Opinion

Israel's bigger battle ahead: its national identity

Can the Jewish homeland democracy fully include Arabs?

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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.

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.

For Israel to be at peace with its neighbors, it must first be at peace with itself. It's a hefty, and long delayed, process, but here are three objectives Israeli leaders and voters should work toward in building Israeli identity.

1. Required national service for all may be the lowest-hanging fruit. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported last year that Arab enlistment in the army reached an all-time high (still only in the hundreds), and the Knesset, Israel's parliament, is considering making civil service compulsory for Arabs as it has been for Jews.

No one should expect any substantial number of Israeli Arabs to join an army that is sometimes called upon to fight their families in the occupied territories and neighboring countries. However, serving one's own community in Israel through civil service makes sense. In a country that puts a premium on service and self-sacrifice, Arabs would have a better leg to stand on when demanding equal treatment.

2. One education system for all is essential. Today, three groups of citizens attend three kinds of schools that deliver three kinds of curriculum.

The majority secular Jews enroll in public schools, similar to any other Western country. Religious Jews can study in publicly funded religious schools. Largely underserved Arabs attend schools taught in Arabic and framed by Arab history.

How does a society forge an identity from children who grow up with different understandings of their country? How do citizens learn to live together when they are raised in a segregated environment?

3. The lack of a constitution is the most glaring deficiency of Israel's democracy. Instead, it gets by on a collection of basic laws that enjoy semiconstitutional status.

Israel must ratify a constitution that enshrines equal rights and protections for all citizens; recognizes Israeli Arabs as the collective, indigenous minority that they are; separates religion from state but still preserves the Jewish character of the country (in the same way England is officially Christian, but the Jewish minority has no trouble living there).

A constitution is more than a set of laws. It is the ultimate symbol of national unity: one document from which all citizens will be judged equally and fairly. No one is above it or forgotten by it.

Dealing with Israeli identity – or the lack of one – could in itself tear the country apart, and it's why no Israeli leader has seriously gone down that path. Attacking external extremists has always been preferable to confronting its own citizens.

Yet securing Israeli nationhood is essential if it is to speak in one voice with a nation of Palestinians and save itself from either being swallowed by the regional majority or taking drastic and immoral measures to prevent that from happening.

Bill Glucroft is a writer and digital journalist. He worked for an Israeli Arab advocacy organization in Haifa and blogs at www.mediabard.org , where a more detailed analysis about Israeli identity is available.

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