Friday, February 19, 2010

Israel's Democratic Party: A Thought Experiment

For a great many Israelis, particularly young Israelis, there is a depressing vacuum at the center of Israeli politics; and the most galling thing about it, as my friend Carlo Strenger suggests in his Haaretz column this past week, is that it needs to be filled with liberal democratic ideas so obvious, so unoriginal, that it's astonishing how no political party exists to advance them. So I thought: If such a party existed, what would its platform look like? Can one put things in a way that will not be, as platforms generally are, tedious? Here is the best I can do for now. I warmly invite comments and suggestions from readers of this blog.

Israel's existing parties, each in its own way, fail to confront the main chance of the new global order and the mounting dangers of our regional stalemate.

We know from everyday experience that Israel has the commercial and cultural resources to succeed brilliantly at global competition. We see it changing daily into a large, impressive city-state with a great economic potential. We see a demonstrated power to acculturate new generations of immigrants and minorities into a vibrant, Hebrew-speaking civil society.

At the same time, we know that, like all small countries networked to global realities, Israel cannot solve its diplomatic, economic, and environmental problems alone, that is, without the cooperation of other regional and global powers. Our economy cannot survive political isolation any more than our democracy can. The occupation is ruining our lives.

Internally, too, we are undergoing enormous changes. A quarter of Israel’s first graders are Arab citizens, and a quarter are ultra-Orthodox. Will either group grow up to imagine living in a state with room for the other, or for that matter, with a secular Israeli middle class that drives the economy and expects to be a part of the Western world?

IN THE FACE of this crisis, Israel’s government, and even its official opposition, have been nursing old grievances and worshiping old heroes. They argue, vaguely, that a Jewish state cannot be a state of its citizens. They insist on the region’s acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state, and routinely host Diaspora Jewish leaders as if they exercised quasi-official power, implying that Israelis and Diaspora Jews are somehow parts of the same trans-geographical nation, united by birth and commandments, and that a Jewish state must naturally favor legally Jewish individuals over other citizens; as if the state were not a social contract, but an expression of some common Jewish personality; as if the Hebrew cultural distinction of Israel were not evident to all, Arabs and Diaspora Jews alike.

The State of Israel, in other words, exists. It is time for Israelis to recognize it. It is a Hebrew-speaking society of over seven million people, whose Jewish character is hardly in doubt. That Israel can take the Hebrew language for granted is Zionism’s great triumph. Israelis need need no others. That Israelis celebrate national holidays, which draw on the traditional Jewish cycle, is a source of both joy and artistic restlessness. We do not need to legislate the identity or religion of Israeli citizens, or privilege any clergy or bloodline--on the contrary, these must grow organically, as in all modern democratic states, from the free choices of individuals and congregations.

We must, in short, stop treating the democratic principles and federal pluralism we see all over the Western world as if these amount to an implied criticism of Israel, but rather we must see them as an invitation to move to normalization. We must let Israel’s robust culture compete. We must stop violating, not only international norms, but the genius of Zionism itself.

ISRAEL URGENTLY NEEDS a new, broadly democratic party that realizes the principles of Israel’s Declaration of Independence: The state, that document says, “will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”

This party will be an organization with a clear charter. It will welcome Jews and Arabs, secular and pious, young and old, who accept the basic principles of liberty--who see tolerance enshrined in law as the great achievement of civilization. It will organize from the grassroots: in homes, on campuses, and on the web. It will offer a new social contract whose main points are as follow.

1. Peace. Members of the party will work for a two-state solution. We see two-city states, Israel and Palestine--together, after all, no bigger than greater Los Angeles--maintaining cultural distinction but continuing to integrate economically. We believe Israel has an urgent interest in cooperating with the Western powers to facilitate the rise of Palestine’s entrepreneurs and civil society; this means removing, even before a peace settlement, all the barriers of occupation to the movement of goods and talent within the Palestinian territories and between Palestine and the region. We look forward to economic cooperation, shared jurisdictions, from water to bandwidth, and a common market with Palestine and Jordan. We welcome the presence of appropriate numbers of international forces to maintain calm. We aim to create a Mediterranean Union, anchored by Israel and Turkey in partnership. We aim to achieve a bilateral defense pact with the United States.

