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Why Are (Mostly Liberal) American Jews Silent as Right-Wing Extremists in Israel Threaten the Country's Democracy?

Political scientist Peter Beinart says that how Jews handle power will be the test of the Jewish tradition.

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The problem is that since they have a natural affinity with the Palestinian population under occupation, they've become more deeply alienated from the Israeli state. Then their affinity with their Palestinian brethren -- they really are extended families -- in the West Bank leads to them being perceived to be a fifth column within Israel. This allows people like Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman to build their political careers on the claim that these people are disloyal.

Secondly, as Israel’s policy in the West Bank make it more isolated from the world, people on the right in Israel look to Israel’s internal critics and say they are a fifth column contributing to our demonization abroad. These have both been phenomena that Lieberman and a lot of figures on the Israeli right have played upon since 2009. They’ve contributed to this growing sense that there's a growing anti-democratic trend inside Israel itself.

JH: There was a recent measure considered by the Knesset to require Supreme Court justices to have served in the military, which you could say was a backdoor mechanism from keeping Israeli Arabs, who are exempt from military service, off of the high court.

Peter, you’re a liberal Zionist. For a long time I think that was the default position of most Jews in the United States, and certainly in Israel. Now some are calling themselves post-Zionists or even anti-Zionists in some cases. I want to read a little paragraph that Anat Biletzki wrote. She’s an Israeli peace activist and scholar at University of Tel Aviv. She wrote earlier this month, “It seems that liberal Zionists will never forsake the Jewish majority as the essence of the State of Israel. Since precisely that majority is what they think makes the state a democracy. But no democracy should determine or foretell the identity of its citizenry.”

She then asked, “What shall we do when in a century from now when Israeli Arabs just naturally become a majority through natural reproduction rates or Jewish emigration, or any other unforeseeable vagary of history. Shall we cast all Arab-born sons into the sea?”

How do you reconcile that?

PB: I think at the very beginning of the book there’s a tension between Zionism and liberal democracy. Between a state whose Declaration of Independence has a promise of complete equality irrespective race, religion, or sex and a state that has a special obligation to safeguard and represent the Jewish people. I think that tension is real, but I think it’s worth noting that Israel is not the only country that faces that tension. There are many countries that have crosses on their flags. To be the Head of State in the United Kingdom you have to be Anglican. There are many democracies, especially in Eastern Europe, that have preferential immigration policies.

Obviously the importance of Israel treating its citizens equally is beyond dispute, but you can also see -- particularly in a state formed in the wake of the Holocaust -- the value of a state that has a particular mission for the safeguarding of a people that have been particularly vulnerable for 2,000 years. That may seem very remote to people, but it was only in the 1980s that Israel, because of its Jewish character and Zionist commitment, essentially rescued the Jews of Ethiopia. Even today there’s been a significant influx of Jews from France moving to Israel because they no longer feel totally safe there.

I think there are very important questions that Israel is going to have to face. Remember this is a country without a constitution and that has never even really defined what the word “Jew” means. I think you can imagine an Israel that evolves toward greater mechanisms for full representation of the Arab population without fully losing the special responsibility it has for the safeguarding of Jewish life.

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