What does a state owe its citizens, and what do a state’s citizens owe their state? It is a question that has been front and center in the U.S. stemming from what seems like an avalanche of police shootings of African Americans and the resulting demonstrations, including those of NFL players not standing for the national anthem, but in the last week it has been occupying my mind due to events in Israel. Both sides – state and citizens – appear to be forgetting that there is a mutual obligation to each other that can and must be divorced from specific policies lest the entire system suffer a crisis of legitimacy.
At Shimon Peres’s funeral last Friday, there was a cavalcade of world leaders, cultural luminaries, and Israeli politicians and officials in attendance. Notably absent were Joint List chairman Ayman Odeh and the other members of his Knesset faction, a move that Odeh defended later that day by arguing that Palestinian citizens of Israel have no part in Israeli national mourning and that Peres was responsible for policies that Arab Israelis cannot forgive. Odeh singled out the Israeli narrative and Israeli symbols that exclude him as a non-Jewish citizen, and also specifically mentioned Peres’s role in building up the state’s defenses as something that he cannot celebrate. As to be expected, Odeh was roundly criticized, but stuck to his guns that not attending the funeral or issuing any official statement of condolence was the appropriate move.
Then this week, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked served as the mirror image of Odeh, arguing in a HaShiloach journal article entitled המשילות אל מסילות (The Tracks to Governability) that the more Jewish a nation Israel is, the more ipso facto democratic it will be. The core of the article is actually an argument for the primacy of the legislative branch and its right to be largely free of unwarranted judicial checks, but Shaked spends the third section of the article making the case that Judaism reinforces democracy and that there is not actually any tradeoff between Israel’s Jewish character and its democratic character. So while Odeh made the point that Israel’s focus on its Jewishness makes aspects of it inherently illegitimate for its non-Jewish citizens, Shaked made the point that Israel’s Jewishness makes it more legitimate as a democratic state that represents all of its citizens.
You can fill an entire library with books and articles of political theory and law dealing with the question of what a state owes its citizens, but I’d boil it down to a very simple precept: a state is required to protect and represent all of its citizens equally. By the same token, citizens owe a basic allegiance to the state; not to the government or its specific policies, but to the state itself. That is why both Odeh and Shaked are wrong in this case, and if you pursue their rationales and justifications to their logical conclusions, you end up with a complete disaster.
Let’s start with Shaked, which is in some ways the more straightforward case. I am an unapologetic defender of Israel as the Jewish homeland and as a Jewish state, and in my view the need for a Jewish state and the right of Jews to realize their nationalist aspirations require no apology or qualification. Nonetheless, since Israel is not a state only for Jews, this requires a delicate balancing act that takes into account the fact that democracy requires equal rights for non-Jewish citizens and identical treatment under the law. It is possible to have a state that is both Jewish and democratic, as Israel demonstrates every day, but it is plainly wrong to assert that these two elements can both be fulfilled to their utmost capacity simultaneously. A perfectly pure liberal democracy would not have the Law of Return; a perfectly pure Jewish state would not have non-Jews serving in the Knesset, Supreme Court, or IDF. The fact that Israel is not an ideal type of either of these things is something to be celebrated rather than criticized, but to assert that the two elements march together in perfect lockstep is a statement of ideology rather than logic. But more crucially, it risks destroying the balance and leading to a situation in which Israel is not fulfilling its obligations to its citizens by protecting and representing them equally to the best of its ability. Legislation that prioritizes Jewish law for domestic legal purposes will discriminate against and disenfranchise non-Jewish Israelis, and advocating for such betrays a lack of understanding about how democratic states must operate.
This brings me to Odeh and his view of what he owes the state. I understand and sympathize with Odeh’s dilemma, given his struggle for the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel to be free of discrimination and to have their narrative not only understood by Israeli Jews but respected and acknowledged by the state. Israel is far from perfect, and perhaps no better than adequate for a Western democracy, in the way it deals with its non-Jewish minority. Nevertheless, in skipping Peres’s funeral Odeh and the Joint List elevated the “Palestinian” part to the complete exclusion of the “citizens of Israel” part. Leaving aside the somewhat perplexing move of demonizing Peres of all people, and ignoring his later role as a genuine peacemaker in favor of his earlier role as a hawk and champion of settlements, Odeh and company did not snub a man but the state itself. Peres served as president, prime minister, and in a host of other cabinet positions, and was the last member of the state’s founding generation. I do not for a second begrudge Odeh and Palestinian citizens of Israel their Nakba narrative or their view that the founding of Israel was a tragedy, nor do I believe that any criticisms they have of Peres should be kept under wraps (although Odeh’s decrying Peres for his work defending the state in which Odeh and his family live boggles the mind). But as Israeli citizens and members of the national legislature, who rightly demand that the state fulfill its obligations to them and participate in the state’s politics and governance, I expect them to have a baseline respect for the state itself, whether they like the state or not. I keep on thinking of the West Wing episode in which the president hires the wildly eccentric and inappropriate Debbie Fiderer to be his secretary because in a letter she writes to the White House suggesting that arsenic be put in his water, she still refers to him as President Bartlet, showing her respect for the office despite her feelings about the man occupying it. The more appropriate move for Odeh and the Joint List MKs would have been for them to attend the funeral and then spend the rest of the day loudly broadcasting their criticisms of Peres in every outlet they could find.
Israel successfully walks a very fine line between competing pressures of governance every day. Neither Shaked nor Odeh seem to appreciate this balancing act, nor to understand that a state must have a basic respect for all its citizens while its citizens must have a basic respect for their state if the polity is to be successful. What makes Israel unique is the unprecedented experiment in Jewishness and democracy simultaneously, and it will be tragic indeed if a vision for Israel emerges victorious that does not have sufficient room for both.