2. Economy. We believe in the excellence engendered by market competition but, at the same time, rules imposed for the sake of the commonwealth—rules that keep competition in boundaries that promote equality, opportunity and economic security for all citizens. We see the expansion of Israel’s global, technology enterprises as the engine of economic growth. We see Israel’s intellectual capital as the seedbed for these enterprises. So we support monetary policies that keep Israel’s currency attractive for global investment, but also separate accounting treatment for investments in education. We want to open Israel to the world. We see Israel’s business community as a natural constituency to advocate for peace.

3. Education. We know that our school system, universities, healthcare and communications infrastructure must be second to none. These are not simply services to a democratic citizenry, but investments in our economy. Israel must compete on its brainpower and design innovations. Investments in our human capital will determine, for example, the vitality of our tourist industry, which can grow many times, and in many ways; Israel should be the place people from all over the world come to learn and be cured. Jerusalem hosts under two million tourists a year. Florence and Prague host four times as many.

4. Rights. We will work to enact a formal constitution and Bill of Rights consistent with the Charter of Human Rights in the European Union. We believe that the State of Israel should protect the equality and inner lives of individuals, much in the spirit of the Basic Law of Liberty and Dignity. As such, the state should not presume to legislate identity, national or religious, but should preserve the authority to designate only one national status: that of Israeli. All other “nationality” designations, including Jewish and Arab, should be purged from the Registry of Population.

5. Religion and State. We believe that all people should have the right to build religious educational institutions, but that as in any advanced democracy, these should be voluntary and financed by religious communities at their own discretion. At the same time, the state has the obligation to educate all children to the standards of civil society and inculcate the skills that will prepare children to be productive members of a global economy: a core curriculum of science, mathematics, and humanistic studies. Public schools should not privilege any religion, or any sect within any religion, and state funding for faith-based education should be gradually terminated, much as it was in Quebec a generation ago. Primary schools may be established by local communities in either Hebrew or Arabic, but regional high schools should be gradually integrated and taught primarily in Hebrew. All youth who are citizens of Israel should do two years of national service.

6. Land. We believe that the lands of Israel should be open to all citizens, without regard to origin. The Israel Lands Administration should, over a ten year period, privatize and auction off all holdings, except for those reserved for national parks. Sales should be without regard to the religion or ethnicity of the buyers.

7. Civil Society. We believe the state should regard marriage and divorce as the civil right of consenting adults. The state should create processes to constitute civil unions, no matter the religion or sexual orientation of the parties. This should be the state's only requirement to create legal commitments; rabbinic or other courts should have no jurisdiction whatever over these commitments. So far as the state is concerned, the dissolution of such unions, too, should be handled by civil courts. Burial is a civil right; the state should set aside land for secular citizens to be buried with dignity.

8. Immigration. We believe that citizenship should be earned by Jews and non-Jews alike after a reasonable process of naturalization. Israeli citizenship should in no cases be automatic: citizenship should acquired by landed immigrants in a process of naturalization over, say, five years. The Law of Return should therefore be superseded by an new immigration law—one that gives “landed immigrant” status to all appropriate immigrants, including especially refugees from anti-Semitism. Israel will remain the state of the Jewish people by historic affiliation, but Diaspora Jews will have no legal status in Israeli law. Unending debates over “who is a Jew?” should have no bearing on Israeli law.

9. Non-Governmental Agencies. We believe all institutions left over from the Zionist revolution—particularly the Jewish Agency and Jewish National Fund—should have no official status in the state apparatus whatever. Rather, these should work in Israeli civil society as self-funding NGOs; they should have no role in national planning other than the role competed for by all NGOs.

10. National Symbols. We believe that the festivals on the Jewish calendar should be accorded the status of national holidays, much as the Islamic calendar will be honored in the state of Palestine. Israel’s flag, anthem and other symbols of state should be cherished and preserved; yet we believe they may be added to in order to reflect a more inclusive standard of citizenship.

The Jewish sages said, “It is not given to you to complete the work, but neither may you refrain from doing it.” We are working for our children’s future, and that of the wider world, of which we are a part.


Ivan said...

Congratulations. So obvious, such sense. Such a party would change the game entirely. I would join and work for such a party if I lived in Israel.
(I don't understand item 6, it makes me nervous, explanation?)

Ilan Ben Zion said...

Mr. Avishai,
I wholeheartedly agree with your editorial, and am elated to find this the subject of current debate and discussion. I am presently writing a paper on Israeli Constitutionalism (or lack thereof) at Tel Aviv University and will likely cite your example as a contemporary promoter of constitutional reform.
Is there a popular movement for the establishment of an Israeli constitution? Having spoken with Dan Meridor, he seemed to impart that the current political parties are disinterested in any such reform, nor is there any sort of groundswell.
I have linked your blog to the one I started for members of my program, "The Young Diplomat" ( so that my readers will have a chance to read your material, too.

pabelmont said...

