Israel, the Nation State of the Jewish People?

Simon Rabinovitch and Ruth Calderon discuss identity, equality, and the Jewish nation-state bill

Ruth Calderon at Boston University. Photo by Lauren Andrea-Lucia Hobler

Between December 2014 and October 2015 Marginalia ran the “Defining Israel” forum featuring documents and essays on Israel’s parliamentary struggle over the question of whether or not to pass a law defining Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. In addition to English translations of all versions of the nation-state bill submitted to Israel’s Knesset, Marginalia also published the report issued by Professor Ruth Gavison to the then Minister of Justice, Tzipi Livni, and commentary by a dozen scholars and politicians. The complete forum with new contributions will be published by Hebrew Union College/University of Pittsburgh Press, as a volume entitled Defining Israel: Sources and Reflections on the Nation-State Law.

The last fight in Israel’s parliament over whether to clarify Israel’s identity in a basic law—Israel’s version of a law with constitutional standing—resulted in the dissolution of the governing coalition and new elections leading to the current, twentieth Knesset. Now the question of a Jewish nation-state bill, or khok ha-le’om in Hebrew, is once again before the Knesset. The latest version of the bill passed the Ministerial Committee for Legislation and will in the coming months be revised and read and re-read on the Knesset floor. The acting head of the Committee is Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, who was also the sponsor of earlier versions of the bill that failed to be enacted as law. In addition to Levin, the primary backers of the current bill are, as was the case earlier, Member of Knesset Avraham Dichter and current Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked.

The version of the nation-state law now under consideration comes after the failure of several efforts in the previous Knesset to reach a compromise bill that would be acceptable to both the more right-wing Likud and Jewish Home parties and their more centrist coalition partners at the time, Zionist Union and Yesh Atid. Then Justice Minister Tzipi Livni supported one possibility (discussed in my interview with Livni), and Member of Knesset Benny Begin another (explained in his essay for Marginalia). Yet another option on the table was a proposal by Yesh Atid, Member of Knesset Ruth Calderon, to enshrine Israel’s Declaration of Independence as a basic law. Calderon worked for about nine months on a committee with Levin and Shaked to reach a compromise but ultimately, in her telling, Shaked was willing to back a bill guaranteeing complete equality for all citizens, and Yariv Levin and Avraham Dichter were not. In the end, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attempted to advance the bill, it was opposition among coalition partners Zionist Union and Yesh Atid that split the coalition (though there were other disputes too, in particular over the budget). Now Levin, Dichter, Netanyahu, and Shaked look as though they will be blocked again by opposition from within their coalition, though this time from the religious United Torah Judaism party.

Calderon was in Boston in the spring and we had the opportunity to discuss her efforts to pass a nation-state law with the Declaration of Independence at its center. Calderon has a doctorate in Talmud from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and is the founder of two influential institutions: Elul, Israel’s first egalitarian and pluralistic beit midrash (house of study), and Alma, an educational center in Tel Aviv devoted to bridging secular and religious Hebrew culture. Calderon was elected to the Knesset in 2013 as a member of the Yesh Atid party, and in her maiden Knesset speech, to press home the point of the value of religious culture in the secular state, she read from the Talmud, called for the creation of a new Hebrew culture, and ended with a prayer. Though secular and vehemently opposed to the political power of the religious in Israel, Calderon nonetheless believes strongly in the cultural and national necessity of religion in the public sphere. Calderon stressed to me the need to humanize and seek to understand the fears of Israel’s more nationalist right-wing (though notably not its Palestinian citizens), and particularly regarding the bill’s architect, Yariv Levin, his intentions as a “real democrat” who “believes in democracy.”

