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Opinion

Israel's bigger battle ahead: its national identity

Can the Jewish homeland democracy fully include Arabs?

By Bill Glucroft / January 22, 2009



Fairfield, Conn.

The war, for now, is over. Israel, eager to strike back against thousands of frightening, but largely ineffective, rockets, and apparently sensitive to the blunders made against Hezbollah in 2006, may have very well "won." Ultimately, however, Israel loses by focusing, once more, on external threats rather than internal failures.

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Such failures have gone largely unaddressed for decades and are sending Israel to a tipping point that will prove more dangerous to its existence than any threat Hamas, Hezbollah, or even Iran could ever pose.

If a viable Palestinian state does not come to pass in the near future, most agree a single, binational state will emerge. However, Israel already is, if merely in de facto form, just that. One-fifth of Israel's population – 1.4 million citizens and growing – is Palestinian-Arab. They are descendants of 160,000 Arabs, who did not become refugees in 1948-49 and then who had citizenship thrust upon them in the new, Jewish state – unlike some 800,000 others who fled.

Democracy means universal suffrage, an independent judiciary, and a culture that values expression. Israel has that. Democracy, at least in America, Canada, and Europe, also means that citizenship and nationality are one in the same. That's not the case in Israel.

Israel's democracy is ethnic. To be a part of the collective, a citizen must be part of the Jewish nation, something civil law can't afford to those of the Arab nation, even though they are, ostensibly, equal citizens. Israel, as Yoav Peled, a leading thinker on Jewish-Arab relations, has written, is ruled by Jewish ethnos, not Israeli demos. The result: There is no such thing as an Israeli nation.

Israel lacks an identity that transcends subnational units of ethnicity and religion, which can unify all citizens as equal members of a shared state with a shared destiny reached through common goals.

The fractured nature of Israeli society goes beyond the disagreement and debate inherent to a healthy democracy, instead prompting the question of whether Israel's 7.1 million citizens – Jewish and Arab – actually want to be "Israeli."

Normally, a country's internal instabilities are its own business. In Israel's case, however, huge decisions demanding national consensus are looming that will affect the future composition of Israel, peace in the region, and security around the world. In question is not only the relationship between Israel's Jews and Arabs, but also between religious and secular, Sabra (native-born Jew) and immigrant, and the immigrant communities themselves.

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