Monday, 9 May 2011

Defending the declaration

“The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained statehood…

"The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture…”

Extracts from Israel’s Declaration of Independence, read out by David Ben Gurion, almost exactly 63 years ago, as the storm clouds of war gathered.  The following day the Arab world would unite in an attempt to strangle the Jewish State at birth.  Israel won that war, and several since, but today, though the physical threats to its security remain, there is also another war to be fought; it is for the defense of the dreams of Israel’s founding fathers.

ISRAEL HAS no written constitution, and the Declaration of Independence is the closest thing we have to a mission statement for the first sovereign Jewish polity in 2000 years.  Many messages can be derived from it, but the two central motifs are exemplified in the sections cited above. Namely:
1)      That Israel is the realization of the legitimate right of the Jewish people to a sovereign state of their own, within the boundaries of their historical, cultural and religious homeland;
2)      That that state should fulfill the moral imperatives inherent in Judaism, expressed by the ancient prophets and consistent with the modern principles of democracy and human rights.

These should remain the key principles to any roadmap for Israeli policymakers if we are to see the country live up to the vaunted aspirations of, not only the drafters of the Declaration, but godfathers of Zionism like Herzl, whose novel Altneuland envisaged an enlightened Jewish state acting as a beacon of freedom; or Ahad Ha'am, for whom the Jewish character of the state, epitomized by an ethical core, was the raison d'être of the state itself.

The war for the defense of the Declaration of Independence has two battlefields: here in Israel and abroad.
Living in the UK I became aware, from my student years onwards, of the routine demonization of Israel in public discourse; and of left-wingers setting aside their commitments to women's rights, gay rights and religious and racial equality, in order to scream anti-Zionist slogans alongside radical Islamists.

When I was studying for my Masters degree, my university student union banned its Israel Society on the grounds that Zionism equals racism.  Every other country was allowed to be represented by a student society – including such human rights luminaries as Syria, and even Iran, with its treatment of women as third-class citizens, its execution of homosexuals and its persecution of religious minorities.

I understood very quickly that this was indeed the new anti-Semitism; the ostracization of the Jewish state, the singling out of Israel – notable also in such august bodies as the UN Human Rights Council, which at each session has a permanent agenda item addressing only Israel's alleged human rights abuses. The Council is routinely chaired by the likes of Gaddafi's Libya and genocidal Sudan.

Outside of Israel, fighting this demonization, delegitimization and double standard is to defend the Declaration: specifically, to defend the right of the Jewish people to a state of their own within the borders of their historic homeland.

THIS WAS the battlefield I had been familiar with. Moving to Israel some three years ago, I have discovered that here, defining what it is to ‘defend the Declaration’ is perhaps less simple. Here, there remains the necessity of protecting Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state – diplomatically and, of course, militarily – but there is also an increasingly urgent need to defend the principle of "equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants".

Many of those who loudly proclaim their Zionism display ideological positions somewhat out of sync with the text of the Declaration .  I'm thinking in particular of those pushing 'loyalty' legislation clearly aimed at Arabs (they seem to have no problem with the clear disloyalty to the state of settlers building outposts illegally and then throwing stones at Israeli soldiers and police), or the religious Zionist Rabbis routinely issuing "halachic" judgments against non-Jews – actually in defiance of both religion (as defined by the numerous eminent halachists who have condemned them) and Zionism (as defined by the state's founders in the Declaration).

The Declaration was signed by representatives of all the Zionism factions – socialist, revisionist, religious et al. Too many of today’s heirs of the revisionist stream (primarily in the Likud) seem to have forgotten that their movement's founding father Ze'ev Jabotinsky was a liberal nationalist committed to a fully democratic Jewish state. Meanwhile religious Zionism has, since 1967, been hijacked in large part by the settler movement who increasingly act according to their Rabbis' dictates rather than the laws of the democratic state with its "gentile court" (to cite the outrageous term used by Rabbis expressing their public support for a convicted rapist, former President Moshe Katsav). The Rabbis condemning those who rent apartments to Arabs seem ignorant of the entirely contrary ruling on this matter by past luminaries of religious Zionism such as Rav Abraham Kook and the state's first Chief Rabbi Isaac Herzog. The latter even argued that the Declaration of Independence was a halachically binding document.

Rav Kook is often regarded as the spiritual father of religious Zionism, but he never taught that settling the entire Land of Israel was the pre-eminent mitzvah. (Neither is it among the 613 mitzvot that are considered binding on observant Jews.)  That notion, promoted by his son, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook has directly caused the biggest threat to Israel's status as a democracy.

Israel's control over the entire West Bank, with Jewish settlers enjoying the rights of citizenship and Palestinians not, cannot be reconciled with the democratic Zionism of the Declaration. A failure to relinquish that control will ultimately lead to a 'one-state solution': either an Arab majority Arab state or a Jewish-run apartheid state – the choice between surrendering Jewish sovereignty or democracy and moral legitimacy.

WITH DEBATES aplenty about what Zionism should mean today, and what a Jewish and democratic state should look like, the Declaration of Independence, Israel's founding document, provides the legitimate framework upon which to construct the answers to these questions. In Israel and outside, the fight is on to defend the principles of the Declaration.  Outside Israel, this battle is principally concerned with defending Israel's legitimacy as the nation-state of the Jewish people.  Within the country itself, it is also about ensuring that Israel keeps the promise made by its founding fathers that all its citizens will be guaranteed equal rights and freedoms.  Within today's Knesset, it is clear that those Arab MKs who reject Israel's Jewish national character, and those on the far-right who believe that Israel's non-Jewish citizens should have second-class status, are equally in breach of the Declaration's principles.

These principles dictate that Israel act, with force if necessary, to thwart the plans of Hamas, Hizballah and their sponsor Iran – all of whom seek Israel's demise no less sincerely than did the Arab armies who massed in an attempt to annihilate the nascent Jewish state in 1948.

They also require that greater efforts be made to safeguard the equality of Israel's non-Jewish citizens and to prosecute those who incite racism.  Israeli law is actually very robust in this area but too often the various tools at the state's disposal are not applied.

Finally, with large swathes of the international community poised to endorse Palestinian statehood in September, Israel must counter this move with a proposal of its own that will look to establish secure borders and to end the occupation that will ultimately derail the Zionist project and destroy the dreams of our founding fathers.

Their words, accepted then by religious and secular Zionists, leftists and rightists, remain valid for the State of Israel today.  A State "based on freedom, justice and peace" where we can exercise "the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State."

This was published as an op-ed in The Jerusalem Post on 8/5/2011

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