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Ben-Gurion University
OREN YIFTACHEL (geography) - Memo to Barak: Bash Orthodox Jews!

Mr. Prime Minister:


Following your convincing and deserved victory, one of your urgent tasks, beyond the obvious need to move towards peace with the Palestinians, is to begin the creation of a new entity—an Israeli people.

Such a move would be very fitting for the name you chose for your Knesset list—"One Israel." But this is no simple task. It will require a conceptual shift, from Jewishness to Israeliness as the core of the country's national identity. To become a genuine democracy, the identity of the Israeli state must become Israeli.

For its first fifty years, Israel has been an ethnocracy—a political system by, and for, one ethnic group at the expense of others. In Israel's early years, this was perhaps understandable, given the legacy of past persecutions and the right of Jewish refugees to a safe haven. But in later years, the foundations of this ethnocratic regime have been extended far beyond the need to accommodate Jewish refugees to the detriment of genuine democracy.

Democracy requires equal citizenship; that is, equality vis-a-vis the law of the land.

Ethnocratic regimes aim to expand the control of the dominant group over the state and its resources. They also typically empower their own ethnic diasporas, at the expense of local minorities. Here in Israel, the policy of judaization has been the cornerstone of most Israeli governments, with the result that Jews around the world have been given more rights than local Arab citizens, especially in key areas such as immigration, citizenship, land ownership, settlement, and development.

The fact that Israel is an ethnocracy was clearly reflected in one of the most significant decisions made by the Israeli High Court of Justice in 1988. The then-president of the court, Meir Shamgar, claimed that "Israel's definition as the state of the Jewish people does not negate its democratic character, in the same way that the Frenchness of France does not negate its democratic character." But, of course, this statement harbors a conceptual distortion: if France is French, Israel should be Israeli (and not Jewish)."

Democracy requires equal citizenship; that is, equality vis-à-vis the law of the land. And it requires that the people who are governed by the law—the permanent residents of the country (and only they!)—be sovereign to change this law through political action. Genuine democratization would thus require a redefintion of the political and institutional (though not cultural or religious) role of Jewish diasporas within the Israeli polity. This should entail, for example, the withdrawal of powers now granted to the JNF and the Jewish Agency inside Israel and the cancellation of the Law of Return, except for Jews in danger or distress.

The prevalence of Jewishness over Israeliness has also resulted in the disproportional power of Orthodox Jewish groups. These groups gain legitimacy, power, and resources precisely through their explicitly Jewish agendas, and through their activity to further judaize the state, geographically and religiously. However, their political agenda is often undemocratic, as they aspire to expand religious law and limit the freedom of Israeli citizens in the conduct of their religious, personal, and leisure activities.

This is where the transformation of the state from Jewish to Israeli becomes crucial. Doing so would help democratize the state from both directions by moving its Arab citizens towards equality, and by reducing the non-democratic power of rabbis and Orthodox parties to dictate people's lifestyles.

Dear Prime Minister, your sweeping victory as the head of "One Israel" gives us a golden opportunity to begin the process of genuine democratization.

Oren Yftachel is a professor of geography at Ben Gurion University
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