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An Israeli Arab Prime Minister?

November 27, 2008

By pure coincidence, I happened to be in my old Los Angeles neighborhood on Election Day, and like many others, I found the extraordinary power of that day difficult to articulate. At the polling places in which I’d often voted, but had never waited in line, there were lines around the block. Friends who had voted regularly with no more than a mild sense of civic duty now spoke of participating in a moment that – whether they themselves had voted for Obama or McCain – they’d long remember and would tell their grandchildren about.

For me, the tears that flowed in Chicago’s Grant Park that night were beyond moving. One need neither forgive nor forget Jesse Jackson’s abhorrent comments about Jews and Israel to be deeply stirred by the sight of him weeping during Obama’s speech.

Like Jews, African Americans have known more than their share of suffering, and to see them transcend yet another barrier moved many of us precisely because in some ways their story is akin to ours. The authors of Negro spirituals who sang of getting out of “Egypt land” understood that, perhaps before we did.

Ultimately, though, the power of that day stemmed from the sense that America had recovered its purpose, had found once again the capacity to be about something. Whether one locates America’s purpose in Jefferson’s claim that “all men are created equal,” or perhaps in some notion that all people ought to be granted “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” America has long been about raising high the glass ceiling too often created by race, religion or socioeconomic class, among others. On November 4, at least for African Americans, that ceiling was raised dramatically, or perhaps even shattered. Americans had good reason to be proud.

BUT I will confess to a bit of unease in the aftermath of the election. For both Israelis and many Americans tend to hold Israel accountable to American standards of liberal democracy, quality of life, city planning, civility and more. Israel may not always measure up, but America has become the de facto standard by which we judge ourselves and are judged by others. Eventually, therefore, someone is bound to ask, rhetorically and likely with little sympathy for the Jewish state: If the United States could remove race as a barrier to its highest office, ought not Israel do the same with ethnicity?

Could Israel ever elect an Israeli Arab as Prime Minister?

Like blacks in the US, Israel’s Arabs obviously deserve a fairer share of this society’s bounty than they have received. Per capita expenditures on infrastructure and education for Palestinian Israelis (as they prefer to be called) are too low, and bias against Israel’s Arab citizens can still be felt in far too many facets of Israeli society. There is much work to be done.

But the work to be done should not blind us to Israel’s very purpose. And Israel’s purpose is fundamentally different from that of the United States.

If, in a century, shifting demographics led Congress to become predominantly African-American, or Asian, or Hispanic, that change would simply be further indication of the flourishing of America’s vision, a sign that the scourge of racism had receded even further. It would be testament to the realization of America’s purpose, not its demise.

Not so, however, in Israel. For while Israel must absolutely strive to make race a non-issue (even among Jews, as with Ethiopians, for example) and to accord Israeli Arabs a significantly greater piece of the pie, we ought to be honest: If Israel one day were to have a Knesset in which a majority of the members were Arab, Israel will have failed in its purpose.

ISRAEL WAS established as the sole country in which the Jews could flourish as only a majority culture can, where they would shape the contours of their society and hone its collective narrative. The Balfour Declaration of 1917 spoke of the creation of a “national home for the Jewish people.” The British committed themselves to the creation of not one more democracy, or an experiment in post-ethnic multicultural coexistence (the Peel Commission of 1937 actually advocated moving populations to separate the Jews and the Arabs). Rather, the British advocated what it was that political Zionism had always sought: a state in which a people that had known countless horrors due to centuries of homelessness would finally have one place to call its own and in which to chart its own destiny.

That, quite simply, is incommensurate with a predominantly Arab Knesset or with a prime minister not committed first and foremost to Jewish flourishing.

Navigating this course will never be simple. To remain both Jewish and democratic, Israel will have to preserve a substantial Jewish demographic majority. That will require nuanced decision-making. Cultivating a nation-state that accords full civil rights to Israel’s Arabs even while it exists explicitly for the purpose of Jewish thriving will be a constant struggle. But it is a tension that Israelis, and the international community, will have to come to accept as both undeniable and inescapable.

Even as we admire America’s extraordinary accomplishment, we dare not allow ourselves to imagine that Israel ought to become a Middle-Eastern version of the United States. Two and a half centuries ago, Montesquieu observed that “each state has a purpose that is particular to it.” The United States has now taken one dramatic step toward fulfilling its original raison d’etre. Israel, though, has a very different purpose. Equality and civil rights must obviously be central pillars of this society, but they are not the “core business” for which this country was created. Israel’s central purpose is the healing, and flourishing, of the Jewish people. It is to those goals that Israeli society must be dedicated, and it will be by that standard that our success – or our failure – will ultimately be measured.

The writer is Senior Vice President of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. His next book, Saving Israel: How the Jewish People Can Win a War that May Never End, will be published by Wiley in March.

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