Beautiful suggestion.

Thanks for mentioning water ("shared jurisdictions, from water to bandwidth") which most Zionist commentators manage to miss entirely in spite of its incredible importance.

It's wonderful to hear a hymn to the possibility that Israel could exist happily as a normal nation. It puts me in mind of my own suggestion (Why not Three States) that the Two-State Solution be replaced with a Three-State Solution so that there'd be a place for normal people -- Israelis and Palestinians -- who'd prefer a normal democracy to a tribal nation.

pabelmont said...

As to land -- in point(6) you mention land and in point(9) you mention the Jewish National Fund which today, as I understand matters, owns a huge amount of formerly Israeli land (and, of course, formerly Palestinian land before that, much of it confiscated from private owners by the Custodian of Absentee Property in the 1950s).

My question to you is whether you propose as a "plank in your platform" that the land now owned by the Jewish National Fund would revert to Israeli ownership or, if and where appropriate, to ownership by the Israeli-Palestinians once classified as "present absentees". (I shall not ask about land ownership by non-Israeli Palestinians, the province of "peace" rather than political party formation).

Stephanie A. Levin said...

This is a wonderful piece - one of the many times I remember gratefully why I added this blog to my already over-loaded inbox. For the sake of brevity, I'll stick to two things that struck me as needing clarification or being potentially problematic, and refrain from further well-deserved praise of the rest:

1) You use the phrase "city-states" to describe your imagined two states of Israel and Palestine, and while it's a felicitous phrase to point out what small countries these are, I also think it could scare some by suggesting these are somehow less than other "nation-states." Maybe avoid it? Or indicate that while someday these might even be part of a federal state -- two autonomous "regions," or whatever, within one nation-state -- for now, they are meant to be separate, sovereign, nation-states, each with its own parliament, prime minister, foreign policy, military (that's a tricky one), etc. etc. Also, might it be better not to avoid the question of Jerusalem - is it meant to be a split capital, a shared capital, or an international zone? - and explicitly choose one alterntive? (I can see arguments for all three).

2) The only place where I had more than minor disagreements with this approach was on immigration. First, as soon as one drops the Law of Return, that immediately raises the Right of Return. Are you really proposing that all Arab refugees (or any Arab at all that wants to immigrate to Israel) be allowed to? And if not, why not? Second, speaking as a diaspora Jew, I don't think diaspora Jews are ready to swallow the immediate cessation of the Law of Return. I don't have an answer right now to what Israel's immigration law should be (because I haven't yet thought about it carefully enough), but my initial thoughts are that a) it would be both commendable and historically appropriate to structure it around the idea of allowing in those who are eligible for what immigration policy calls "asylum." This would open Israel to many people around the globe who really need a place to go (but before proposing this, one would have to look at the kind of numbers it would generate and whether or not they are realistic for Israel to absorb as new citizens); b)it should include, as most countries' immigration laws do, some preference for family reunification, which would open the door for many Jews, but also probably for many Palestinians and other Arabs, which again would need careful consideration; and c) the Law of Return perhaps could be gradually phased out, not abruptly dropped - but even so, the question of "who is a Jew" can be taken away from the Orthodox rabbinate now and defined by statute, as part of the immigration laws.

But the overall thrust of these ideas is terrific!

Y. Ben-David said...

The late Shinui party, headed by Tommy Lapid supposedly supported many of these ideas, but they imploded due to internal splits and petty jealousies (there persistent reports that Lapid's TV celebrity son is going to attempt to revive it). MERETZ and even the Labor Party also claim to back most, if not all, the planks Bernie outlines. So why aren't these policies implemented?

