Israel’s Nation State Bill and the Declaration of Independence

“Being a free people in our land” brings with it responsibility for its democratic functions and Jewish character in equal measure.

The Declaration of Independence describes the historic journey towards May 1948 and the vision for the nascent Jewish state known as the State of Israel. Its power rests in the aspirations the Jewish people have for self-determination in the face of thousands of years of exile, continuing settlement in the land and devastating events of the 20th century. A vision of democracy and Judaism hand in hand.

The narrative behind the new Nation State bill is altogether different. It downgrades the role of the Arabic language and appears to give a greenlight to single ethnic and religious groups to create communal settlements to the exclusion of others. And all that is besides other complex issues of how minority groups are regarded.

The narrative behind these laws seems to be fundamentally conflicted. On the one hand there is a vision of Israeli Jewish culture being more important than anything else – be it Jewish culture in the diaspora or culture of other minority groups in Israel.  At the same time, the vision is one of a perceived existential internal threat constantly destabilising the Jewish character, leading to a chronic case of cultural insecurity.

Good laws should be set within a vision of how the world might be and how it should be. My vision for the State is not one wrought up in confusion of its own significance, with an inferiority complex and where rampant religious and ethno-centrism permits the establishment of mono-ethnic/religious communal settlements and even the suggestion of lesser status of minority groups.

Rather, the soaring democratic vision of the Declaration of Independence must be a more compelling narrative. As Dr Michael Livni, a Reform Zionist educator in Israel wrote back in 1987, “The western democratic tradition of civil rights and liberties that guarantees freedom of religion and conscience has not been realised in Israel in spite of Israel’s Declaration of Independence which is, however, declarative only and not legally binding….Ultimately, the realization of the idea of the Jewish state, the development of meaningful Jewish content for this and future generations, is not something that can be legislated…this is the task of committed social process, of community and perhaps of a community of communities based on free will and conscious of their Zionist Shlichut (mission).”

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This article was first written for the Jewish News published on 25 May 2017, but they misspelled my name and cut Michael Livni’s quote quite strangely, so felt it important to repost here.

Shared Hope and the Dispossessed

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Mira Awad, Shay Alon (guitar) and Mark Greenfield (drums)

הַשְׁכִּיבֵֽנוּ יהוה אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ לְשָׁלוֹם וְהַעֲמִידֵֽנוּ מַלְכֵּֽנוּ לְחַיִּים
וּפְרוֹשׂ עָלֵֽינוּ סֻכַּת שְׁלוֹמֶֽךָ
Source of our life and our Sovereign, cause us to lie down in peace, and rise again to enjoy life.
Spread over us the covering of Your peace.(Evening service liturgy)

I’m about the same age as Mira Awad and our families have histories that are microcosmic reflections of the 20th century. Her Palestinian family were dispossessed in the birth of the State of Israel. My family were migrants, fleeing hardship and antisemitism in Eastern Europe in the turn of the 20th century and then dispossessed refugees fleeing the rise of Nazism in the mid-20th century. She and I have every reason to feel bereft of hope for humanity because the scars of family trauma run deep through the generations. Yet, I discovered quite the opposite as I sat with her for Friday night dinner and then heard her perform.

As I explained during the week to my children (who are born into a family of refugees on both sides, whether from Germany or Egypt, where my father-in-law was born and fled from in the 1950s) – Mira was a Palestinian Israeli who sang in Arabic, Hebrew and English. They innocently asked, “What’s a Palestinian and what’s Arabic?”

If ever there was a question loaded with the heavy weight of political discourse it was those two questions. Yet, I found great freedom in telling my children that the land of Israel was important to peoples not just a people. Jewish people live there and so do Palestinians and also Bedouin and Druze. I told my children, the Palestinians feel connected to the land and call it home and that Arabic is one of the national languages of the State of Israel. We share, at least theoretically, the land with other peoples. That was enough for two under 6 year olds. But it was a moment of great congruence between my values, my professional life and raising my children.

We share the land

The Hebrew is HaChevrah HaMeshutefet – Shared Society. We all teach our children about sharing. We teach them about the way in which we ask them to give up monopoly control even with the pain that might entail. And through sharing, our children discover that the enjoyment of life can actually be enlarged, not diminished. We teach that possession of a thing, of a space, is never absolute and we see the pain when they are dispossessed.  Sounds simplistic right? But I’m not simplistic: I know that children ‘sharing a toy’ is not the same as national aspirations for self-determination nor a counter to terrorism and the rhetoric of violence.

Yet, I still do not know how we’ve reached this point in the arc of human history. On Saturday night, I watched Mira with her stunning voice and beautiful music, justify describing herself as an optimist. She has every reason not to be optimistic. She’s a Palestinian Israeli, born to a Bulgarian mother and Palestinian father in the Galilee. Her family know intimately about the twists and turns of history, the impact of conflict and belonging. She knows the challenges of walking the complex path of identity, in which you can be attacked from all sides for being a traitor, participating in white-washing, and betraying your heritage. It’s for that reason she describes herself as an acrobat Bahlawan in Arabic (the title of her enchanting Album).

Bukra – Tomorrow

So as she gave a concert at West London Synagogue it saddened me to hear her introduce her song ‘Bukra’ (Tomorrow) by saying she was an optimist and that she was not going to accept being criticised for saying she was an optimist. She believed in tomorrow, not through naivety but a profound and strident humanist vision of tomorrow.

I was inspired by Mira, because she did not have to see beyond the depressing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, nor did she have to work for a shared society in Israel where Palestinian Israelis are one of the most obvious victims of inequality, racism and exclusion. But she did. Mira let us hear through her music (the most simple of shared human expressive forms) that we could all be humanists. To be a humanist is to recognise the essentially human failures but to believe in the hope for that other essential part of humanity – we can work together, feel empathy, strive for betterment, prosperity and create things for beauty and advancement of humankind, share time and space and make peace.

Shared Space

Our shared space for that evening was the West London Synagogue. Mira had joined us for the Friday night service, something new to her at WLS at least and then we joined her in the same space the following evening only this time I was in the pews and she was on the bimah. She listened to our prayers, for Israel, for peace and we listened to her songs of fragility, of love and of hope.

We need compelling visions of the future more than ever. Mira offered us just that.  Never should any of us have to apologise for a vision of trust, of faith in humanity and of peace. It is a disgrace that anyone should be forced to justify her optimism and it is a sign of the depths to which we have sunk that it is necessary. Only a fool would not see that human beings can inflict terrible acts of harm on one another. But only someone with no tomorrow would allow that to dominate their relationships.

The Zenith and the Faithful

We have lost sight of the truth that the thing we all are in search of most of all, is a kind of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Self-actualisation is at the top of the pyramid and is the most new-agey of concepts. But beneath that aspiration are basic needs of safety, security, family, friendship, respect and so on. We have reached a nadir in human relations. We suspect our fellow human beings of wishing us harm before we remember that what most of us want is a quiet, good life where we can provide for our families, feel valued and loved and safe and secure. Our mistrust of our neighbours will be civilisation’s downfall (and I’m not talking about the battle of civilisations, I’m talking about the work of advancement and betterment of the human condition).

It is time we left the lack of trust to our politicians. Religious leaders, musicians, artists, gifted voices: we are in the business of hope and of faith. And that faith and that hope begins with each other – our faith in human goodness and our hope that tomorrow we can share the creation of a world that is better, more radiant and more beautiful than ever. Let us be the faithful, let us be the hopeful for tomorrow.

Bukra 
Is a brand new day
Things can still be going our way
If we make it through the night
Soon will come the morning light.
(Bukra, Mira Awad)