My conversation with Calderon surprised me in highlighting the rather attenuated or conflicted understanding of democracy among what we might call Israel’s centrist liberal democrats. She is both committed to democracy and equality for all of Israel’s citizens, and yet clearly uncomfortable with the idea that the benefits of democracy and equality must extend to individuals and groups who oppose the state in its current form. Many of her comments stressed a distinction between “we” (secular and national-religious Israelis) and “them” (Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox, known as Haredim). As a current fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute, Calderon has been lecturing in Israel and the United States about “religious pluralism in Israel,” but it is worth nothing that when Calderon speaks about religious pluralism she is speaking expressly about Jewish religious pluralism. She is an unapologetic believer in Jewish nationalism and the Jewish nation state, both of which see believes must have Judaism front and center, but sees a commitment to democracy and equality as necessities for any basic law defining the identity of the state. We discussed her work in the Knesset, the identity of the state, and what it means for Israel to be Jewish and democratic. Below are selections from that conversation.

Simon Rabinovitch: What was your experience like trying to come up with a ‘compromise version’ of the nation-state law?

Ruth Calderon: First of all, I think it’s the one most important set of challenges in Israeli legislation today; the question of what is the identity of the state, and what are the values; [the problem of] a constitution, or the lack of a constitution. So I started working on it when the Likud wrote up that bill to the Knesset and I came to my colleagues at Yesh Atid and to Yair [Lapid] and I said this is terrible.

SR: The Netanyahu version?

RC: Netanyahu didn’t really have a version. He kind of adopted pieces [of earlier drafts] and when he adopted pieces of it then Yair adopted mine and then the coalition fell apart…. So there was a bill that suggested Arabic would not be an official language and that really worried me. So Yair said come up with something better and I worked with [Israeli philosopher and legal scholar] Moshe Halbertal and we came up with the Declaration of Independence as a basic law, but it wasn’t adopted even by Yesh Atid.

SR: So the party faction did not adopt it?

RC: At that point the party did not adopt it. Some people in the party thought it is better not to even raise the issue. Things that are not written cannot… well, better not to have a conversation about nationality.

SR: This is the Haredi position basically.

RC: The Haredi position, I think, is not wanting to have a sentence “complete equality to all citizens” because they benefit from the fact that there’s no equality. But the Yesh Atid people on the left have the opposite concept, and they thought they don’t even want to write a national law because they want Israel to be more belonging to all citizens or something like that. And I thought if you leave the platform only to [the right-wing], it will always be worse than wording it yourself. And I thought, because there’s no agreement, if we go back to a place where we all agreed, in the Declaration of Independence, we might have a majority. And so then, there was [Avraham] Dichter and me, and then I came up to Yariv Levin and Ayelet Shaked and I said to them let’s try and draft some compromise together. And we met many times, with Moshe Halbertal, and they brought a few lawyers and people that are involved. And Ayelet and I kind of reached an agreement, but Yariv said he’s not willing to have the word equality in there.

SR: In the first phrase?

RC: Anywhere.

SR: Anywhere.

RC: Complete equality, and then Ayelet also withdrew.

SR: This is Yariv Levin, the “real democrat” you’re talking about? [In an earlier conversation Calderon had said to me “Yariv is a democrat; Yariv believes in democracy.”]

RC: He is a serious man.

SR: Serious and democratic are two different things.

RC: He’s democratic. It’s not so shallow, it’s not so simplistic. You know we’re so used to having the good guys on one hand, and the ‘creatures’ on the other hand. It’s not like that. He’s a serious man, he’s an academic, he’s the son of a professor of history, he’s a colleague.

SR: I’m not debating his seriousness.

RC: He says that complete equality to them [Arabs], in the demography of Israel, if they have complete national standing like we do, if they have the national rights like we do, they will have the state. It’s a fair seeing of facts.

SR: Why?

RC: Because if in this country you would give Native Americans complete rights, they should have the state not you. They will want a different national anthem, they will want to have a different…

SR: But as an example, they do have national rights, they do independently have sovereignty.

RC: Well, after you killed most of them.

SR: I’m not sure I understand the argument.

RC: 20% of the Israelis are Palestinians. They want a different national anthem, they want a different flag, they want a different army, and they want a different politics. If they will have it in the same state, they could not recognize Israel as their state. They want to have a different state.