One reason is that partisal political life in Israel is DEAD. I made aliyah in the 1980's and in the election campaigns I witnessed in my early years I saw a lot of volunteer activity, people distributing literature, setting up tables in information, putting sign in the windows in their apartments and bumper stickers on their cars. I myself worked as a volunteer. In the last couple of elections, all this disappeared. The public is totally disillusioned with the politicians. There has also been a significant drop in voter turnout.
This is due to the politicians repeatedly betraying their promises to the voters, the most egregious example being Sharon destroying Gush Katif after explicitly promising not to do so, and the fact that 2/3 of his supposedly "right-wing" Likud Party going along with it. But it is not only on the Right....the Left had a majority in the Rabin/Peres gov't of 1992-1996 and, in order to get support for the Oslo fiasco, they made major concessions to the Haredi Parties. Barak, in his gov't that was in from 1999-2001 had promised to draft Haredim into the IDF, to cut back financial support to them, to increase social spending and (although this is forgotten today) he swore he would never agree to divide Jerusalem, which he then promised Arafat he would do at Camp David and Taba. He broke all his promises. MERETZ also promised to go after the religious parties when they were in the coalition, but pretty much forgot their promises as well. All these parties have lost most of their Knesset seats over the last two decades.
So today, voters are cynical and don't believe any of them. Except for the Likud (which seems to have a hard-core of supporters) and religious parties, few parties have much grassroots support from volunteers and activists and the party leaders don't care, viewing support from the media, particularly Yediot Aharonot which backs the Kadima party as more crucial.
Also, it is important to realize that MOST ISRAELIS DO NOT SUBSCRIBE TO BERNIE'S POST-ZIONIST AGENDA. Most do not want a complete separation of religion and state (which includes the Arabs as well). Most Israeli Jews still support the Zionist ethos, almost all Jewish Israelis view links with Diaspora Jewry as important, support aliyah and immediate citizenship for new olim and view Jewish settlement of the land as being just as valid and important as it was decades ago.
So there is a question how many votes a Bernie party would get. Previous "reform" parties like the Democratic Movement for Change
(1977), Shinui, the Center Party, and the "3rd Way" party have all disappeared after a short time. So would a Bernie party as well.

One more point-Bernie is always lamenting that "Haredi kids make up 1/4 of the elementary school population". Bernie is lumping together the Ashkenazi (United Torah Judaism) Haredim with the Sefardic SHAS students. In reality they are VERY different. SHAS schools teach the basic core curriculum which the state Ministry of Education mandates and which the Ashkenazi Haredim rejectg. SHAS schools teach more secular education, give the "bagrut" matriculation exams and does encourage its graduates to work. SHAS also recently joined the World Zionist Organization which enraged the Ashkenazic Haredi Establishment. There is no grounds for lumping them together as Bernie does, but it is not surprising that he does, knowing his attitude towards religious Jews, whom he calls "Judeans", dismissing them as not being part of the same nation of "entrepeneural elites" (the "Israelis") to which Bernie thinks he belongs.

Potter said...

I was going to say "sold!" for the whole plan and still do but Stephanie Levin raises some good points.

I favor the old city of Jerusalem becoming an international property belonging to no one state but jointly held by all citizens of the world through the UN. West Jerusalem can become the capitol of Israel and East Jerusalem can be the capitol of a Palestinian state to be subsequently undivided if the parties are mature and confident enough to arrange it- which would be most desirable and beneficial.

In the words of Ronald Reagan: Tear down that wall!

Y. Ben-David said...

Potter-Suppose the Palestinian state that controls east Jerusalem and its security forces decide to look the other way at terrorist activity that is organized there and directed against Jewish targets in west Jerusalem and other places. How is Israel supposed to stop them from crossing into Jewish areas? The only way is to re-erect the walls, checkpoints, minefields and pillboxes that existed before 1967. Now, some people (I suspect Bernie may be one) may actually view that situation as preferable to the current situation of Israeli control of the city, but most wouldn't want that. How are you going to prevent that?

Potter said...

Y. B-.D.

The whole plan is a risk but a good one. The worse risk is continuing on the present path.

So with regard to Jerusalem, when the Palestinian state is declared and internationally recognized, Palestinians will have a lot of incentive ( I am counting on spirits rising, oh yes they will) to keep it and show what they can do, what they can make of it. The incentive also will be to control those who would destroy or bring harm to the state. I am sorry to have to spell this out- it seems obvious to me. But you are right- there is no way forward ( and there is no way BUT forward) that there is no risk... which I have said to you before. At that point you usually don't answer.

We try to make the world the way we want it to be. or we should. Your responses I find are always about fears.

Michael said...

On immigration, here's a question: how does one reconcile the concept that Diaspora Jews have no special legal rights in Israel with an immigration preference for victims of anti-Semitism? Should victims of current horrific genocides be required, as a general proposition, to stand in line behind refugees from anti-Semitism (which clearly can encompass a wide range of offenses)?

Anonymous said...

ד"ר אבישי,

אתה צודק. יש לי רק שאלה אחת: למה החיבור הזה כתוב באנגלית? אם רעיונותך יתרגמו, אולי הם יכולים להשפיע יותר את הפוליקה הישראלית.

