Posts

Lieberman and the Contradictions of Ethnic Nationalism

It’s the last day before the Israeli elections, and there seems to be widespread agreement that Yisrael Beiteinu party chairman Avigdor Lieberman is going to win big – perhaps as much as 19-20 seats. They’ve already pulled ahead of the … Read More

By / February 10, 2009

It’s the last day before the Israeli elections, and there seems to be widespread agreement that Yisrael Beiteinu party chairman Avigdor Lieberman is going to win big – perhaps as much as 19-20 seats. They’ve already pulled ahead of the Labor party and by now it’s virtually a foregone conclusion that Lieberman will emerge from these elections with considerable political influence.

It’s also fair to say that those of us who cherish the values of liberal democracy are recoiling at the prospect of a politically ascendant Avigdor Lieberman, whose most notorious campaign promise is a requirement for all Arab citizens of Israel to sign a loyalty oath to the Jewish state:

(Lieberman’s) loyalty oath would require all Israelis to vow allegiance to Israel as a Jewish, democratic state, to accept its symbols, flag and anthem, and to commit to military service or some alternative service. Those who declined to sign such a pledge would be permitted to live here as residents but not as voting citizens.

Currently Israeli Arabs, who constitute 15 percent to 20 percent of the population, are excused from national service. Many would like to shift Israel’s identify from that of a Jewish state to one that is defined by all its citizens, arguing that only then would they feel fully equal.

Mr. Lieberman says that there is no room for such a move and that those who fail to grasp the centrality of Jewish identity to Israel have no real place in it.

These are disturbing ideas to be sure, and it’s even more troubling that they seem to finding traction with increasing numbers of the Israeli electorate.

And yet…

…and yet in the wee hours of the night, I just can’t shake the nagging feeling that the real reason Lieberman makes us squirm is that he shines a bright light on the logical contradictions of political Zionism: an ethnic nationalist movement that has always sought to create a Jewish state in a land that also happens to be populated by millions of non-Jewish inhabitants.

Take, for example, Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which refers specifically to Israel as a "Jewish state" committed to the "ingathering of the exiles" but also promises complete equality of political and social rights for all its citizens, irrespective of race, religion, or sex.  Therein lies the tension: the first principle emphasizes the creation of a state that privileges the Jewish people and the latter promises equal rights for all its citizens.

I don’t say this easily: I’m not sure this is a nut that Israel will ever fully be able to crack.  It is indeed notable that Israel has repeatedly tried and failed to create a constitution that legally guarantees equality for all citizens of this exclusively Jewish state. In the meantime, Israel’s Arab citizens suffer from what we Americans would consider significant institutional discrimination with only limited recourse to the rule of law.

So as a nice liberal American Jew fully prepared to voice my outrage at Lieberman’s likely Tuesday morning success, here are some questions I feel compelled to ponder:

– As proud citizens and beneficiaries of a secular multi-cultural nation, are we ready to face the deeper implications of Israel’s ethnic nationalism?

– Will it ever truly be possible, in a country defined as exclusively Jewish, for its Arab citizens to be considered as anything but second class citizens (or at worst, traitors)?

– If  it does indeed come down to a choice between a Jewish or a democratic state, which will we ultimately support?

I’d love to hear your responses…

Tagged with: