By insisting on a Jewish state Israel denies Palestinian rights

In Israel, the idea of legal preferences for Jewish people is gaining ground, further undermining the rights of Palestinian Israelis.

Comment illustration. Pep Montserrat for The National
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Given the insistence by its leaders that Israel be "recognised" as a Jewish state, some people might be surprised to know that there is considerable disagreement among Jewish Israelis about exactly what that means.

Enter the justice minister, Tzipi Livni, who in addition to her key role in negotiations with the Palestinian Authority seems set on making a contribution to one of the most contentious issues in Israeli politics: the state's Jewish identity.

Two right-wing parties, Likud-Beiteinu and Habayit Hayehudi, recently introduced a draft law that defines Israel as a Jewish state. In response Ms Livni has appointed a jurist and legal scholar, Prof Ruth Gavison, to "find a constitutional definition to the character of Israel as both a Jewish and a democratic country and to consolidate its identity components in a manner that will find a balance between the two".

The bill put forward by the right-wing parties aims to ensure that Israel's Jewish identity is granted explicit pre-eminence over its "democratic" identity. According to reports, the law asserts that the state of Israel is the Jewish people's historical homeland and that the right of self-determination within Israel belongs exclusively to Jews. Individual rights, however, are affirmed for all citizens - including the Palestinian minority.

Prof Gavison's appointment and assignment offer a good opportunity to examine the limitations of Israel's "Jewish and democratic" formula, particularly because she does not come from the Zionist right. She was in fact one of the founders of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and also worked at the Israel Democracy Institute for a number of years, working on tackling divisions within Israeli society.

Prof Gavison is also a firm believer in Israel as a Jewish state, and that this requires maintaining a Jewish majority as well as recognising certain limitations on the rights of Palestinian citizens. In a 2003 essay, The Jews' Right to Statehood, she openly admitted that "the Jewish state is thus an enterprise in which the Arabs are not equal partners".

"The needs of Jewish nationalism," she wrote, "do, in some cases, justify certain restrictions on the Arab population in Israel, particularly in areas such as security, land distribution, population dispersal, and education."

That is precisely what an Israeli professor, Oren Yiftachel, is referring to when he describes Israel as an "ethnocracy", rather than a democracy. He says: "ethnicity (and not territorial citizenship) is the main determinant of the allocation of rights, powers, and resource" with "the logic of ethnic segregation ... diffused into the social and political system".

The restrictions Prof Gavison supports include the separation of Palestinian spouses, as opposed to family unification. Israel's supreme court has also backed this policy, on the grounds that "human rights are not a prescription for national suicide".

One member of the Knesset even praised the court's 2012 ruling on the grounds that it expressed "the rationale of separation between the peoples and the need to maintain a Jewish majority and the (Jewish) character of the state" - a sentiment that chimes with Prof Gavison's own position (and that of many so-called liberal Zionists).

Prof Gavison's views also fit in with the role of the "admission committees" that decide who can live in the majority of Israeli communities - a practice that, as noted by Human Rights Watch, has "notoriously been used to exclude Arabs".

For Prof Gavison, "colour blindness" is not "the only normative viewpoint related to civil equality". Writing in 2010 on the call from some rabbis for Jews not to rent property to Palestinian citizens, she linked the need for a Jewish majority to more day-to-day policies: "We must examine in all truthfulness if this desire [of Jews to be a majority in Israel] could have implications on residential dwelling patterns."

Following criticism of Ms Livni for appointing Prof Gavison, The Jerusalem Post published a guest op-ed defending the nomination. "Only if there is a Jewish majority in the Jewish state", the writer argued, " ... can Israel be both Jewish and democratic vis-á-vis its Arab citizens".

That claim goes to the heart of Israel's colonial past and present, and the essence of the Palestinian struggle for liberation and return.

In Condoleezza Rice's memoirs, the former US secretary of state recounts a 2004 conversation with Ms Livni: the Israeli politician explained how a return of expelled Palestinian refugees would "change the [Jewish] nature of the state of Israel". Ms Rice confesses that while she "understood the argument intellectually" it struck her as "a harsh defence of the ethnic purity of the Israeli state".

"It was one of those conversations that shocked my sensibilities as an American," she wrote. "After all, the very concept of 'American' rejects ethnic or religious definitions of citizenship.

"Moreover, there were Arab citizens of Israel. Where did they fit in?"

In the first few years of Israel's existence, the Knesset passed legislation constructing the framework of a Jewish state, and central to these efforts were the law of return, the absentee property law, and the citizenship law.

The combined effect of these was to denationalise expelled Palestinians and expropriate their property, while offering citizenship to any Jew in the world. For Palestinians, it was a legislative Nakba, when the dust had barely settled on the ruins of ethnically cleansed Palestinian villages and towns.

In other words, en masse, the majority of Palestinians who should have become citizens of the new state were prevented from doing so: first through physical expulsion, and subsequently by the physical prevention of their return and a legal process that established the ethnocratic basis of Israel as a Jewish state. The Jewish majority was established by removing non-Jews.

The work done by Prof Gavison - and by others who are cruder in their efforts to defend Israel as a Jewish state - is upsetting for liberal Zionists, because it makes the racism at the heart of the entire enterprise that much more explicit.

It is far better to rail against the excesses of the hilltop settlers, or xenophobic religious leaders, than to think of those who previously lived in the buildings and on the land, and were then forcibly removed.

Prof Gavison's particular offence is in linking the protection of a Jewish majority to discriminatory policies. For there are some who still believe that it is possible for Israel to keep a Jewish majority and yet otherwise become a model liberal democracy - a position advocated by many of those highly critical of various elements of contemporary institutionalised discrimination.

Yet few are prepared to tease out the implications of such a position, preferring to hide behind historical narratives, racist fear-mongering, or flawed arguments about self-determination.

Moreover, as Ms Rice's exchange with Ms Livni highlighted, maintaining Israel as a Jewish state with a Jewish majority is not just about constitutional niceties or even the Palestinian minority: it is inextricably linked to the Palestinian people's rights - of return and decolonisation.

Letting go of the need for a Jewish majority is thus key to the democratisation of the de-facto one state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, and to establishing a sustainable future for both Israeli Jews and Palestinians.

Ben White is a freelance journalist and author of Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner's Guide and Palestinians in Israel: Segregation, Discrimination and Democracy. He blogs at