On May 15, 1948, just hours before Shabbat was to begin, the State of Israel was reborn, renewing sovereignty for the Jewish people in their homeland.
Preceded by months of irregular fighting and set on the eve of an invasion, the Jews of British Mandate Palestine waited for answers as history was about to unfold. Would there be war? Would the world recognize the state? People did not even know what the country would be called until David Ben-Gurion announced the establishment of the State of Israel by means of a remarkable Declaration of Independence.
Grounded in the historical relationship between the people of Israel and the land, recalling the traumas of exile and the Holocaust, and emphasizing the renewal of Jewish settlement and the building of a new physical and social infrastructure, the declaration called into being the third Jewish commonwealth, in the land of Israel, and announced that it was to be called the State of Israel. With all the many questions that surrounded the announcement, it was never in doubt that this new democratic government would lead a country dedicated to freedom, justice, and full civil rights for all its citizens:
“The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”
These concepts, as found in the declaration, are the essentials for modern nation states dedicated to civil society. Nation states are vehicles for the security and self- actualization of the nation. All nation states contain within them ethnic and religious minorities, but states nurturing civil society serve all citizens equally before the law. While the state retains its national character through the national majority, civil nation states manage relationships within the nation state framework by assuring civil rights to all citizens. The state and its government continue to serve the needs of the nation and the needs of citizens generally through the interplay between government and civil society, finding direction and fulfilling national need while preserving essential security and continuity through universal civil rights. All citizens are protected as a matter of principle, as an integral part of the state in its operation for the nation.
Jews in the diaspora understand profoundly the importance of these arrangements. It was of special poignancy for the pioneers who came to settle the land, where Jews would no longer be a minority, that they set forward these principles as cornerstones for the Jewish state and its relationship with all its residents, even under the duress of war.
These principles of a socially just democracy now are being challenged within Israel. It is no accident that the source of that challenge comes from those whose dream is to expand the Jewish state, to push formal borders to include the “Greater Land of Israel,” an effort that will change the demographic make-up to create a state where the majority of the population no longer will be Jews.
Pending Israeli legislation lays down the groundwork to deny civil rights to select elements of society. These laws serve as an expedient to preserve control within a state already conceived as lacking a Jewish majority. There is a bill to eliminate Arabic as a legal language in Israel. There is a bill that proclaims that “when there is a conflict between democratic law and Jewish law, Jewish law will prevail.”
The loss of civil rights protects no one. In abandoning the framework of democracy, the erosion of civil liberties will not end with the non-Jewish segment but will ultimately be imposed by Jews on Jews. And in vain, because this expedient will not solve the fundamental problems of a minority ruling over a majority.
Israel’s Jewish character emerges from its population. The Jewish state’s ability to serve the nation rests profoundly on its democratic character. The founders understood this, and their vision is enshrined in their declaration, framing a state and civil society for all its residents. For its Jewish character, the Jewish state rested upon the territorial concentration of a Jewish majority. The deviation from the path set by the founders imperils the entire project.
A nation state without a significant national majority, preserved by anti-democratic expedients, will neither serve the nation nor its citizens. Fundamentally, it is not viable.
Mark Gold of Teaneck holds a Ph.D. in Economics from NYU. He serves on the executive board of Partners for Progressive Israel, a member organization of the American Zionist Movement and an affiliate of the World Union of Meretz.