יום טוב

Bernard Avishai said...

You are right, of course. I am translating it as we write.

esthermiriam said...

I'd want some further discussion of language(s) issues.

High schools in Hebrew, fine, but for the wider worlds English is important, and for the world in which Israelis live, Arabic.

Potter said...

Regarding #1 Peace:

Carlo Strenger (chairman of clinical graduate psychology at Tel Aviv U ) in this NYT Op-Ed makes a very good point when he says

......the [diplomatic] process must give room to emotions, which are likely to run high. Too often these are repressed by diplomatic protocol, assumed to be irrelevant or even counterproductive. On the contrary, such repression undercuts the possibility of forward is essential that emotions finally be given vent.

He prescribes an open-ended course of therapy to "allow both sides to work through emotional aspects of their traumas, dreams and shattered hopes."

All the wonderful plans- sensible,rational ideas go nowhere, can't move forward. In this case it will be a party platform that goes nowhere, because of emotional issues on both sides. This has been demonstrated even here in comments.

This prescription to talk it out can be endless too without some leadership and movement/progress towards empathy apology and forgiveness.

This emotional aspect must be addressed.

Y. Ben-David said...

EstherMiriam is correct regarding Arabic....all Israeli Jews should learn Arabic. We in Israel are part of the Middle East, and it is the Leftists of Bernie's type that want to pretend that we aren't. The fact is that what Bernie calls "the Judeans", what he considers the "right-wing-Orthodox-settler-types" are much closer to the Arabs in outlook and values than Bernie's "entrepeneurial elites" are and they in are in a better position to start a TRUE dialogue bewteen Arabs and Jews for the simple reason that the "Judeans", unlike Bernie's pals, have no interest or desire to change the Arabs or to impose an alien culture on them. Bernie's "Hebrew Republic" is enticing them with a soul-less secular, materialist, consumerist culture which is the antithesis of traditional Arab/Muslim culture which emphasizes communal values, respect for elders and tradition and sexual modesty...the same as tradtional Jewish values. Thus, I feel Jews of this camp are REQUIRED to learn Arabic in order to be able to communicate with them and end the gulf of misunderstanding that has existed for too long. The secular Zionists have fouled the atmosphere here for decades, they had their chance to make peace, now it is the turn of the "Judeans" who will be more successful.

Alexander said...

I'd like to end my dissenting two cents...

It looks like this manifesto lays out liberal principles while ignoring the realities which prevented their application in the first place.

First of all, and most obviously, Israel IS a geographical representation of a trans-geographical Jewish nation and has no right to exist otherwise. Declaration of Independence makes this abundantly clear. Most of Israel's Jewish citizens identify with Israel through their Jewishness.

Therefore the idea of severing this connection does not stand any chance. Moreover, it will harm the real liberal cause of equality among citizens of the State of Israel.

Similarly, the demand to recognize gay marriage before civil marriage is established is sheer stupidity.

Now, this liberal party program contains an attack on existing liberties many of our citizens enjoy: preventing people from educating their children in their own language; not recognizing marriage by a rabbi or a priest (why, for Heavens sake?). It also appears to suggest nationalization of Jewish National Fund (and Wakf?) lands. This would lead to a civil war in no time at all.

To sum up: this program makes a great misservice to the liberal idea in Israel.

Bernard Avishai said...

Alexander, a people is not a nation. If it were, Zionism's development of Hebrew colonies would never have been necessary. But, still, I am not suggesting cutting ties to the diaspora. Cultural affinities will persist. I am in favor of ending the quasi-official status of old Zionist diaspora organizations. Civil unions are not just for gays. They are for all. (Look at Germany.) Marriage is a rite to be conducted before God. For the state, it is a legal contract, nothing more. Finally, I am not suggesting that all education be in Hebrew; only secondary education. Otherwise, Arab citizens will not be able to acculturate to Israeli universities an businesses.

kaza said...

He said this and the other said that.
This is all rhetoric and the latent function unconsciously is too keep ones position and one's faith and ego
intact! to himself/herself .
Time to call it quits re the professionals.
After 62 years it is well known that there are machinations on all conceivable sides to which the "professionals" are not privy too.
The USA with its melba toast reference to the Armenian GENOCIDE
and its condemnation of Israel are just riddles within riddles.
Purge yourselves.
The Chomskys and others are simply chara- traitors.
Go home and teach English etc.
You have outworn your uselessness.
this is a world of deceit.
A. Kazamian

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