What we learn about Israel’s ethnocentrism by looking at groups inspired by Zionism.
By Shaul Magrid | Tablet | Dec 12, 2018
Politically, and legally, the Nation-State Law assures Jewish dominance and preference in a way that makes perennial inequality unavoidable. In a recent New Yorker essay, ‘Netanyahu’s Inflammatory New Bill,’ Bernard Avishai put the choice bluntly, asking if Israel will be ‘a Hebrew Republic or a little Jewish Pakistan’? Decades before, Martin Buber similarly wondered whether Israel would become a center for humanity or ‘a Jewish Albania.’
The law called “Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People,” also known as the Israeli Nation-State Law, which was passed by the Knesset last July and defines Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people,” has raised serious concerns among political scientists, legal experts, and liberal Zionists, even as it has been celebrated by many of those on the Israeli right. Is this law the fulfillment of Zionism, or its demise? The term “Zionism” itself, and thus the question, is fraught, since Zionism is an ideology that has been at war with itself since its inception.
Which Zionism are we speaking about? Taken at face value, the law seems unproblematic, as that was what many different kinds of Zionism held from the start. But when that idea is made part of the Basic Law of the country, problems arise: 25 percent of Israeli citizens are not Jews and thus find themselves outside the raison d’être of a legally defined ethnocentric state, or what Israeli scholar Oren Yiftachel calls an “ethnocracy.”
Why is this a problem? For example, while we can say colloquially that America is a “Christian country” (over 90 percent of American citizens are at least ancestrally Christian), Congress does not codify that idea into law. And I would assume American Jews would feel somewhat uncomfortable with such legislation. The de facto notion of Israel as a state of the Jews is not the same thing as altering Israel’s Basic Law to say as much.
Two questions one could ask are: (1) What does this new law do to the present reality of statist Zionism (not all Zionism was statist, but arguably today all Zionism is statist) — that is, what kind of state now exists in light of it? And (2) Is legally binding ethnocentrism the natural fulfillment of an earlier form of Zionism that has now dominated the discourse? Or, is this an aberration of statist Zionism?
One way to get at these questions is to explore them not from the perspective of Zionism’s own self-definition or justification, but rather by asking how Zionism has been viewed by others who adopted it for their own movements of self-determination.
Yes, Zionism has been the most significant experiment in Jewish modernity. For a beleaguered people frustrated with the failure of emancipation to resolve the perennial problem of persecution in Europe and fueled by an age-old hope of returning to their ancestral land, the Jews’ creation of an ethnocentric Jewish nation-state seemed, in the heyday of colonialism, like a viable solution to maximize collective flourishing and safety.
Yet while the Zionist experiment may have been the most successful one in the contemporary politics of ethnocentricity, it was not the only one, and perhaps not even the first one, in modernity. Nor is it the last.