Yariv [Levin] was afraid of the Declaration of Independence and he said in ‘48 when you say complete equality and all of that, you don’t have yet such a strong movement of Palestinians that don’t want to be citizens of our country and want to build here a different country. At that time it was complete equality to all of the people that stayed here, and we are reaching out for peace to all of the countries around, and there were Arab villages but we told them you will get complete equality as our citizens—I’m trying to be Levin’s advocate—but now that they don’t want to be our citizens, they don’t want to serve in our army, they don’t want to be loyal to this country, if you give them the same complete national rights, you have to pay for a different national anthem, for a different country, that you as a country, as a state, will pay for. Because when you have equal rights to express your national identity, what I think initially they meant was you can celebrate your holidays, you can have your culture and all of that. But what the Palestinian Knesset Members say is that we want our national identity to be “here will not be a Jewish state.” And Yariv Levin is more worried about that. I think, ok, that’s the case, but there’s no other way but complete equality for our citizens because this is a democracy. So, it’s not that I couldn’t see what worries him, but we couldn’t reach an agreement. Without equality, not only the Arabs will not have equality, secular citizens will not have equality. And Ayelet, she said ok, equality. But he [Levin] was raised in a very right-wing [environment]. It was fascinating to hear their fears, something we don’t usually respect. We don’t give time to hearing the fear, and then there’s no way to communicate. People come from their worries more than they come from their ideologies.

SR: I would say that not all fears are rational.

RC: Of course, but before you say they’re not rational you have to make space to hear them. And in Israel, it’s not like something that is coming out of the sky. Yariv was, at that point, the head of the coalition, and the way Hanin Zoabi and the other Arab Members of Knesset spoke then was very close to what he’s talking about. I’m just believing that they’re not all the Arab population. They say this is not going to stay your state, it’s a state of all citizens, and we don’t want all of your Jewish stuff; it shouldn’t be. That’s why Dichter wanted a national law, because the question of “what is the identity of the state” is still a question on the table.

SR: This is Begin’s argument for getting it in writing as well.

RC: Me too, I wanted to be clear that it is a Jewish homeland, but as a Jewish homeland it must be democratic.

SR: So Ayelet Shaked simply withdrew support or did the effort to compromise end—what was the mechanics?

RC: It was one night: she said ok we can make a deal, the next day Yariv spoke to her and she said I can’t. Some people even in my party said it can’t be a basic law; they were afraid that it will somehow lock. And I said ok, it might be the preface of a constitution—the Declaration will be the beginning for a constitution. And even for that they wouldn’t accept it.

Amnon Rubinstein [who is an Israeli legal scholar] and Benny Begin are two logical voices that I identify with, but unfortunately we don’t have a majority. And that was a shocking understanding for me. That in the Zionist parties there’s no majority for the Declaration of Independence, or for the word equality which is such a simple word. Again, if there would be equality, there would be freedom of religion, which we don’t have. Because there’s no equality between my ability to celebrate my Jewish life and that of an Orthodox person. The Haredim are worried about that.

SR: There are implications for everybody. The Haredim, I think, are also worried about the idea of fixing the identity of Judaism along national lines. To do so is essentially an acceptance of the Zionist principle that being Jewish is a nationality.

RC: But they have no problem being paid living on the national state. We are, as a state, supporting a whole community that works against the state. But you’re right.

SR: But that is the nature of democracy—democracies are states for all their citizens whether or not certain citizens agree with the principles of the state.

RC: But here it’s a national state that supports and gives priorities to people who think it’s not a nation state. But ok. People on the left didn’t want the bill—I don’t know why—because they didn’t want me to say that it’s Jewish maybe. So then things became hectic [within the coalition], and it was around the question of the khok ha-le’om [that the coalition began to dissolve], but you never know if it’s really about it or not. And then [Benjamin] Netanyahu said the Dichter law is really too severe, and he came up with another law that didn’t have equality in it.

SR: And Netanyahu proposed this at a cabinet meeting [November 23, 2014].

RC: Yes, and then Yair Lapid took my law and proposed it as an alternative. So then there was Bibi’s which was better than Dichter’s but with no equality, and there was Yair’s, and then they broke.

