Israel’s Independence Day, the 5th of Iyar according to the Jewish calendar, falls on April 29th this year. This is always an occasion to reflect on Israel’s prospects, and, as always, there is good news and bad news.
Earlier this week the head of the Palestinian Authority, Muhammed Abbas, once again ruled out recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. Hamas clearly wants to continue violent confrontation with Israel, but Abbas prefers a peace agreement that leads to the long-term erosion of the Jewish character of Israelthrough, for example, immigration to Israel of the descendants of the Palestinian refugees of 1947.
Analysts have long assumed that demographics constitutes the greatest long-term threat to Israelthe “Arab womb” overwhelming the Jews. More recent data, however, suggests that rising Jewish fertility and falling Arab fertility are likely to keep the ratio of Jews to Arabs close to the present four-to-one-level for the foreseeable future. In 1969, Jewish births in the area west of the Jordan River formed only sixty-nine percent of the total. By 2008, the proportion had risen to seventy-five percent. Israel has by far the highest birth rate in the industrial world.
New immigration, however, is low in part because Jews outside of Israel evince weaker identification with the Jewish state, and new emigration is high, in part, because Israelis see less reason to live at risk in a country whose national purpose has become less clear to them. Is Israel simply another liberal democracy that happens to be inhabited mainly by Jews and maintains the sort of “kinship-immigration” policy that Germany also has? Or is Israel a Jewish state first and foremost?
In a secular world operating according to liberal ideology, a Jewish state seems something of an anachronism. A large body of opinion wants Israel to dissolve into a single state with the Palestinians and abandon its Jewish character outright. This is the view of New York University’s Tony Judt, for example. In an often-cited essay for the New York Review of Books in 1993, Judt denounced the fact that Israel “is an ethnic majority defined by language, or religion, or antiquity, or all three at the expense of inconvenient local minorities,” in which “Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges” that do not belong in “a world that has moved on, a world of individual rights, open frontiers, and international law.”
Israel also faces internal pressure to conform to secular liberal criteria. At the same time that Israeli voters chose a nationalist government as a response to security concerns, other parts of Israeli society reflect a paralysis of purpose that may do as much long-term damage to Israel as the external threats. Azure magazine, a quarterly published by the Shalem Center of Jerusalem, has for years drawn attention to the actions of Israel’s Supreme Court. In the Spring 2009 issue, attorneys Joel H. Golovensky and Ariel Gilboa argue that the rigorous application of liberal principles has led the Supreme Court to disrupt the core idea of the Zionist project: to settle Jews in the Land of Israel.
In a set of rulings, the Court has compelled housing developments built by the private Jewish National Fund to accept Israeli Arab residents. This seems a minor issue, when compared to headlines about Iran’s nuclear ambitions or Hamas rocket attacks, but it goes to the Jewish state’s greatest long-term vulnerability: its desire to be Jewish. The issue is not whether Arab citizens of Israel should have access to housing but whether they may demand access to any housing.
The Court has argued that the rights of all Israeli citizens to equal treatment override other concerns and justify judicial compulsion of private associations. But what are these other concerns? Security is one. As the authors quote Ruth Gavison, former head of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, “In the context of the ongoing conflict, Israel is justified in establishing Jewish towns with the express purpose of preventing the contiguity of Arab settlement both within Israel and with the Arab states across the border: Such contiguous settlement invites irredentism and secessionist claims, and neutralizing the threat of secession is a legitimate goal.”
The Azure authors add, “Preserving the Jewish character of various communities dispersed throughout Israel, especially relatively small ones, is therefore as much an inevitable consequence of geopolitical reality as it is both historically justified and supported by commonly accepted international norms.”
Apart from the security aspect, though, a broader principal is involved, as Golovensky and Gilboa observe: “In several important ways, the state of Israel was founded as an attempt to create a framework of affirmative actionpolitical, legal, and culturalfor the Jewish people as a whole. Despite Palestinian allegations concerning the historical injustice they have suffered, from a broader perspective, Zionism is based solidly on the principle of justice.”
From the Zionist vantage point, the state of Israel has a responsibility to the Jewish people as a whole, including prospective immigrants from the Diaspora, many of whom may be seeking residence in Israel as remedy against prospective threats. For the Jews of the former Soviet Union, that was not a minor issue. Nor is it today for the Jews of France. In that sense, what appears anomalous at the local level, namely an affirmative action policy instituted for the benefit of a majority, appears a natural response to the requirements of the tiny Jewish minority worldwide.
All depends on whether Israel sees itself as a fulfillment of the Zionist project or simply another liberal state. In the latter case, it is conceivable that the Hamas, Hizbollah, as well as the PLO and their backers among rogue states will create enough discomfort to inhibit immigration and promote emigration. Despite the surge in the Jewish fertility rate, a reversal of net immigration could over the long term undermine the Jewish State.
After all, if Israel is simply another liberal democracy indistinguishable from Belgium or Portugal, why live in a place subject to such a high level of risk? Followed to its logical conclusion, the liberal position in any case requires the liquidation of the Jewish State, just as Tony Judt demands.
Defenders of the West democracies should take a deep interest in the outcome of what might seem to be arcane legal matters in Israel. Pushed to its extreme conclusion, the secular liberal model will exclude the sacred and the traditional from public life. Of all the things sacred in the thousands of years of pre-history and history that inform Western Civilization, surely Judaism and the Jewish people are the oldest and arguably the most pertinent to the character of the West. Eroding the Jewish character of Israel is an obsession of the secular project, precisely because the Jewish people in their Third Commonwealth in the Land of Israel have such profound importance for the Christian West.
David P. Goldman is associate editor of First Things.