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August 29, 2015 | 14th Elul 5775

Reform Reflections: Israel: Not a State of All its Citizens

by Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie

Should Israel be a “state of all its citizens”? Should it shed its Jewish religious and cultural character so that all Israelis – Arabs, Christians, Moslems, Jews – can fully identify with it? More and more people seem to think so.

Several weeks ago, an article written by an Israeli Jew appeared on the op-ed pages of the New York Times calling on Israel’s leaders to change the words of her national anthem, Hatikvah. How, the author wanted to know, could Arab Israelis be expected to sing those words that call for a return of the Jewish people to its homeland?

Similarly, a number of proposals have recently been put forward by Israel’s Arab citizens demanding that Arab culture be given equal status with Jewish culture and that Israel shed its specifically Jewish character.

Many Jews seem to be tongue-tied when confronted with these demands. They seem uncomfortable with the idea that the position of Israeli Arabs should be, in any way, less than fully equal to that of Israeli Jews. Wasn’t the State of Israel created to “normalize” the existence of the Jewish people? In this view, the purpose of Israel is not to worry about Jewish religion or culture, but to achieve “normal” living for the large percentage of the Jewish people who are wise enough to live within its borders.

To these Jews, we must offer a clear answer: Zionism’s purpose was to create a society that is “normal” socially and politically, but not ethically or religiously. More specifically, the Zionist founders were always clear that the Jewish state exists to promote the religion, civilization, and culture of the Jewish people and its dominant Jewish majority.

Does this mean that Israel’s Arab citizens must suffer certain disabilities? It does. They are a minority, and there is a price to be paid for minority status. Jews have paid that price for the last 2000 years, and nearly half of the Jewish people continue to pay it today. In Great Britain, for example, there is an established church headed by the British sovereign. Britain’s Jewish minority cannot embrace that church, which is an established fixture of Britain’s national culture. Yet it does not occur to Britain’s Jews to demand the de-establishment of the Church of England or the severing of the Queen from her religious role. They understand that for minorities, complete identification with Britain’s national symbols and culture may not be possible.

Israel’s Arabs, therefore, are being asked to accept no more than what Jews have always accepted as minorities, including in Arab countries. We need not be shy or apologetic about enjoying majority status in the country that was established specifically to create a Jewish majority and the conditions that accompany it.

But – and this is critical – Jews as a minority have always demanded that their host countries grant them full civil and political rights. The Jewish state, therefore, must do no less for its minority citizens. Yes, Israel’s majority culture should be aggressively Jewish, but there is no excuse for discrimination against individual Arab citizens in housing, employment, or education, and neither can discrimination in public funding for Arab municipalities be tolerated.

Also, maintaining a secure Jewish majority is the foundation upon which Israel’s Jewish character is built; therefore, taking the necessary steps to assure that majority – including putting an end to settlement activity – remains a priority for any government of Israel.

A proud Jewish state with a secure Jewish majority that maintains a national culture that is openly and assertively Jewish, while also treating its minority citizens with fairness and respect – that is the essence of Zionism.

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