Maybe the reason is more cynical than my understanding, but I thought that’s the reason the coalition was dissolved. Because the question of the identity of the state is a huge one. You know there’s no equality also in land. Arab people and Druze can’t build on land, and that’s not fair and not equal. Education, in culture, and all of that; it’s a big issue. And a lot of fear is working in the process. It’s very difficult to give complete equality to people who tell you they hate you and they don’t accept you. It’s much easier to give equality when you know they’re loyal citizens.

SR: This is exactly the argument that was made against Jewish emancipation and civil equality for the Jews in Europe.

RC: I don’t think it’s exact, because Jews in Europe never had [conducted] terrorist attacks in this amount. Bombs every week. Stabbings every week. They never had politicians speak in parliament against the state. Jews were very marginal and very polite.

SR: There was a different basis for opposition to Jewish emancipation—it was theological, it was about the perceived hostility to Christianity—but from the perspective of those who opposed Jewish civil equality in the European states in the 18th and 19th centuries it was exactly this argument; how do we give equality to those who hate us?

RC: You are a professor of history, and I think we have to be very careful here. Jews in Europe never had national intentions to take over Germany, so that Germany will not be a German state and it will be a Jewish state. When my mom was living in Germany, they [the Jews] wanted to be Germans. They were wishing to be Germans!

SR: When your mother was living in Germany this was after 100 years in which they’d had civil equality, but much earlier they’d had a debate.

RC: When my father lived in Bulgaria or my grandparents lived in Galicia they didn’t have civil equality, they never wished to be…

SR: Well in Galicia, certainly in Austrian Galicia, they had civil equality, but…

RC: But they didn’t want to build a Jewish state in Galicia. And the Arab politicians who are, again, drawing their strength and their budget from the state, they say that we don’t want this state, we want to change the state to be a state of our nationality.

SR: Of “our” nationality or of all nationalities?

RC: No, of their nationality. They want it to be an Arab state. Jamal Zahalka who was teaching in Alma and is a friend of mine, and of course Hanin Zoabi. I had a lot of meetings with her, we became friendly, we had coffee in her office and my office and we became friends, she said this is my land, you are visitors here, and it’s a matter of time, and this is not going to be a Jewish state.

I think that you have to be very delicate when you sit here in Boston and you look at it, it’s so easy to be judgmental black and white. It’s not so simplistic. It’s been sixty-eight years of war, and there’s daily terrorism. My son wants to take vacation in Sinai and Da‘esh is there. It’s your daily worries. It’s not something philosophical about religion. Like Egyptians, “they will rise against us” [a reference to Exodus 1:10]. There is a difference between the [biblical] Egyptians saying “the Jews might take over Egypt” and going to the next step of persecution of the Jews. I don’t think that exists in Israel. I don’t think people want to throw the babies of the Arabs to the Nile [a reference to Exodus 1:22]. But they worry when people tell you we want to take away your homeland and make it our homeland. It’s like when you date someone and he says “I’m a terrible man” – you better believe him.

Again, I will fight for democracy and equality. But I want your project to give a fair and serious thought to the ones that are afraid. That listen to the Arabs with a more worried ear.

I want to say that I think the Arab politicians are more extreme than the Arab population, and I think that when one has equality they don’t want to take over the state. Part of it is the problem of the egg and the hen: because they don’t have complete equality they feel it’s not their home. But the reason that you as a Jew do feel that you are a patriot of America is because you have complete equality.

SR: I’m Canadian, but yes.

RC: But again, it will never be like Canada or America because we built a nation state and we want the public space to be Jewish. That is the big deal. I know the concept of a nation state today seems kind of outdated.

SR: I’m not so sure. It’s very present in the current political moment. Look at the problems in the European Union today.

RC: I can understand them. Especially when you’re not a religious person, living in a public space that offers you meaning by celebrating your nationality is quality of life. It’s belonging. It’s identity. I think it makes our children a little more grounded. I don’t believe in “the citizen of the world.” I don’t think there is such a thing. I think all of us are very specific people. We come from a certain place and that is precious to me. And because of that I suggested the Declaration of Independence—that tries to balance. Some of the Palestinians say you will be out of here, like Hanin, and it will be an Arab state. Some others say it will be a state for all its citizens. Sounds lovely, but it means there’s no Shabbat, there’s no Hebrew, there’s no holidays in the public schools.

