When David Ben-Gurion declared, 61 years ago, that “This right is the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State,” the vast majority of those who viewed themselves as enlightened, progressive, peace-seeking, and committed to human rights wholeheartedly agreed with him.
Yet this seemingly taken-for-granted notion is becoming increasingly less so. Increasingly, we can hear within Israel’s elites that “Jewish and democratic” is an inherent contradiction, because if the State is associated with only some of its citizens and not to others, this violates the principle of democratic equality.
The feeling that Zionism is illegitimate is spreading even more quickly abroad. Not only in Europe, but in the United States as well. Not too long ago, a friend of mine who is a professor at Columbia University told me that his Jewish students define their identity as follows: “Jewish, but not Zionist.”
How did we get there within six decades? How did a notion that earlier appeared to be democratic and progressive turned in the eyes of many into the exact opposite? Any answer should take into account at least two dramatic processes in the history of the state, one that came from the right side of the political map and another that came from the left: The first one is the increasing identification of Zionism with the settlement enterprise and the occupation regime, and the second one is the new usage of the language of civil rights in order to revoke fundamental democratic rights.
The first of these two is easily understood: The occupation is not, and cannot be, democratic. Therefore, if Zionism identifies with the settlements, Zionism isn’t democratic. Keeping millions of Arabs devoid of rights is a blatant violation of our Declaration of Independence and of Zionism’s moral basis, the right of “each and every nation” to self-determination. Practically as well, the settlement enterprise threatens to eliminate Zionism and integrate it into a form of bi-nationalism.
Deceptive interpretationOn the Left as well, many have turned their backs on partition. The longer the occupation stayed in place, the more despaired the Left became. The contempt to the settlement enterprise turned into aversion to Israel and to the very Zionist idea. This leftist camp abandoned the Declaration of Independence and limited itself to a narrow and deceptive interpretation of the idea of individual rights.
It started dreaming of the “state of all its citizens” which is not premised on nationality, between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, which is seen as the home of individuals only rather than peoples, and where all individuals identify with the state equally. Equality would be full and democracy would be perfect. This is the view used by leftist intellectuals, hand in hand with the “Durban II” conference, to promote the notion that a Jewish state is a racist state.
Yet the simple truth is that the radical Left’s view is no more than self-deception: The State of Israel would stop being Jewish only if it ceases to be democratic. As long as it is home to a Jewish majority, this majority will choose the Shabbat as its day of rest, the Jewish holidays as its calendar, and Hebrew as its language.
This is the meaning of democracy: it is a mechanism for realizing the right for self-determination. It entrusts in the hands of citizens the right to shape their lives, and they will do it in line with their culture. The Palestinians will do the same should they choose democracy. And to that end, we need partition and we need two states, because we have two peoples here, not only individuals.
It is therefore appropriate that on Memorial Day and on Independence Day we return to the Declaration of Independence and remember that the right of every people for self-determination is the basis of Zionism. Those who attempt to prevent other people from determining their nationality – in the name of civil rights or the mitzvah of settling the land – are blatant enemies both of Zionism and of democracy.