The attitude of the Jewish state towards its non-Jewish citizens
The question of the relationship of the Jewish democratic state to its non-Jewish minority citizens, is a difficult one for several reasons. First, the issue is complicated and complex, not only in the Jewish state, due to the tension between the civic-liberal concept and the concept of a nation state. Second, because it constitutes one of the most severe challenges in the issue of the coexistence of Judaism and democracy. Third, it is difficult to discuss it in an objective, academic manner, since it involves fundamental existential questions for Israeli society and for each of us as individuals within it. Due to all the above, addressing this matter is complicated, difficult and sensitive.
At the same time, we, as a society, are obligated to repeatedly examine our path in running the country; to examine the attitude of the state to its Jewish and democratic character, its attitude to the various individuals living in it, as well as its attitude to the non-Jewish minorities living in it. Furthermore, questions which were resolved in the past, arise again. Since they are fundamental questions, we cannot suffice with past answers, and we cannot suffice with anything less than examining these questions in depth.
The question of the relationship between the character of the state and the rights of groups and/or the rights of minorities living there, who do not necessarily identify with its character, is a problematic question. This relationship is complex and fragile in any country and naturally, in a country like Israel, it is that much more challenging. On the one hand, the State of Israel is clearly a nation state, while on the other hand, it is a democratic state committed to the implementation and practical realization of liberal values. Consequently, the difficult question is already posed regarding the attitude of the majority towards a minority that is not a part of the Jewish nation which constitutes the “Jewish” component of the Jewish-democratic state.
The Jewish people was privileged to establish its national home in the land of Israel after many years of exile, and established its state there. The country that was established included and includes in its territory ethnic and other nationalities that constituted and remain a minority, relative to the dominant majority group, the Jewish majority. Without addressing the demographic question or the different understandings of the various philosophies regarding the Judaism of the state, we will adopt the basic assumption that the ethnic nation-state is a state with a significant Jewish majority and Jewish affiliation, which is manifest in its character, its symbols, its laws, and more. At the same time, one must keep in mind that the Jewish state is democratic by definition and therefore, committed to the values of freedom and equality.
It appears that whenever the intention is to profoundly and levelheadedly examine the question of the proper majority-minority relationship in Israel, reality prevents any possibility of conducting a thoughtful, moderate and rational discussion. The problems of day-to-day security, the economy and daily challenges in the areas of both internal and external security, constitute a barrier preventing an unbiased discussion without demagoguery. We admit that every time we even considered raising the topic, reality intervened and declared: “This is not the time. Not now. Not at this moment.” The topic is too volatile. It’s too sensitive. Too slanted. Too much.
Nevertheless, despite the volatility of the topic and despite its complexity, the fact that the topic is at the foundation of the continued existence of the state requires dealing with this question in a serious and thoughtful manner. We will attempt to touch upon, to address, and to weigh this question, cognizant of the fact that the question is difficult. Nevertheless, we hope that the deliberation will be constructive, thoughtful and beneficial.
In our current newsletter, we address a complex and challenging issue: the attitude of halakha to the status of Israeli Arabs as a national minority in a Jewish-democratic nation-state – the State of Israel.
The Extreme Responses
To this question in the intra-Jewish and even intra-religious discourse, simple and simplistic responses are given. We often hear responses that move between the two extremes of the continuum. At one extreme: “This is my country and if it is uncomfortable for someone, he should not be here.” At the other extreme: “This is a country that is composed of all its minorities; I, too, am a minority and demand special treatment.” The first response assigns decisive significance to the Jewish character of the state and asserts that anyone who doesn’t reconcile himself with the majority experience, its identity and symbols, is invited to leave. This response seeks to obliterate the identity and uniqueness of the minorities.
The second response expresses despair. It dismisses the character of the state and asserts that all told, this is a collection of minorities, none of which is superior to another, and for all intents and purposes, there is no state character and the symbols of the majority are meaningless.
The first approach reflects a lack of empathy to the honest and genuine distress of one who experiences the minority experience, which is not a simple experience, especially in a nation state like ours. This lack of empathy is accompanied by a lack of willingness to listen to the voice of a member of the minority who claims difficulty, discrimination and exclusion. This approach does not leave any room for a common experience or partnership of any kind. Obviously this approach does not attempt to improve the feeling of alienation of the member of the minority and does not attempt to connect him to the state – since the state is the experience of the majority and the minority is requested to either adapt or choose some other place to live. This voice does not leave much room for a member of the minority to be integrated into the country and certainly not into its governance. This radical approach is problematic, not only from a democratic perspective, but also from a Jewish-Torah perspective. Many times, the Torah commanded to display sensitivity to the foreign stranger living in the land, on the basis of the memory of our having been strangers in the Land of Egypt, and since then – in countless other exiles.
The second radical approach is diametrically opposed from an emotional perspective. Fundamentally, it includes the disaffection of its Jewish spokesperson from identification with the collective and the majority. On the contrary, national symbols are nothing more than symbols of a minority with a large population, but with no substantial influence on the country which conducts itself with aloofness and alienation. The spokesperson who says: “I am also a minority within the country,” is even more extreme than the spokesperson of the first approach; he asserts that he does not have any identification that connects him even to the majority and the symbols of the state (even if ethnically, he belongs to this group). Consequently, not only does he not feel part of the majority, he even absolves himself of any responsibility to the state and to its running vis-à-vis various issues. His very identity, by his claim, as a minority or even as a disadvantaged minority – absolves him from running the state and from managing the conflict over the place of minorities in a majority state. This claim undermines the claims of other minorities in the discussion, and beyond that, removes the responsibility of the spokesperson to be a responsible partner in governing the country and in formulating its policies. The one who makes that claim, demands for himself the right to be part of the decisive majority (and as such, feels disadvantaged), however, does not assume the commitment and responsibility that would follow from that claim.