SR: That’s a very narrow definition of a state of all its citizens. Right now there are already multiple education systems in Israel.

RC: But it’s all Jewish. The Arab system is a minority, very small, and they also know and study Hebrew, and they are part of it. It’s not a melting pot, of what you have here, of a kind of indifferent public space, in the names of the streets, the holidays that are celebrated, the television, the radio, etc.

SR: You’re right now drawing a dichotomy between two possible systems. But this isn’t a straight dichotomy. There are plenty of national states that are also states for all their citizens. Where the public space is a religious space, the public space is a cultural space of the majority, and have no problem with the idea of equality.

RC: Like what?

SR: Pretty much all of Europe.

RC: But you see what happens now with Islam now in France.

SR: What happens?

RC: There’s a lot of threat and people feel that the public space is not French anymore, and that is something they cherish. It’s not that they want to hate the Muslims and throw them away; they feel that the Muslims don’t pledge allegiance to France.

It is the beauty of America that people very quickly feel they belong and it’s theirs.

SR: There are Muslims in France who would argue with you that you are repeating a particular right-wing, Christian, French perspective.

RC: I’m telling you about my students at Mandel [Leadership Institute in Jerusalem] that would not stand up on Memorial Day, or they would not stand up on Holocaust Day.

SR: These were French Muslim students?

RC: No in Israel, Muslim Israelis—they would not stand up on Holocaust Day. That is ok, it’s a democracy. But it’s like someone in class intentionally singing something else during the Pledge of Allegiance. You feel that there’s no bond. America found the right balance by saying the street will not be specifically this or that, it’s not a nation, it’s a place for all of the people who ran away from their nations.

SR: I think there’s something you may be missing about American democracy. When people say the Pledge of Allegiance, why they believe in the ideals behind the Pledge of Allegiance is because one of those ideals is that you get to scream and shout during the Pledge of Allegiance should you want to do that.

RC: I never saw anyone dare.

SR: Because they believe in its possibility.

RC: And there is pressure, and fear.

SR: For sure there is pressure, but you also have to believe in those ideals. Perhaps one of the problems that you’re articulating is the expectation that Arab citizens would believe in those ideals before they actually have membership in the group.

RC: I think from ‘48 they had the membership in the group.[1] Things become more and more tense as the Palestinian voice becomes more and more not just voice, aggression, becomes more and more present. And so the right wing becomes much stronger. Why do people vote for Trump and why do people vote for Netanyahu? It’s not because they didn’t grow up learning that sharing is nicer than not sharing. It’s when things don’t work out for them, when they get hurt, when they go to the army and come back wounded—we can’t think about these things only conceptually. Life also takes a toll. And I’m still a believer, not only because they deserve it but because I don’t want to live in a place where complete equality is not given.

My argument, not from the Palestinian/Jewish side but from the religious/secular side, is that because there’s no freedom of religion, secular Jews are running away from their own identity and hate Judaism, which is hurting Judaism. It’s not easy. Again, the nations in America that are now pledging allegiance were not the natives of this country—the natives are gone. And so nobody feels like Palestinians feel: “we were here before you and you have to go away.” Some people came [to the United States] from Germany, some people came from Ireland, some people came from Italy: they are all in the new land. And we [Jewish Israelis] believe that we came back home, and they [Palestinians] believe that they were always home.

SR: I think as you acknowledged in your distinction between the elected representatives and the broader population, certainly when it comes to the Palestinian citizens of Israel it is not necessarily the majority viewpoint that Jews need to leave.

RC: I hope so. They don’t think that all of us need to leave but the state should not be Jewish. They want a state of all citizens. Again, I can very deeply appreciate living here [in the United States] and seeing how nice it is when everyone is equal. But I would not give up a nation state. Although today it’s very unpopular to talk about nationality, I’m a national Jew, that’s what I am.

Simon Rabinovitch is Senior Editor at Marginalia. You can follow him on Twitter @sjrabinov.

[1] Arabs who remained in Israel after the War of Independence became Israeli citizens, but were subject to martial law until 1966.