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Missing the forest

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Does anyone actually know the meaning of the term ‘Jewish state’? Wouldn’t it be better to live in a just democracy?

By Gideon Levy

(source: Haaretz)

Sometimes you really can’t see the forest for the trees. The forest of political, governmental and institutional racism in Israel is dark and deep. One particular tree in that forest happens to have Israelis all riled up: The state’s handling of the children of migrant workers. In the shade of a nearby tree is the state’s handling of these children’s parents, but this excites the Israelis somewhat less. And there are many other poisonous trees in the forest: Citizenship laws, loyalty laws, conversion laws, the razing of Bedouin villages in the Negev and even the story of the Arab delivery man who was convicted of rape for pretending to be a Jew. Each one galvanized parts of society into action, and this is well and good; but few see the big picture, and the big picture is several times worse than the sum of its components.

Enlightenment came from an unexpected direction; it was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, of all people, who accurately defined the problem. In deciding on these children’s future, he said, the cabinet is torn between humanitarian considerations on one hand and Zionist considerations on the other. The prime minister of Israel himself presents them as a contradiction, and this is the story in a nutshell.

Each particular wrong must be fought, of course, but we must not forget that all comes down to one large, fundamental truth: Defining Israel as a Jewish state condemns us to living in a racist state. This is the new definition of Zionism that we have subscribed to, and until we realize that we will not be able to uproot all the wild weeds that have seeded themselves here lately. Were we to not expel the migrant workers' children but continue to raze Bedouin villages we would not solve a thing. We will continue to move from one injustice to another until we recognize the racist nature of the state. Israel is not the only place where racism is on the rise. Europe and the United States are awash in a turbid wave of xenophobia; but in Israel, this racism is embedded in the state's most fundamental values. There is no other state whose immigration laws are blatantly and unequivocally based on the candidates' bloodlines. Jewish blood, whether authentic or dubious, is kosher. Other blood, from those of other creeds or nationalities, is unacceptable. No country throws its doors wide open to everyone, but while other states take social, economic and cultural considerations into account in Israel bloodline is the name of the game. How else are we to understand the fact that someone who was born here, who speaks the language, cherishes its values and even serves in the military, can be unceremoniously expelled while a member of the Bnei Menashe community in India or the grandson of a half-Jew from Kazakhstan are welcomed with open arms. In contrast to what we have been told there is no significant argument in the wider world, and of course not in Israel, over the Jews' right to a state. The argument is about its character. There is also no argument about the justice of the Law of Return: Israel is the place of the Jews who want to live there. The real argument is over the law's exclusivity, over the fact that it applies only to Jews. That's where it all begins. One could understand the need after the Holocaust, the necessity in the first years of the state, but 62 years after the founding of the state the time has come to reexamine the long-obsolete concepts. Does anyone actually know the meaning of the term "Jewish state" that we bandy about so much? Does it mean a state for Jews only? Is it not a new kind of "racial purity"? Is the "demographic threat" greater than the danger of the state's becoming a religious enthnocracy or an apartheid state? Wouldn't it be better to live in a just democracy? And how is it even possible to speak about a state being both Jewish and democratic? But anyone who tries to enter the cauldron of this debate, who tries to think outside the box of tired cliche, is automatically fated to delegitimization and slander. Just ask Avraham Burg, who last week announced his intention to set up a political party along those very lines.