Monday, April 6, 2009

A Democratic Jewish State?

or How an Oxymoron Inhibits Justice

"The problem with [Binyamin Netanyahu's opposition to Palestinian statehood] is that it could deliver a fatal blow to the two-state solution, which most Israelis recognize as the only way to preserve a democratic Jewish state," editorialized the Washington Post on March 31. Though the entire Post editorial seems deeply flawed to me, it is this statement that most makes me want to blog and argue.

Netanyahu's muscular nationalism is a real problem, to be sure. But it seems unlikely that anything short of the genocide of Palestinians could deal a "fatal blow" to the dream of Palestinian statehood. The real problem with the statement lies in the irreconcilable tension between the notion of a Jewish state and the requirements of a democratic state.

There are plenty of sophistic arguments about how much freer Palestinian Israelis are than are the citizens of other Arab states, but the more relevant truth is that Palestinian Israelis are less free and less privileged than are other Israelis. Such undemocratic conditions are a challenge for a democracy to solve, but they are not solvable in a theocratic state, which Israel is, both in law and in practice.

All democracies are incomplete. We need look no further than the United States to recognize that fact. The U.S. constitution legitimized slavery and defined slaves for census purposes as three-fifths of a person, hardly a promising start. Women couldn't vote, either. It took the better part of a century to end slavery and another 50-plus years to extend the franchise to women. True democracies must be in motion, addressing obstacles to equality and justice. Inequality and discrimination subvert democracy and subvert claims to democratic legitimacy. For as long as such de jure and de facto provisions endure, they define republics that privilege the interests of a few over the interests of the many.

There are other considerations in Israel, of course. Near the top of that list is the security of that portion of the Jewish people who live there. Many American supporters of Israel believe that maintaining Israel as a Jewish state is the only way to guarantee the survival of the Jews who live there. I believe the opposite. Maintaining Israel as a Jewish state is the best way to guarantee that Jews in Israel will never be secure.

The truth is that nothing that Netanyahu does, short of cleansing Palestinians from Palestine, will prevent the eventual emergence of a Palestinian state in some form. And nothing short of the eventual unification of Israeli Jews and Palestinians in one or more democratic, non-theocratic states in the area currently occupied by Israel, the West Bank and Gaza will create security and prosperity for Jews living there.

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