Israel’s Arab problem, part two (Jerry Haber)

Readers: This is a long post, so here it is in a nutshell: I argue that in his recent book, Rabbi Dr. Daniel Gordis, Senior Vice President at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, implicitly endorses the involuntary expulsion of Israeli Arab citizens in the future as a way to solving what he calls “Israel’s conundrum”, i.e., what to do about its Arab citizens. I try to understand what leads Dr. Gordis, a well-known rabbi and author with whom I agree on many things, to this conclusion. I note that discussion of the “transfer” option, which once was considered taboo by Jews, has now gone mainstream. Dr. Gordis’s favorable discussion of “transfer” is in a book that won the 2009 National Jewish Book Award in the category of “Contemporary Jewish Life and Practice.”

In his book, Saving Israel: How the Jewish People Can Win A War That May Never End, Rabbi Dr. Daniel Gordis does not explicitly endorse “transfer” – the euphemism for the involuntary expulsion of Israeli Arab citizens – to resolve what he calls “Israel’s conundrum,” its “Arab problem”. But the tenor of his discussion clearly implies that he sees such expulsion as a very live, if painful, option – perhaps the only real option available.

Rabbi Gordis admits at the outset of that discussion that the “mere suggestion of ‘transfer'” immediately evokes the thought of Meir Kahane and Avigdor Lieberman, and that “on the surface there are almost innumerable reasons to denounce transfer as immoral or unfeasible.” (All bolded emphasis is mine, not his) But instead of providing a single reason to consider transfer immoral, he talks briefly about its unfeasibility, especially with respect to the difficulties that Israel would face in the international arena. “Forced population transfers are now considered an international crime by many authorities.” But the picture is not “nearly as one-sided as it is often portrayed.” Forced expulsion, though traumatic, “need not condemn you to poverty“. Moreover, “there are many cases of population transfer that have been conducted bloodlessly, and that have contributed to the creation of peace between formerly warring neighbors,” e. g. the transfer of population in Cyprus after the Turkish invasion of 1974. Moreover, what of the transfer of the Jews from Gaza and the contemplated transfer of the Jews from the West Bank? After all, “the Peel Commission thought that transfer of Jews and Arabs was the only workable solution. If one can contemplate the involuntary transfer of Jews, why is it illegitimate to discuss the involuntary transfer of Arabs?”

Indeed, Prof. Chaim Kaufmann, “writing in the MIT-sponsored journal International Studies, while not explicitly supporting transfer, suggests that at times, it can be the only way to settle a conflict” – and can be desirable if it is done to prevent a disaster like mass killings. (I will return to this misunderstanding of Kaufmann below.)

So what should Israel do to solve its “Arab conundrum”? Here, Rabbi Gordis opts to pull his punch. He does not explicitly call for “transfer,” but rather for a frank discussion of the problem “if for no reason than to bring into sharp focus the challenges that Israel faces, so that Israelis might finally confront head-on the kinds of choices that they will soon have to make.”

Therefore, despite the great pain, these potentially agonizing solutions to an undeniable problem have to be raised… Those who seek to restore purpose to Israeli life will have to decide how to preserve Israel’s Jewish majority. For it is that majority that enables Israel to serve as such a beacon of hope for Jews. That, in turn, invariably will entail more than rhetoric. It will require abandoning the pretense that Israel is just like other countries, the charade that claims that Israel can deal with its minorities precisely as other democracies do…If Israelis genuinely believe in that purpose, they will then have to be willing to discuss what they are actually willing to do to protect the existence of the state that has saved the Jewish people.

The way I read the above, that’s implicitly an endorsement of involuntary expulsion of a peaceful native population, especially since the only other way to ensure a Jewish majority explored by Rabbi Gordis is massive Jewish immigration, which ain’t gonna happen in the foreseeable future.

I won’t argue here with Rabbi Gordis on grounds of morality or feasibility; I doubt we share enough moral or political principles in common to make such an argument profitable. Instead, I will grant him, if only for the sake of argument, that the Jewish people require self-determination within the framework of a state to survive and thrive.

Given that assumption, I will examine what motivates Rabbi Gordis and others like him to entertain as a real possibility the involuntary transfer of 20 percent of Israel’s citizens.

