Israeli MKs impotent in the face of racism

The Knesset Lobby for Civil Egalitarianism and Pluralism, founded just over half a year ago, held an emergency session open to the public last Tuesday to address the letter signed by hundreds of rabbis in Israel banning the sale or rental of property in Israel to non-Jews. A variety of MKs, professors, rabbis and community leaders convened in an oval-shaped conference room at the far end of the Knesset compound, where they took turns making statements.

MK Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz), who co-chairs the Lobby with MK Shlomo Molla (Kadima), opened by stating that there is no contradiction between Israel being Jewish and democratic, and that it is in fact the signatories on the letter who are creating the contradiction. He closed by reiterating the phrase made popular by protestors in Sheikh Jarrah: “Stop the racism; fascism will not pass.” MK Molla and others followed by pointing out the letter should not come as a surprise to anyone as it is just one expression of a whole string of events indicative of the deterioration of democracy and human rights in Israel in recent years. MK Nachman Shai (Kadima) said that the public outcry has been relatively tame, implying this could stem from the fact that the rabbis’ letter may reflect the will of the majority. Professor Mordechai Kremnizer quoted Primo Levi; former world Hillel president and longtime Jewish Zionist educator Avraham Infeld confessed that since emigrating from South Africa, he never associated Israel with apartheid – but that has now changed; and MK Avishay Braverman (Labor) declared emphatically that this is Israel’s most crucial struggle, the struggle over its very soul.

The mood was clearly one of outrage, disbelief and urgency, however it was also apparent that the MKs in the room felt helpless and impotent – and maybe had not thought things through all the way. Nearly all of them stated the same two central points defiantly: there is no contradiction between Israel being Jewish and democratic, and that legal action must be taken against these rabbis. However no one explained what it actually means for Israel to be Jewish and democratic, and the impression was that the MK’s only chance at legal action rested on the whims of Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein. (Meanwhile the Justice Minister has not even commented on the matter.)

How is it that a room full of politicians so vehemently against what they all agree is another in a series of unacceptable racist acts, are incapable of taking swift and effective legal action? The answer can be found in something that MK Masoud Ghanayem (Raam-Taal) said, in fact the only one in the room who dared to say it: That experience has shown that when issues such as these come up, the “Jewish” concerns almost always trump the democratic ones, and that no one should therefore be surprised that racist elements exist and are on the rise in Israeli society. Indeed just this week, a group of about 200 hundred Israelis gathered in Bat Yam demanding it be cleansed of Arabs, and local town councils throughout Israel continue to enact “Zionist bylaws” that effectively bar Palestinian citizens from joining these communities.

Jewish and Democratic: What does it mean?

While nearly every Jewish citizen of Israel, whether left or right, poor or rich, believes Israel must remain Jewish and democratic, no one can explain what exactly this means and no party or movement in Israel has been able to provide a sufficient response, not even the joint Arab-Jewish ones. Most assert that a two-state solution of some sort will guarantee Jewish demographic majority within defined territory, but that still does not account for the 20% non-Jewish citizens of Israel and the growing number of migrant workers. Writers have compared Israel to other ethnocratic regimes and offered various models for granting national minority rights, but this too, is insufficient, since it does not account for how Israel can build a cohesive democracy that simultaneously privileges Jews and treats non-Jews equally, when they are, by definition, anathema to Jewish national identity.

Even if we put aside, for a moment, our conflict with the Palestinians and the issue of minority rights, there is still a problem with defining ourselves as Jewish and democratic that we have yet to address. What makes Israel Jewish? The Hebrew language, the fact that the transport is largely curtailed on the Sabbath, the fact that we claim ownership over the Holocaust, Einstein and Kafka? And what is Judaism? A religion (what stream?), a people, a nation, a culture (Ashkenazi or Sephardi)? These issues are all important and valid and also highly subjective. But how does this translate into modern, functioning state practices? And should we really be in the business of nationalizing and legislating something so complex, personal and dynamic?

One of the most beautiful aspects of Jewish history and identity is how diverse, rich and hard to define it is. Zionism, and its manifestation in the State of Israel, tried to put a cap on that definition and put an end to antisemitism, to the diaspora and to the “problem” of Jewish existence in modernity. However it has not been able to do away with any of these things, despite its authoritative status. Rather, it has only conjured up new questions, and in the process, has also created a monstrous religious-nationalist-racist stream in Israel that seems to be taking over the country. As Arthur Hertzberg once wrote:

The assumption that we are in the midst of an ‘end of days,’ of a final resolution of the tension between the Jew and the world, is as yet unprovable. To date, even after the creation of the state of Israel, Zionism has neither failed nor succeeded. (The Zionist Idea. New York: Atheneum, 1969, 17)

Towards the end of the hearing, MK Daniel Ben Simon (Labor) stated that there is a trend in Israel heading straight for theocracy – and it is not tacit but out in the open. What should be a marginalized element in society is becoming the mainstream, and this is because it is fully backed by the government.

When there is no formal separation between religion and state, and when the only document resembling a constitution (the Basic Laws) calls for the maintenance of Israel as Jewish and democratic (without explaining what this means and thus leaving a huge legal interpretive vacuum), it is no surprise that the MK’s are keeping their fingers crossed that someone, anyone, will be held accountable for blatant discrimination and racism.