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Jews & Arabs

In response to:

A Stone's Throw from the March 31, 1988 issue

To the Editors:

I cannot help but feel deep sympathy for some of what Anton Shammas writes in his bitterly polemical article on the Arab experience in Israel [NYR, March 31]. And yet his complaints have the kind of easy fluency that streamlines and flattens out what are, unfortunately, problems not amenable to simple moral dichotomies. Those who submit to the seduction of such neat dichotomies are usually part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

One case in point is Shammas’ complaint against the proposed constitution for Israel drafted by a group of Tel Aviv University professors (in which group I participated). He feels that defining Israel as the “state of the Jewish people” is, mildly put, unacceptable. And yet his strictures serve to reveal the intractability of the dilemma rather than—as he apparently believes—some obviously callous and conspiratorial design.

Three alternate formulations were available to the drafters. Israel could have been described as lacking any ethnic ties or character—as the “state of the Israeli people,” were this not circular and pleonastic. This is apparently the formula that Shammas would have preferred. But even the name “Israel”—to take only the most basic element—resonates with national specificity, with particular historical associations that cannot be made over into something that is blandly nondescript. Would he wish to see “Israel” replaced by a different name? If so, candor demands that he reveal his choice. Moreover, to tear Israel out of the context of a century of struggle for Jewish national self-determination, to deny its place in Jewish history, to dismiss the motives that brought Jews from seventy countries to its shores, is to indulge in a breathtaking fantasy. The definitive association of Israel with the Jewish people is, from the Jewish side, the minimal condition of any fruitful dialogue between Jews and Arabs.

A second possible formulation would have defined Israel as a “Jewish State.” Those who support this formula insist that Israel is more than a land linked to a people; Jewishness is its positive content. In the lingua franca of Israeli politics this translates into a state governed according to Jewish (religious) law, a national ethos that leaves little room for pluralism and, more subtly, a narrowing of the focus of public life to Jewish concerns. The drafters’ commitment to the pluralism of an open society rendered this formula unsuitable.

Israel as the “state of the Jewish people” was therefore our choice. What Shammas neglects to tell his readers is that the preamble in which this formula appears is followed directly by an elaborate and detailed Bill of Rights that prohibits prejudicial treatment and guarantees equality to all citizens of Israel regardless of religion, nationality, race, etc.

The tensions that mark this unusual juxtaposition are obvious. A state linked to the Jewish people that commits itself to a pluralist open society contains an explosive mixture of elements. Many of Shammas’ complaints are a painful reminder of how delicate this balance is and of how often it has been violated. It is also an indication of the necessity for a definitive constitutional charter that clearly demarcates the permissible from the forbidden.

There are those voices—heard with greater frequency and shrillness of late—that would have us jettison the democratic-pluralist character of Israel in favor of Jewish interests. Others wish that Israel’s Jewish character would just go away and leave us with something they call a “secular democratic” state. Herein lies Israel’s greatest test: does it have the fortitude, the patience and the judgment to withstand the simplifiers, to preserve a tension that is not always easily borne?

Bernard Susser

Kfar Saba, Israel

Anton Shammas replies:

Let me first yield to candor’s demand. No, I don’t “wish to see ‘Israel’ replaced by a different name,” let alone a name that begins with a “P.” I do wish, though, the drafters of the “definitive constitution” proposal had demarcated the borders of that state, thus drawing a clear, green line between the permissible and the forbidden. Failing to do so, Dr. Susser, sincere as he is in his sympathy, cannot expect us, the Arabs of Israel, to sleep well on this side of the withering Green Line, safe and sound under the cover of the proposed constitution.

The absence of borders is not the only flaw in the draft though. I will run, again, a grave risk of dealing with “simple moral dichotomies,” streamlined and flattened out as they are, when I observe that the basic tenet, on the very first page, which defines the state of Israel as “the state of the Jewish people,” is neatly contradicted by the statement that appears ten lines later: “The State of Israel is a democratic state.” No state can be a democratic state if it is not the state of its citizens.

As for the “elaborate and detailed Bill of Rights” Dr. Susser mentions, this—sections 5 to 35 on “Human Rights”—is the major drawback of the proposed constitution. Jews and Arabs alike (there are, officially, no Israelis in Israel, remember) are better off without it since the overshadowing phrase “in order to protect the security of the State” recurs in different variations eleven times among the thirty-one sections of the constitution, its effect being to undermine the stated rights. However, the coup de grâce comes on the penultimate page of the proposal, some twenty-five pages and 159 sections apart from the “Bill of Rights.” It reads as follows:

P. State of Emergency

  1. The Knesset shall prescribe by law the arrangements for an emergency situation and it may determine the powers and measures that may be exercised during a state of emergency as well as the modes for overseeing them.

And later:

Derogation from Human Rights

  1. A law pursuant to section 198 may authorize deviation from the provisions of chapter C of the constitution (Human Rights), except as to sections 5, 6, 9, 12, 13, 18, and 31.

Which means, if one bothers to find out what these exceptions are all about, that twenty-four (out of thirty-one) human rights may be derogated under an emergency situation, “in order to protect the security of the [Jewish] State” (which has been under a state of emergency of sorts for forty years now). Among these rights are equality before the law, human liberty, fair trial, freedom of movement, freedom of conscience, opinion, expression, and demonstration, and other luxuries. However, section 9, whose provisions, as declared above, cannot be deviated from, reads, “a person shall not be subjected to slavery or forced labor.” It’s Hebrew to me, but it might sound like good news to the 100,000 “black laborers” from the West Bank, daily crossing the Green Mason-Dixon Line, unaware that no matter how great the situation of emergency, the abolition of slavery, promised in the draft constitution, is still to come.

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