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A Jewish state or a democratic state?

11 June 2007

The end of my week is taken up with the future of Israel. Israel is one of the handful of countries in the world without a written constitution (the United Kingdom and New Zealand being the others). The main reasons for this are that the drafting of a constitution requires definite answers to unresolved questions in Israel; the place of religion in public life, the borders of the state and the position of the Arab minority. It is on the latter issue that we focus, in a discussion on the drafting of a constitution. By Clive Baldwin

The essential issue is can Israel be a ‘Jewish’ and ‘democratic’ state that equally protects the rights of all of its citizens? To understand this one has to go back to the founding of Israel. The first definite proposal for the partition of the British mandate of Palestine into a ‘Jewish’ and ‘Arab’ state came from a British Peel Commission in 1937. It argued that ethnic or religious segregation was the only way to peace and envisaged both sides ‘exchanging’ populations in a similar way to the Greeks and Turks in 1923 – incidentally, the latter can hardly be considered an exchange that has led to long-term peace between the two countries.

In 1947, despite the Nazi extermination of minorities, the international mood seemed to err ever more strongly in favour of ethnic and religious partition and the expulsion of minorities. German and Hungarian minorities had been expelled from their homes in central Europe, and August 1947 saw the partition of British India, with thousands perishing in the process. Despite this, the United Nations voted in November 1947 for a Jewish and an Arab state. However, unlike the Peel Commission, it did not envisage an exchange of populations, but that both states would fully protect the minority rights of the communities within them. The Declaration of Independence of Israel refers to the guarantee of equality and basic rights of all its citizens.

Today, however, the Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel, approximately 20% of Israel’s population, largely live as second-class citizens. This was certainly my initial impression after my week’s travels, but is an allegation that is made repeatedly at the conference and largely seems to be accepted by the Jewish leaders there, who recognise it as an issue that must be dealt with through a constitution.

For two days, we discuss, with parliamentarians drafting a constitution, with the media and with Arabs and Jews (including Jewish minorities such as those from the Reform religion), what a constitution should contain. Ideally no state should refer to itself as ‘Jewish’ or ‘Muslim’ or ‘Christian’ as that automatically assumes some of its citizens do not fully belong. But a strong and effective guarantee of equality could overcome such a claim, as it has in other countries. Real equality, of both religion and language and in all civic and economic rights could transform the situation here.

The two days leave me surprisingly, with much optimism. I’ve met many people from all sides of the spectrum and I’ve been impressed by the high level of commitment to the drafting of a good constitution. I was also impressed by a willingness to discuss the issues that go to the heart of the identity of the state. The conference, organised by the Mossawa Centre, was an extremely positive first step. In Israel, as elsewhere, knowledge of similar scenarios around the world and the strategies adopted to tackle them, is rather low. Our own contribution, as international experts, is to bring outside knowledge of international standards and good and bad practices from other parts of the world. Successful examples, such as the multi-ethnic South Africa, as well as disastrous examples, such as the rigidly segregated Bosnia-Herzegovina, where Jews are classified as ‘Others’, can hopefully be learned from. Interesting to note that the latter example was designed by international experts…

This article reflects the sole opinion of its author and does not engage MRG’s responsibility.