At first glance, the motivation is obvious: in order to ensure a sizeable Jewish majority that in turn guarantees Jewish self-determination, the number of non-Jews must be kept to a manageable minimum. But even granted that proposition (and forgetting that the Partition Plan accepted by the Jewish Agency left a minority in the Jewish state of 40%), aren’t there other methods beside forced expulsion and massive aliyah to ensure that the Palestinian citizens will have little or no say in the lives of the Jewish majority? There are many examples from the nineteenth century before universal suffrage became the norm that can serve as precedents. Take away the vote from Arab Israelis, and, voilá, they disappear as a political force. Or, if disenfranchisement seems too radical a step, adopt a kind of district system in which Palestinian votes count for less than Jewish votes. Or, demand of Arab political parties a sort of loyalty oath to the Jewish character of the state that will ensure that there will be no anti-Zionist Arab political parties and that Arab Israelis will vote for Zionist parties.

To the accusation that these steps change drastically the democratic nature of the state, three replies may be given: first, Israel has unique needs, and its democratic system may also have to reflect that; second, Israel already is ruling over millions of Palestinians without their consent uand representation, and this is seen by many to be necessary for Israel’s security and well-being; third, and this is the answer that Rabbi Gordis advances elsewhere, democratic values must take a back seat to the need to preserve the Jewish character and purpose of the state. As he puts it, Israel is not, nor should it be, a Jewish America. So while no one believes that partial or complete disenfranchisement would be welcomed by Arab Israelis, surely they would prefer it to expulsion from their ancestral lands. Frankly, how much political power do they have even with the vote?

In fact, given Rabbi Gordis’s view that democracy takes a back place to the Jewish character of the state I am surprised that he requires a Jewish majority at all. I know that many Israelis are offended with the comparison with South Africa under apartheid, and they have a point; there is no Israeli analogue to the racist premises that underlay that system. But why not just reject the principle of majority rule as the White minority in South Africa did for many years? In short, there are a great many alternatives to expulsion if one wants to weaken the political power of the Arab Israeli citizens.

Yet weakening the political power of Israeli Arabs doesn’t really solve the “Arab conundrum”. After all, they constitute 20% of the population and their political power is virtually nil; if they constituted 30 percent  it would still be virtually nil. It is not merely the demographic issue. It is more that the Arab Israelis are increasingly becoming “radicalized” and hence they are not to be trusted, or, more accurately, they are trusted not to be loyal; if not dangerously disloyal now, then probably in the future. They are a potentially hostile element, some of whom want to destroy the Jewish character of the state. And since that is the raison d’être of the state, and since, as we assumed, the Jewish people’s survival depends on their being a Jewish state with this purpose, then those who think like these radicals need to be expelled.

But even this conclusion is not sufficient for Rabbi Gordis. Israel can jail those convicted of sedition, or for that matter, expel them. We have yet to come up with a sufficient reason to contemplate ridding Israel of all its Palestinian population (as humanely as possible, of course) through forced expulsion.

We will arrive at that missing premise once we consider the reasons why Israeli Arabs have decided to remain in the Jewish state, according to Rabbi Gordis: either they remain because life is better for them in Israel than in neighboring Arab countries, or because they wish to destroy the Jewish state from within. He understands and approves of the first motivation, but he is fearful of the second. He became fearful when, after the Second Lebanon War, less than half of the Arabs supported Israel against Hezbollah in a Haaretz poll, and then when Arab Israeli intellectuals published proposals for changing the political structure of the state. As he puts it, “Given their history and their families on the other side of the line, Israel’s Arabs are unlikely to become patriots.” Rather, Arab Israelis are potentially an existential threat to the Jewish state. Today, they do not constitute such a threat, but they may very well in the future.

