Dr. Hillel Ben-Sasson serves as the director of IDEA: Center for Liberal Democracy.
“Happy Independence Day to those who celebrate.” This greeting, which appeared on the website of the Hebrew University’s law faculty, set off a furor. A wave of condemnations from the right and from the Labor Party was heaped on the faculty, which dared qualify the sovereignty festivities, while a counter-wave of condemnations came against the national chauvinism of the Zionists, who can’t help erase the Palestinian narrative.
This seemingly trivial anecdote reveals the prevailing paradigm of the Jewish-Arab discourse in Israel. It is a paradigm expressed by the demand of each side of the national barricades to cancel the roots of the other side’s national identity. It is necessarily a paradigm that eliminates the chances for Jewish-Arab political partnership, because one side of it will always be accused of undermining the legitimacy of the regime and supporting terrorism, whereas the other side will always be accused of erasure, occupation, dispossession and colonialism. This ideological and identity abyss cannot be canceled until the “identity conversation” is conducted from a different and more equal position, while at the same time the abyss itself prevents the conversation from being conducted between equals.
I wish to propose here briefly that the attempt to bridge that abyss is doomed to failure and that anyone who seeks Jewish-Arab partnership in order to create a more equal ownership mechanism of this state, its institutions and its resources, must set aside the foundational questions of each one of the national identities and instead focus on the willingness for “second-order giving,” e.g., of the primary derivatives of each one of the national identities. In others words, I would like to indicate what each side needs to give in order to create Jewish-Arab political partnership and essentially expand the concept of civic equality in Israel. In conclusion, I will try to draw an initial outline of the political benefits of this channel of thought.
The prevailing paradigm of the Israeli discourse both from its Jewish side and its Arab side is that partnership and peaceful coexistence will be possible only in conditions of “foundational concession.” As part of this paradigm, the Arab public is required to give up its national narrative, including the demands of an indigenous people in its land. This narrative is based on the experience of the disaster of the nakba including uprooting, expulsion, refugeehood, and the ongoing dispossession that goes with them. According to the prevailing paradigm, only if the Arabs give up the cluster of grievances included in the concept “nakba” and thereby accept the demands of Jewish nationality for hegemony, can there be partnership between Jews and Arabs in Israel, and even equal citizenship in its deep sense.
On the other hand, the prevailing paradigm in the Palestinian public in Israel (and outside of it) is the belief that in order to allow just and equal coexistence, the Jews must give up their right to particular self-definition on the land of historic Palestine. Jewish nationality in this land is a dispossessing nationality, and some would even call it colonialist. Shared equal living will be possible only if Israel stops being a Jewish state, which means it becomes an a-national consociationalism, which is a system where Jewish identity is not expressed on the state level.
The (mutual) demand for such foundational concessions is as unrealistic as it is immoral, and I think that the following alternative proposal is both more moral and more politically realistic. This alternative posits, first of all, that the required concession is not a unilateral concession, as does the prevailing paradigm above. Both sides are required to give a foundational asset in order to receive the desired reward of the concession expected from the other side. The proposal is as follows:
In order to create political Jewish-Arab partnership and establish in Israel a society that promotes equality and security, the Jewish public in Israel must concede its exclusive hold on governmental power. Thus, the Jews are not required to concede their national aspirations nor the realization of those aspirations in the State of Israel. Nor are they required to concede their vested rights by virtue of their being the majority in the state, as long as that majority is not maintained by discriminatory means. The Jewish public in Israel is not required to share national political identity. It is required to share two much more concrete goods: public resources – money, land, infrastructures, quality education, healthcare and culture – and the power to decide on their allocation.
The step required from the Arab public is to move on from the victim position that has characterized its political conduct since 1948, and all the more so since independent Arab parties were created. Thus, the Arab public is not required to concede the grievance of the nakba, it is not required to concede its memory, and it is not required to erase the Jewish responsibility for the Palestinian grievance that results from the nakba’s centrality. It is required to adjust the degree of the nakba’s centrality in its present and future political conduct. In the constant tension between victimhood and taking responsibility and empowering agency, the Arab public is required to expand the latter at the expense of the former.
Conceding full hegemony is a tremendous concession for any ruling group, and involves conceding real and not symbolic assets. The reward for such a concession has to be significant. That reward will come in the form of the ability to transform the Arab public in Israel from the side of the enemy – actual or potential – in the equation, to the side of members of the community. Concession of the integrity embodied in preserving victim consciousness is also a tremendous concession. The reward for that concession must also be significant. That reward will come in the form of a series of tangible goods, and one even more basic and fundamental good: equality.
The advantage of this thought exercise, I hope, is its ability to give direction to the political efforts of those who seek political partnership from both sides. If the mutual concession proposed here is accepted as an alternative paradigm, it can help understand which of our political efforts are correctly aimed and which miss their mark. It allows us to consider vision documents, if such are written. It allows us to judge the declarations of leaders, Jewish and Arab. It can also show which practical projects are worth promoting, what policy to support on the local and national level, and what kinds of cooperation on the ground should be cultivated.
In other words, this alternative thought paradigm can serve as an organizing political idea. Its power will be tested by the degree of its acceptance. Its final expression will be in the realization of Jewish-Arab partnership.