Douglas Feith: Can Israel Be Jewish and Democratic?

[Mr. Feith, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, served as under secretary of defense from 2001 to 2005. He is the author of "War and Decision: Inside the Pentagon at the Dawn of the War on Terrorism".]

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently asked Palestinian peace negotiators to acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state. Some critics have called this move cynical, because Palestinian leaders are unlikely to offer such an acknowledgment. But others oppose it for a more basic reason: They claim it is antidemocratic.

Israel, so the argument goes, affronts its non-Jewish citizens by identifying itself as a Jewish state and by using traditional religious emblems as official national symbols—for example, the Star of David on its flag.

Along the same lines, various Israeli intellectuals have proposed dropping "Hatikvah" (The Hope) as their country's national anthem, because it refers to the Jewish soul's millenial yearnings for a return to Zion. A few have urged repeal of Israel's longstanding law of return, which gives Jews from any country a right to immigrate and become citizens.

Some Israeli Arabs have advocated that Israel should become a state identified with no particular ethnic or religious group but rather a state of all of its individual citizens. Israelis commonly view this liberal ideal with suspicion, for it has no relation whatever to the political practices of any countries in the Middle East. Also, Azmi Bishara, the principal Israeli Arab proponent of "a state of all of its citizens" and a former member of parliament, outraged many Israelis by supporting Hezbollah against Israel in the 2006 Lebanon war.

Israeli law respects the voting, property, religious and other rights of its Arab citizens (most of them Muslims) who constitute some 20% of the population. Nevertheless, the ongoing conflict over Palestine has created bitterness between many of them and their fellow Jewish citizens. Many Israeli Jews resent what they see as disloyalty on the part of Israeli Arabs. Many of the latter resent what they see as their second-class status.

But the larger question of Israel's identity as a Jewish state does not hinge on the particulars of its Arab citizens' current status. Rather, it is whether democratic principles are necessarily violated when Israel asserts a Jewish identity based on the ethnic and religious heritage of its majority group. That is a matter of interest to everyone who thinks seriously about self-government...

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