Comparing democracies

Comparing democracies

Israel is regularly called upon to come to terms with Palestinians in the west bank and Gaza. If and when this is achieved, Israel will face a much harder problem: coming to terms with Palestinians in Israel, aka Israeli Arabs, aka Arab citizens of Israel.

How ought Jewish Israelis to perceive the Arab minority in Israel: as a welcome component of Israeli life, or as a fifth column, with loyalties antithetical to Israel’s existence as a Jewish democratic state?

In practice, the State of Israel has not made up its mind in this area. Though the rights of Arab citizens are protected fully by law, the court system is clogged with cases having to do with how government funding discriminates against Arab Israelis. And in practice, too, Jewish Israelis have not made up their minds on this either. Most Jewish Israelis accept the Arab minority as a fact of life without necessarily embracing Israeli Arabs as a welcome segment of Israel’s population.

I would like now to make an unusual comparison. I want to compare Israel’s commitment to democracy for its Arab minority with America’s commitment to the separation of church and state. I had the good fortune of studying the latter topic at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology with Dr. E. Brooks Holifield, the (now emeritus) Charles Howard Candler Professor of American Church. Before then, like most Americans, I had imagined that America always was dedicated to the separation of church and state. This was only partially the case in the period leading up to the founding of the American Republic. While it is true that some religious groups, such as the Baptists and the Quakers, objected in principle to an establishment of religion, the Congregationalists and the Anglicans each tried to establish their own denomination of Christianity in the states where they were the majority. (For the Congregationalists, that was Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire; the Anglicans tried to claim Georgia, Maryland, South Carolina, and Virginia.) There was a catch, however. If, for example, Anglicans made Anglicanism the state religion in Georgia and discriminated against non-Anglicans, they could expect their fellow Anglicans in Connecticut to be discriminated against when Connecticut made Congregationalism its own state religion. And so it was out of a kind of stalemate, not out of some lofty notions of religious freedom, that America grew to embrace the separation of church and state.

It is particularly instructive now to come back to Israel’s situation. Unlike America’s 18th-century leaders, who grudgingly authorized freedom of religion, Israel’s Jewish majority voluntarily granted its Arab minority full legal rights. That was despite the fact that Jews were always treated as second-class citizens in neighboring Arab countries, despite the fact that these Jews were “encouraged” to emigrate after the founding of Israel, and despite the fact that Israel’s Palestinian minority is part of the same people with whom Israel is in serious conflict. That Israel nevertheless proclaims in its Declaration of Independence the “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex” has to be seen as nothing short of heroic.

But you will say that Israel hasn’t sufficiently lived up to its Declaration of Independence. Just give us some more time. In political and cultural comparisons between American and European countries the fact of America’s “youth” sometimes comes up as a reason for difference. If America is young, Israel is a baby. We still are struggling with our growing pains.

(Endnote: Twenty-eight years later, I am still learning from Professor Brooks Holifield. It is with great pleasure that I hereby acknowledge his review of this column.)