Israel’s identity crisis


From 1948 on, the Arabs still living in Israel -- those who didn’t flee or weren’t driven out when the state was established -- were allowed to become citizens. They could vote in free elections, criticize the government and run for public office, privileges denied to many of their Arab brethren elsewhere in the region. An Arab was elected to the first Knesset in 1949, and today there are 12 serving in the 120-member body.

But don’t conclude that life for Arabs in Israel has been easy. They’ve been second-class citizens from the start -- a bit like African Americans before the civil rights movement. Today, 20% of Israel’s citizens are Arab (about 1.3 million people), but their roads generally aren’t paved as fast as those in Jewish neighborhoods, and their schools and healthcare institutions don’t get equal funding. Worse, they’ve faced impediments to their ability to buy property and limitations on where they can live. Not surprisingly, the number of Arabs living in poverty is triple that of Jews.

This is deplorable, of course. Yet the news of recent weeks suggests that the situation may be moving backward rather than forward.


First, there was a vote by Israel’s Central Elections Committee in January to disqualify the two biggest Arab parties from this week’s elections because of their alleged support for terrorism and refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Fortunately, that decision was overturned by the Israeli Supreme Court.

Then, Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party, campaigned on a platform of “no loyalty, no citizenship,” arguing that Arabs in Israel should be required to sign loyalty oaths and accept its flag and national anthem. If they refused, he said, they should be stripped of their citizenship. Lieberman also wants to transfer Israel’s Arabs into the jurisdiction of a future Palestinian state, and has proposed the death penalty for Arab politicians who talk with Hamas. In Tuesday’s election, Yisrael Beiteinu became the third-largest party in the Knesset and a likely member of the next governing coalition.

These developments present very basic and very obvious civil rights concerns. But they also raise a deeper, fundamental question that Israelis generally prefer to avoid: Is it possible to be both a Jewish state and a democratic state? Or, put another way: Can a nation founded as a Jewish homeland -- with a “right of return” for diaspora Jews but no one else, a Star of David on the flag and a national anthem that evokes the “yearning” of Jews for Zion -- ever treat non-Jews as true, equal citizens?

Israel has tried to balance these conflicting ideas since the state was created. Its Declaration of Statehood, issued on May 14, 1948, asserted the “right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate ... in their own sovereign state,” while also promising “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.” But today, although Israel has a vibrant democracy in many ways, that tension remains, especially as the Arab population grows faster than the Jewish population. What would happen to the Jewish state, Israeli leaders worry, if Arabs outnumbered Jews?

These are complicated questions that go to the heart of Israel’s very identity, and we don’t pretend to have all the answers. Nor are we naive: We realize that Arabs in Israel are growing more radical, more identified with the Palestinian national movement, and that many are more sympathetic to Hamas than in the past. But weakening the country’s democracy is not the solution. A better approach, we believe, would be fewer restrictions, more equality and the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, which would ease the pressure between Jews and Arabs everywhere.

No one ever said democracy was easy, especially not for a country facing existential challenges and internal disaffection, but history suggests that Israel may be moving in an unhelpful direction. The United States was wrong in 1940 when, fearing left-wing subversion, it declared it a crime to advocate the overthrow of the government. And it was wrong again when, fearing a fifth column in its midst, it interned American citizens of Japanese descent during World War II. Israel should expand, not rescind, the basic democratic rights of its Arab minority if it wants to ensure loyalty and good citizenship.