Worrying about the Jewish state


There is something of the absurd in the recent flurry of activity in Israel to ensure that it is recognized as a Jewish state.

First, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted that Israel be recognized by the Palestinians as a Jewish state before any peace talks could take place. He later withdrew the precondition.

Then Yisrael Beiteinu, the party of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, proposed legislation that would outlaw commemorations of the Nakba — the "catastrophe" of Israel’s birth, as Arabs call it. Now we have a bill moving through the Knesset that would outlaw calls to end Israel’s existence as a Jewish and democratic state.

Is Israel so insecure about its identity that it needs others, particularly its adversaries, the Palestinians, to tell it what kind of a country it is? If Israel wants to be a Jewish state, let it be so. It shouldn’t need anyone else to affirm it. Israel should worry more about its own citizens, Arab and haredi, who have a problem with its self-declared identity.

Which brings us to the Knesset bills.

The way to deal with the problem of Israeli citizens who don’t recognize the Jewish state is not to outlaw discussion of the issue or to discredit by law those who consider Israel’s birth a catastrophe. Indeed, insofar as Israel’s government denies its citizens the right to their own opinions, Israel’s birth will continue to be viewed as a catastrophe.

Incidentally, Arabs aren’t the only Israelis who view it as such; so do many fervently Orthodox Jews, who deny the state’s Jewish character and agitate for a less democratic, more theocratic society.

A healthy democratic society should not pass laws that suppress the free exchange of ideas and opinions. This is one of the notable things that distinguishes Israel from its autocratic, rather un-free neighbors. Extremists in Israel should not be allowed to drag the Jewish state down that road.

Rather, Israel should promote its democratic, Jewish and Israeli identity in positive ways. For one thing, Israeli legislators should stop trying to thwart the democratic value of free speech by trying to pass anti-Nakba laws. For another, Israel should start worrying about the rapidly growing segment of its population that does not believe in or respect the value of democracy.

Using its tripartate educational system — state/state-religious, Arab, and haredi — Israel should promote the values most crucial to the state and lacking among those three groups.

Israel should promote Jewish values and knowledge among Israeli Jews who don’t know what it means to be a Jew; find ways to make haredim part and parcel of Israeli society, including mandating national service and modifying school curricula; and demonstrate to Israeli Arabs the rights and privileges they have in the Jewish democracy.

You can’t force people to like you, you can only try to make it so.

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