Mikhael Manekin is the coleader of the “Shared Nationalism” group at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute and the Executive Director of the Alliance program.
In this article I will attempt to argue that even if the demand for a Jewish majority is legitimate or necessary, the demand to maintain that majority out of hostility towards the Palestinians has negative political implications, and creates an inner contradiction in the national logic of those seeking equality in Israel.
This article is written out of two assumptions anchored in the rhetoric of equality-seeking Zionist circles. The first assumption is that the Jews wish to integrate in the Middle East as a nation state and to live in peace within that region. The second assumption is that the Jewish people, like other nations, is entitled politically to realize its national aspirations through a sovereign state. Both of these assumptions are presently accepted by the majority of those who view themselves as part of the Zionist left. The first assumption is part of the rhetoric of the Jewish left in Israel (even if many times it is merely a declaration and seems like lip service to counter the much more powerful concept of a “villa in the jungle”), while the second assumption expresses the universal-moral dimension of the Zionist left. The statement “we deserve just like everyone else” indicates that at least in principle others deserve as well, and therefore the Palestinians too have the right to national self-determination through a sovereign state.
Supposedly, these two assumptions provide for national and civic equality between Jews and Arabs in Israel. The prevailing assumption of Jews in Israel is that Jews have the right to shape the public sphere with national symbols and features, as long as it does not come at the expense of the native Palestinian minority. But added to the right to shape the public sphere is usually another argument, which is the right to maintain a Jewish majority within the borders of Israel. Sometimes this claim is perceived as an inseparable part of the demand for a Jewish state, which is to say as part of the essence of a nation state. Thus wrote for instance Prof. Moshe Halbertal: “If ethno-cultural groups have the right of self-determination, i.e. the right to maintain a sovereign space where they are the majority of the population and where their culture develops and thrives, it would be strange if members of the Palestinian group were not given the right of socialization in their space.” It seems that Halbertal presumes that the right to self-definition requires a majority. As to the question of equality, cultural binationalism in Israel will always be asymmetrical. The only way to compensate for the asymmetry is outside of the territory. According to that logic, a Palestinian state, also asymmetric, can serve as a mirror image of a non-equal Jewish state and create a sort of multinational balance.
I do not wish in this brief article to challenge the concept of majority and the intractable connection between it and the fundamental logic of state self-determination. However, I do wish to indicate a specific content dimension of Jewish nationalism in Israel, which to my mind exceeds the principled argument of “positive nationalism.” In Israel there is a special reason for the demand for a majority, which is the Jewish majority’s hostility and fear of the Palestinian minority. The demand for a majority because of hostility creates a “negative nationalism,” which is not based only on the desire for self-realization and sovereignty but also on other, dangerous narratives.
Since the establishment of the State of Israel was closely associated with prolonged persecution of Jews all over the world, the need for a majority seemed like an appropriate response to Jews’ existential fear as a national minority. Furthermore, Zionist settlement before 1948 required a majority in relation to the Palestinians in the region in order to justify its demand for a nation state. The emphasis on the majority element is a reaction to the minority heritage and the hostility Jews experienced in their countries of origin, and it is part of the competition with the Palestinians over control of the land. But in addition, the demand for majority is based on the specific identity of the Palestinian indigenous minority in Israel – a minority identified as the enemy of the dominant national group, namely the Zionist group. Therefore, the balance between the majority and the minority is not a balance in terms of culture and symbols alone, but also has an identity and security aspect: the Jews must be the majority in order to defend themselves, while the Arabs must be a minority because they are dangerous for the Jews.
Reinforcement of this approach can be found in Prof. Chaim Gans’s book “A Just Zionism.” “According to the interpretation proposed in this book for the concept of a Jewish state, one should support the existence of a Jewish majority in Israel for reasons of security and not because a Jewish majority is inherent to the right to self-determination.” Elsewhere in his book Gans argues: “Maintaining a Jewish majority and Jewish military control do not justify inequality or discrimination in all areas that are not directly connected to security. They certainly do not justify budgetary or political discrimination.” According to Gans, precisely because the issue of a majority is not essential to ethnic nationalism, any discrimination beyond the creation of a majority is not justified. The assumption of Gans and others, at it is reflected in the majority argument, justifies the demand for majority with the persecution of the Jews and the threat from the Arabs. Since Jews have a right to security, the only possibility available to them is maintaining a demographic majority. Beyond that, they must not use the majority for anything but self-defense needs. Any other use, according to Gans, would be considered illegitimate hegemony. As for the imbalance created between the majority and the minority, Gans, just like Halbertal, views a Palestinian state as a sort of extraterritorial correction. But even then, it appears that the hostility will remain.
It seems that in the political discourse in Israel, the fear of losing the majority is related to the hostility dimension between the two sides. Another case in point is the national-security justification for two states – in order to maintain a Jewish majority and because of the danger from the Arabs and from Arabic – a justification often heard from supporters of the two-state solution.
I think it is worth exploring the unequivocal assertion that a Jewish majority is needed for security as well as the implications of that assertion. First, we must note that Palestinian citizens of Israel are not asked about that assertion. How can citizenship be built on a basis of hostile relations between the majority and the minority? This problem also leads to practical political challenges: if the Palestinians in Israel are considered a threat to Jewish nationality by their very existence, how can we Jews cooperate with them without undermining our own nationality?
Moreover, the demand for a majority out of hostile relations indicates that the Zionist national features are negative (fear, victimhood, hostility) rather than positive (cultural development, language, symbols, and more). There is concern that Israel’s acceptance in the region and resolution of the negative features will cast doubt on the justification of the Jewish nation state in general. Therefore, the decision that the negative features are forever essential to Zionism provides a foothold to groups interested in consolidating and bolstering the hostility dimension of the Zionist project, without allowing for a response from those who seek equality and integration. Furthermore, the desire to reduce those features to the solely demographic realm, as if they would not naturally seep into other areas, seems questionable.
And here we must return to the starting point that opens this article as to the existence of a political and ideological desire by the Jews to integrate in the Middle Eastern region and live in it in peace and tranquility. The story at the basis of that desire contradicts both the concept of Jewish victimhood and the concept of Arab hostility. Surely there are Jews in the world today living under threat. As long as Israel occupies the “territories” and is engaged in a national conflict with the Palestinians, the hostility between the Jewish majority and the Palestinian minority in Israel will continue, and the hostility may continue to persist even after the occupation ends. But the Zionist aspiration proposed above is for relations between Jews and Arabs in the future not to be hostile. The paradox is that such a reality is not attainable so long as the principle of Jewish majority is maintained for reasons of hostility and serves as an unshakable basis of national identity in Israel.
Therefore, even and perhaps especially those who see the demand for a majority as part of the essence of the nation state, must contend with the consequences of constituting a particular Jewish national story based on perpetual hostility between the majority and the minority, and the dangers involved in that narrative.