Predictably, the radical and polarized voices create great resonance, and cause a commotion, which makes conducting a serious discussion of the proper approach to minorities whose nationality differs from that of the majority difficult, because neither is seeking to take responsibility for the situation, or to change or improve it. Neither is facilitating the discourse. Both approaches are also unfair because they leave no place for the minority, a minority living and functioning in our midst, and for a legitimate discussion about their life here.
A closer examination of the diverse voices in Israeli society indicates that between the two extremes there is a silent majority seeking to find a reasonable solution and to formulate a way of life that will provide for the different, complex needs of Israel society.
The Approach of the “Equitable Landlord”
We would like to propose a different approach to defining the attitude of the state to the non-Jewish minority living in it. We will characterize this approach the “equitable landlord” approach. There are two sides to this equation: “the landlord” on the one hand and equitable on the other.
The fact that the majority is the “landlord” means that the symbols of the majority are the symbols of the state and its values are the basis for the values of the state. These would be the values of Jewish culture and its symbols that will stand at the foundation of the state and will be significant components in every discussion regarding its identity and its primary characteristics. It is understood that the values of democracy are essential elements of this approach. The approach of “landlord” even requires the majority to be responsible for the house and for its preservation and maintenance. What is this house? It is the state including all its Jewish-democratic values, as well as its heritage – liberalism, morality, culture and Jewish history in its broadest sense.
However, “landlord” is not sufficient. He must be equitable. A landlord is not necessarily an egocentric term. The landlord understands that there are additional residents with him on this property called the State of Israel, and he relates to them with fairness and morality. He respects them, their place and their existence within the state and in its community. The equitable landlord does not exclude his tenant from decision-making and determining the public agenda.
The term “equitable landlord” is a term that can attract challenges from many directions. Some will oppose the term “landlord” and say: “You are not a landlord,” while others may oppose the demands of “equity” and say that it curtails the rights of the landlord and limits his power. However, we believe that this is the essence of the Jewish-democratic state and therefore, we deem it appropriate.
Basing the Concept of Equity on Israeli Sources
On the verse: “You shall do the upright and the good in the eyes of the Lord” (Devarim 6:18), the rabbis interpreted: “This means compromise and going beyond the letter of the law.”
What is the letter of the law? In our context, one could say that “law” means legislation that promotes the interests of the majority in the nation-state. This is a legitimate process from the democratic perspective as well. “Beyond the letter of the law” is interpreted as formulating a policy that takes into consideration the minority groups, their civil rights, and the cultural and emotional needs of the minority. “Beyond the letter of the law” is an absolute ethical obligation by Torah law; it is not a “favor”.
Rashi (in his commentary on Vayikra 19) says: In what contexts does God insert Himself with the phrase: “I am the Lord”? Everywhere there is a need for “fear of God.” And what is the fear of God? It is in effect a situation where only you know your true intentions, as “any matter given to the heart, it is stated there: ‘You shall fear your God.’” In other words, in a situation where only you know in your heart whether your actions are for the sake of the permitted, the constructive, or for reforming the world; or whether your actions were performed to promote the immoral, unjustified harm, or against one who is unable to cope with it. This concept of “fear of God” and of “doing the upright and the good” corresponds well with the concept of “veil of ignorance” of the philosopher John Rawls and his considerations of equity in setting policy.
We would like to establish his principle of equity and of fear of God that guide one towards performance of the right thing, even when there are alternative halakhic or legal possibilities, within the term “equitable landlord,” and to implement it in the policy toward minorities and to those who are vulnerable in the State of Israel. We are talking about a complete cultural philosophy, not merely a procedural proposal.
In what way is one a “landlord” and in what way is he “equitable”?
According to the above, a landlord who acts with equity lives a complex life. An equitable landlord is one to whom it is clear that there are additional residents living with him who are entitled to basic rights, respect, and the right to manifest their uniqueness and their culture, but at the same time, will protect his status and his rights in his home and his property.
The equitable landlord knows how to relate to each and every one of his tenants as an individual, and does not judge all the residents on the basis of generalizations based on the conduct of one individual. He assesses the reality intelligently, and is capable of isolating groups, individuals, and voices and distinguishing between them.
The landlord who acts equitably assumes responsibility for the reality that he creates, and attempts to conduct himself in a manner that will enable him to say, primarily to himself and to his God, that he conducted himself properly, justly, morally and equitably.
A landlord who acts equitably understands that at times reality is unfair, and at times, his actions will result in a mishap. In that case, he must correct it, as, for example, the Israeli government did recently, when it took responsibility for its discriminatory policy that was implemented for many years vis-à-vis Arabs with Israeli citizenship and adopted a resolution for a five year plan for the economic development of settlements in the minority sector. This decision was taken without concern that it would necessarily harm the interests and the very Judaism of the state, the State of Israel (without dismissing the discussion about the civic obligations of the members of the minority).
Our call in Yesodot for a policy of an “equitable landlord,” is a call for an internal, moral, perpetual and Jewish assessment of policy that stems from a sense of security, equity and responsibility.