The following is adapted from Gershom Gorenberg’s new book The Unmaking of Israel. Read the earlier excerpts about why, exactly, Israel ended up losing most of its Arab population in 1948 and about why a new kind of old-time Judaism has taken hold in Israel.
I write from an Israel with a divided soul. It is not only defined by its contradictions; it is at risk of being torn apart by them. It is a country with uncertain borders and a government that ignores its own laws. Its democratic ideals, much as they have helped shape its history, or on the verge of being remembered among the false political promises of 20th-century ideologies.
What will Israel be in five years, or 20? Will it be the Second Israeli Republic, a thriving democracy within smaller borders? Or a pariah state where one ethnic group rules over another? Or a territory marked on the map, between the river and the sea, where the state has been replaced by two warring communities? Will it be the hub of the Jewish world, or a place that most Jews abroad prefer not to think about? The answers depend on what Israel does now.
For Israel to establish itself again as a liberal democracy, it must make three changes. First, it must end the settlement enterprise, end the occupation, and find a peaceful way to partition the land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. Second, it must divorce state and synagogue—freeing the state from clericalism, and religion from the state. Third and most basically, it must graduate from being an ethnic movement to being a democratic state in which all citizens enjoy equality.
Proposing these changes provokes several reflexive objections, inside Israel and beyond. First, many Israeli Jews translate any call for full equality of all citizens as a demand that Israel cease to be a Jewish state. The supposed choice is a false one. Israel can be a liberal democracy and still fulfill the justifiable desire of Jews, as an ethnic national group, for self-determination.
The liberal meaning of self-determination begins with the rights of individuals. As Israeli political thinker Chaim Gans argues, it expresses the justifiable desire of members of an ethnic group to maintain a basic aspect of their humanity and personal identity: their culture. To live in their culture and preserve it, they need a place where that culture shapes the public sphere. The natural and must justifiable place for that to happen is their homeland, or in part of it.
But in the real world, in contrast to utopias, individual rights clash. The classic metaphor for this is the man crying fire in a crowded theater: Dogmatically preserving his right of expression robs others of their right to stay alive. Nation-states can be liberal democracies, but each faces the constant challenge of balancing the right of self-determination and other rights.
Israel does not have to give up being a Jewish state. It does need to establish a very different balance of rights. In a country with a significant Jewish majority, it is reasonable for the usual language of the public sphere to be Hebrew. It is reasonable for offices to close on Jewish holidays, because most people would not show up for work on those days anyway. It is also reasonable for the kitchens in government institutions—such as the army—to be kosher, since this preserves the right of Jews who observe religious dietary laws to participate fully in society. It is not acceptable for the government to favor Jews in allocation of jobs, land, or school buildings, or for it to prevent Muslim citizens from maintaining a mosque in a mixed Jewish-Arab neighborhood. Nor is it acceptable for the government to condition the rights of non-Jewish citizens on their swearing fealty to this particular balance of rights.
A second objection is that creating two states between the river and the sea is no longer possible. Settlements are too large, Israel and the occupied territories too entangled; the tipping point has been passed. All that is possible now is a one-state solution. Especially outside of Israel, this practical argument often hides a psychological tendency: even progressives sometimes fight the last battle, especially if it was a heroic fight for which they were born too late. One person, one vote was the answer in South Africa, they say; therefore it is the solution for Israel.
In fact, a one-state arrangement would solve little and make many things worse. Imagine that tomorrow Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip were reconstituted as the Eastern Mediterranean Republic, and elections were held. With the current population, the parliament would be split almost evenly between Jews and Palestinians. One of the first issues that the parliament and judiciary would face is the settlements that Israel built on privately owned Palestinian property, whether it was requisitioned, stolen, or declared state land over Palestinian objections. Palestinian claimants would demand return of their property. The problem of evacuating settlers wouldn’t vanish. Rather, it would divide the new state on communal lines.