Thursday, August 19, 2010

Alexander Yakobson: What's in a name?

Alexander Yakobson: "Masalha complains that in the Israeli reality, the expression "Jewish, democratic state" sometimes serves as a rationalization for discrimination and the exclusion of the Arab minority. Of course it does....", writes in Haaretz in response to "A Jewish and democratic restaurant"...


Alexander Yakobson

What's in a name?

At this advanced stage of the never-ending argument about "the Jewish, democratic state," there's no reason to expect major innovations. How can a state be both Jewish and democratic, someone (for instance, Salman Masalha in Haaretz, August 9 ) will predictably ask. How can a democrat deny the right of the Jewish people to a state, someone else will predictably reply.

Is the problem, perhaps, not the right to a state, but rather the term "Jewish state," which invites anti-democratic interpretations? Perhaps it would be better to find a new term that expresses the same principle? But more than any other formula, the "Jewish state" is a legitimate, internationally recognized term: The UN partition resolution stipulated in 1947 that the land should be divided into a "Jewish state" and an "Arab state" in order to confer independence on the two peoples living in it.

The resolution also required both states, Jewish and Arab, to establish democratic systems and guarantee minority rights. How, then, can one claim that the Jewish state, "by definition," cannot be democratic?

Masalha complains that in the Israeli reality, the expression "Jewish, democratic state" sometimes serves as a rationalization for discrimination and the exclusion of the Arab minority. Of course it does. The question is whether relinquishing the expression would do anything to impede discrimination. This is a total illusion.

Let's assume we were to erase the term "Jewish state." How would that affect the restaurant proprietor whom Masalha suspects of being on the verge of declaring his establishment to be "Jewish and democratic" (so as to justify the exclusion of Arab customers )? In that case, the restaurant owner would have no problem declaring his establishment to be "Israeli" and designed for real Israelis - those who belong to the people of Israel. What would stop him from interpreting the term "Israeli" in such a fashion?

Today, when the "Jewish state" is anchored in the official lexicon, proponents of ethnic discrimination and religious coercion are, of course, happy to make use of the term for their own purposes. But they would have no problem making the same exact use of terms such as "Israel," "Israeli" and even "the Israeli nation." The name "Israel" can easily convey the same legitimate meanings as the term "Jewish state," as well as the same illegitimate interpretations.

Perhaps, then, the root of the problem is the name "Israel" itself? Perhaps we should find a neutral name for the state, such as Switzerland on the Yarkon? Maybe. Meantime, it's worth having a look at what's happening in the original Switzerland.

The flag of that state bears the symbol of the cross, but that does not suffice for its citizens. They recently lined up at the ballot box, in their customary orderly fashion, and voted by a decisive majority for a law banning the construction of minarets in their beautiful country. That's how they preserve the Swiss character of their state. It turns out the name "Swiss Confederation" can indeed be interpreted in such an exclusionary fashion.

Whoever thinks this vote represents only a passing Swiss mood is mistaken: According to a series of surveys, the reason similar laws have not been approved in other West European countries is that in those countries, it is harder to initiate referenda. According to these surveys, large numbers of Europeans want to ban the construction of mosques - and not just minarets.

We are far from being Switzerland, that long-standing, well-established, placid and prosperous democracy in the heart of Europe. Of course, there are more than a few prejudiced people and outright racists here (be they restaurant owners or not ). But if we compare the situation facing Switzerland to that facing the State of Israel, we will find that we have no reason to be ashamed of the typical Israeli restaurant owner.
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Published: Opinion - Haaretz, August 19, 2010
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For Hebrew, press here

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See:
Salman Masalha, "A Jewish and democratic restaurant"
Shlomo Avineri, "A Palestinian people, yes, a Jewish people, no?"

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