What is particularly striking about the account (aside from its chilling similarity to ethnic exclusionary language used against Jews in nineteenth and twentieth century Europe) is the utter failure to understand why most Israeli Arabs refuse to leave Israel: Their motivation is crystal clear from their writings and their statements: This land, and this state, are their homes in three ways: As natives, it is their home in a way never can be for Rabbi Gordis and myself, who were born and lived much of our lives outside of Israel. As members of the Palestinian people, with the consciousness of having a common history and identity, this land is their homeland. And finally as Israeli citizens, it is most assuredly their homeland. For despite the best efforts of ethnic nationalists on both sides, there has evolved an Israeli identity shared by native-born Israelis, whether Jew, Arab, and immigrant children of foreign workers. With all due respect to Rabbi Gordis, neither he nor I can ever be as Israeli as Ahmed Tibi, Emile Habibi, or Azmi Bishara. We are immigrants; they are not. Because it is their home, they want, like ethnic minorities everywhere, to participate in the governance of the state. And the more Israel defines itself as a Jewish ethnic state, the greater and more legitimate their claim for national rights and power-sharing, like ethnic minorities in multi-ethnic societies everywhere.

Not a single one of the four Arab Israeli documents that Rabbi Gordis tendentiously and selectively examines in his book (for example, I couldn’t find the “damning” citation he prominently displays as the motto of chapter six in any of them) calls for the elimination of the Jewish majority or Jewish majority culture. All four documents assume as axiomatic that Arab Israelis will continue to be a minority in the state of Israel, and their various proposals clearly presuppose this. The proposal for the state of Israel to recognize the right of return for Palestinian refugees is thoroughly consistent with the Palestinian acceptance of minority status, just as Resolution 194 was thoroughly consistent with the 1947 Partition Plan calling for a Jewish state. Similarly, the proposal for the civil equality between the two national groups in one document is thoroughly consistent with the conception of Arab Israelis — in the very same document — as a “homeland minority.” What these documents call for is an end to the current extreme ethnic exclusivity that typifies Israel – and which, I will argue in subsequent posts, is entirely unnecessary for Israel to become a beacon of Jewish culture and a source of Jewish pride everywhere. And none of the proposals strikes at any of the distinctive Jewish cultural features of the Jewish state. Since when does the desire to modify the national anthem to make it more inclusive (by adding a verse?) becomes an existential threat to the Jewish people?

What better example of the deep sense of identification Israeli Arabs have with their state than the fact that they make proposals to make their state more inclusive.

In ethnic states with national ethnic minorities, granting a homeland minority national and civic equality is often considered a reasonable trade-off for the state’s support and promotion of the majority’s culture. In states that are not “thick” ethnic states, there may be a desire to dilute the presence of ethnicity in the public sphere and keep it in the realm of the private and the communal, e.g., the idea of the America as a melting pot. But Israel, as an exclusivist ethnic state, intends to have it both ways – to foster the ethnic identity of some of its citizens, and to discriminate in their favor, while attempting to suppress, or render harmless, the ethnic identity of the other.

There were Arabs who quietly supported Hezbollah? Weren’t there Jews in Europe who quietly supported their states’ enemies, when those states had oppressed and discriminated against them? Is there anything more natural than this? One wonders who American Jews would support if there were armed conflict between the US and Israel. And if many would support Israel, or support neither, is that cause for expelling the lot of them? Would keeping them destroy the fabric of American society, or the Christian character of much of it?

The “transfer” option that Rabbi Gordis wishes Israelis to discuss seriously has been thoroughly rejected by the decent peoples of the world. No court and no expert, certainly not Prof. Chaim Kaufmann, to whom he makes reference, would condone the unilateral and involuntary permanent transfer of citizens of the state, on the grounds that their ethnicity makes them suspect, or because they wish to peacefully change the structure of the state in order to advance their rights and claims. Kaufmann’s ideas about the permissibility of transfer of populations clearly assume that the decision is an international one that it is only made in order to prevent a continuing blood-bath, and chosen only when it is the lesser of evils. None of these conditions even remotely apply in the present situation, and I hope they don’t apply in the future (the prospect of a mass genocide of Israeli Arabs is not, thank God, on the horizon.)

