled you to exclusive material privileges, privileged access to state controlled lands, housing in Jewish settlements, optional state-sponsored orthodox education, [and] national service,… Jewish nationality [as defined by traditional Jewish law – halachah] also made you subject to the ministrations of a state-sponsored national-orthodox rabbinate overseeing marriage, burial, and divorce [and therefore identity].

In other words, you are a Jewish national if you were born of a Jewish mother or you converted to Judaism. This elevated status affords rights of citizenship to any Jew living anywhere in the world under Israel’s Law of Return (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Law_of_Return).

The Law of Return, however, does not apply to Arabs even if they once lived in Jerusalem, Jaffa, Ramle, Tiberias, or Haifa. Those who remained in Israel after the 1948 War of Independence were offered Israeli citizenship.

Having said this, Israel’s parliament understood its duty to assure equal rights to all its citizens, even as it sought to further Jewish national and Hebrew culture. Consequently, Hebrew and Arabic became the official languages of state transactions and government (now Arabic and English are taught in non-religious state schools) and the official religion of the Jewish state is Judaism.

My synagogue delegation met with several Members of the Knesset this month in Jerusalem, one of whom was MK Issawi Frej, the only Arab member of the six-member left-wing Zionist party Meretz. MK Frej professed his loyalty to the State of Israel, but acknowledged that Arab Israeli citizens are treated as second class citizens. Arab communities receive only a third of the money available to Israeli Jewish communities despite their paying their fair share of taxes.

The inequities are most apparent in the West Bank because those territories, taken by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War, have never been formally annexed or incorporated into the State of Israel. Indeed, it is those territories that are expected to be the basis of a Palestinian state.

In the meantime, the legal status of west bank Arabs is different than Israeli Arab citizens. West bank Arabs are subject to the Israeli Military Authority without the same democratic rights and protections enjoyed by Israeli Arab citizens living within Israel itself. Israeli confiscation of privately owned Palestinian land in the west bank is the most serious inequity. B’tzelem and Shalom Achshav, Israeli human rights organizations, estimate that fully one third of all land held by Jewish settlements in the west bank is built on Palestinian deeded land.

To add to the inequities in the law, Jewish settlers living in those same west bank territories enjoy all the benefits and privileges of Israeli citizenship.

Avishai put it well when he said:

A democratic state is, by definition, a state of its citizens… Israel must … stop discriminating against, or in favor, of individual citizens on the basis of religion or biology. It must graduate from the Law of Return to a proper immigration law based on naturalization; it must separate the rabbinate from the state apparatus; it must end public support for confessional schools …; it must privatize land and stop including exclusively Jewish institutions like the JNF in long term state planning.

…this does not mean a state of its citizens cannot have a Jewish character. It can protect the “Hebrew national atmosphere.” It can also have holidays and symbols that accommodate what most citizens will celebrate.

An important argument supporting a two-state agreement is that Israel would cease as an occupier of a hostile Arab population not governed by democratic principles and protections. Israel also would be able to correct legal and economic inequities relative to the Jewish and non-Jewish populations of the state thus advancing the principles of Israel’s Declaration of Independence as both a state of the Jewish people and a democracy for all her citizens.

More to come…