When Labor leader Buji Herzog rolled out his unilateral disengagement plan a couple of weeks ago – a plan that I think can be a positive step if it incorporates a number of critical components – he made a comment during a Knesset debate that rankled people and drew condemnations for appealing to racist logic. The comment was that if separation from the Palestinians does not happen soon, Jerusalem risks having an Arab mayor, with the obvious implication that this would be a bad thing that should be prevented. So at the risk of plunging into treacherous waters on this topic, is it wrong to want the mayor of Israel’s capital to be Jewish?

A simple answer might be yes. While discrimination and intolerance exist in Israeli politics and society – as they do in the politics and society of every country on Earth – Israel’s testament to being a democracy is that it has full political rights for all of its citizens. As there are Arab members of Knesset, Arab judges on the High Court of Justice, and Arab officers in the military, there is no reason why there cannot or should not be an Arab mayor of Jerusalem. To warn against such an eventuality is to transform Israel from being a Jewish state into a state only for Jews. It is easy to see why people took offense at what Herzog said.

But in this instance, this particular simple answer is insufficient. Let’s begin with some context. The idea of separation is not only Herzog’s main selling point but the animating idea behind the withdrawal plan itself, since it views separating from the Palestinians as soon as possible as so crucial that it throws out the Oslo framework with which the Labor Party is so strongly associated. The premise behind this is twofold, one that deals with the here and now and one that deals with the bigger picture. The here and now is the current security breakdown where violence has returned to Israel’s streets, and so Herzog is repeating an idea that has been largely associated with the right, which is to retreat behind a wall. The bigger picture is the more interesting one though, because it deals with the central principle of Zionism, which is the establishment of a Jewish state, and whether Zionism is a legitimate political movement.

When Herzog warned against the looming danger of an Arab mayor of Jerusalem, I don’t think this was a dogwhistle meant to appeal to anti-Arab sentiment. I get why some may think so, given the plain language involved and coming against the backdrop of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s infamous and abhorrent election night exhortation to rightwing voters to come to the polls and counter the Arab voters “coming out in droves.” I certainly cannot say definitively that Herzog wasn’t drawing from the same ugly well. But my reading of his comment in the larger context is that separation from the Palestinians is needed to secure the Zionist dream, and his invoking of Jerusalem was a clumsy shortcut to making that point. Zionism is nothing more and nothing less than an expression of Jewish nationalism, and the dream of Jewish nationalism necessarily involves Jewish officials exercising sovereignty in a Jewish state. Does it mean that only Jews are allowed into the political arena? Nope. But it’s not outrageous to express a wish that the mayor of the Jewish state’s capital city be Jewish, particularly given that Jews were barred from the Holy Basin when it was under Jordanian control between 1948 and 1967.

The entire premise behind the two-state solution is to preserve Jewish nationalist aspirations, which are at risk in a binational state when that state is no longer majority Jewish. I will not condemn anyone who suggests that Jewish leadership of a Jewish state is a desired goal, since to do otherwise is to flirt with the idea that Zionism is racism. Nobody will blink in the future at the suggestion that the mayor of East Jerusalem – presumably the capital of an independent Palestine – be Palestinian, and that will be neither a racist nor an unreasonable expectation. Herzog was expressing the flip side of that sentiment in the present, albeit in an awkward manner given that Jerusalem is not currently divided between two states. I don’t read it as an attempt to disenfranchise Jerusalem’s Arab residents – and I’d note that the fact that Herzog brings up the possibility is evidence that he isn’t trying to do so – but as an inarticulate way of expressing that without separation, the Zionist goal of a Jewish state is in danger. I for one would have no problem with an Arab mayor of Jerusalem, but there is little question that Jewish sovereignty over Jerusalem is an integral part of Zionism and powerful imagery to evoke.

What Herzog said was largely deemed to be an ordinary statement in Israel because it resonated with many Israeli Jews as a simple explication of Zionist aspirations. This is not because Israeli Jews are racists seeking to keep their fellow Arab citizens down, and it is not because the state would ever prevent an elected Arab mayor of Jerusalem from taking office. It is because they rightly and justifiably view Zionism as just as legitimate as any other form of nationalism, and Jerusalem represents the very heart of Jewish nationalist aspirations. It is no coincidence that Herzog didn’t warn about an Arab mayor of Haifa or Ashdod. I do not begrudge anyone who calls out Herzog for his comment, but it is simply not the same as Netanyahu raising the alarm about the looming peril of Arab votes. It involves a larger question of whether one sees Zionism as inherently racist or as a legitimate nationalist movement of a long-oppressed people.

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