Thirty years ago, it was Rabbi Meir Kahane that put the expulsion of Arabs on table to the shock of mainstream Jews and Israelis at the time, who were brought up with the Zionist myth that Palestinian Arabs had voluntarily left their homes during the 1948 war and hence had lost all rights to them Kahane’s ideas were rejected by many in Israel, partly because they came from the mouth of a fanatical orthodox rabbi, partly because he was an American (and partly because he was correctly perceived as a political threat to the Likud party.) Then came Rehavam Zeevi, the secularist Army veteran, who brought the concept of transfer more into the Israeli mainstream. With Saving Israel, we now have an American conservative rabbi, former Dean of the Ziegler Rabbinical School of the University of Judaism, and currently Senior Vice-President of the Shalem Center, a man with whom I share a somewhat similar background, and with whom I agree on many things, whose conception of the Jewish state leads him, almost inexorably, to the necessity of “transfer.” And what is the Jewish response to the book in America? A National Jewish Book Award.

Was Meir Kahane so far away from the mainstream, after all? Was he, as his supporters maintain today, simply ahead of his time? And will we soon hear the same arguments emanating not merely from neoconservative writers but from more liberal Zionist ones? After all, as Rabbi Gordis points out, the historian Benny Morris has complained that the Israelis in 1948 were not thorough enough in their ethnic cleansing, and Morris is considered by Israelis to be a liberal, even a left-winger. The fact that Israel over the last sixty years has suffered more from the Palestinians who were expelled than from those who remained means nothing to that historian. It is the very fact of their presence that disturbs folks like Morris, especially when they press for national equality and rights. Involuntary ethnic cleansing? Perhaps the logic of the sort of Zionism that was embodied in the State of Israel, and which has remained rigid and unmoving since, requires this, once an ethnic minority has acquired a political, national consciousness.

A final comment: When Rabbi Gordis considers the place of Israel Arabs in a Jewish state, he is reminded of his position as a young Jewish student in an Episcopalian prep school. All students including Jews were required to attend Morning Chapel, during which there was a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. As a proud Jew, he balked at bowing his head and saying the prayer, but he did not try to change the policy. He understood that it was a Christian school, that it wished to foster traditions, and that it would have been unreasonable to try to change them. He could always leave if he didn’t like them, which he eventually did. He thought the policy “eminently fair”. The moral is clear: If you are an Arab living in a Jewish state, you are encouraged to take advantage of its benefits. But don’t think you have any right to try to claim more rights than you have been given, or to lobby to change the system.

What Rabbi Gordis doesn’t write, and what he doesn’t know, perhaps, is that several years after he left the school, it eliminated the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer and the singing of hymns altogether – as a result, in part, of complaints from Jewish parents over the years. At first there was an attempt to replace the hymns that mention Christ’s name explicitly with ones that did not. But finally, all Christian prayers were dropped. Morning Chapel became Morning Assembly. No doubt some fine and meaningful traditions were lost, but the school still teaches classes in religion, still has a chaplain, and has retained much of its Episcopalian heritage.

How do I know this? You see, unless I mistaken,* I attended the very same Episcopalian school in Baltimore that Rabbi Gordis attended, albeit at an earlier date. Like Rabbi Gordis, I stood in silence when the school said the Lord’s Prayer (though hearing it every morning drove into my head); I sang the hymns, omitting Christ’s name. When I attended the school, Catholic students were exempted from the mandatory religion classes, during which period they received their own instruction; they had their own religious educational autonomy, as it were. Jewish students were not exempt, and much of what I know about the New Testament and Christianity I learned from those classes, which were not always pleasant for a proud “in-your-face” Jew like myself.

As a result of my experiences at the school, where I encountered both genteel and not so-genteel anti-Semitism from students and faculty, I resolved never to be as insensitive to the feelings and position of a minority as they had been of mine. Fortunately I made lifelong friends with some of my fellow students, who, as Christians, were genuinely pained by the insensitivity of the majority, and who later worked hard to make the school more inclusive, and to preserve what was true and good in its traditions. Like Rabbi Gordis, I, Bezalel Manekin, thought the policy of requiring students to attend Morning Chapel eminently fair, at the time. Unlike him, I understand now that when circumstances change, holding on to discriminatory practices can be eminently unfair.


*If I am mistaken, then at least the Episcopalian schools we attended were sufficiently alike for the point to remain.

This article was originally posted on The Magnes Zionist blog. It is reposted here with the author’s permission. Read Israel’s Arab Problem, part I here.