The Hebrew Repub­lic: How Sec­u­lar Democ­ra­cy and Glob­al Enter­prise Will Bring Israel Peace at Last

Bernard Avishai
  • Review
By – March 9, 2012

Avishai, among his oth­er cre­den­tials, is con­sult­ing edi­tor at the Har­vard Busi­ness Review, and has writ­ten for the New York­er, and the New York Review of Books. A polit­i­cal econ­o­mist, Avishai moved to Israel after vol­un­teer­ing dur­ing the 1967 War, and now resides both in Jerusalem and in Wilmot, New Hamp­shire. In this con­tro­ver­sial book, writ­ten from the per­spec­tive of the polit­i­cal left, Avishai argues that if Israel is to remain a democ­ra­cy, it must accord Israeli Arabs full rights as cit­i­zens, and at the same time loosen the grip of the Ortho­dox on the social and reli­gious life of the Jew­ish state. Avishai deplores the fact that Israeli Arabs are sec­ond class cit­i­zens, and cites data that show that about half of non-Jew­ish Israelis age fif­teen and over do not have a high school edu­ca­tion as com­pared with one fifth of Jews. But is not the treat­ment of the Arabs in Israel pre­cau­tion­ary, a result of their being a threat to the nation’s secu­ri­ty? Poten­tial sup­port­ers of the Pales­tini­ans? Avishai rebuts this argu­ment and presents some fif­teen reports from the Shin Bet that inform us that Israeli Arabs are not a threat to Israel but that ignor­ing and under-invest­ing in Israeli Arabs is cre­at­ing a secu­ri­ty threat.” All of these reports, Avishai notes, have been ignored. It gets worse. Else­where, Avishai reveals that in a 2007 poll, 60 per­cent of Israeli Arabs say they fear a mass expul­sion, and more than 68 per­cent of Israeli Jews fear a civ­il upris­ing by Israel’s Arabs. In an inter­view with an Israeli Arab leader, Avishai is told that if the gov­ern­ment would give us two meters for devel­op­ment, we’d all be vol­un­teer­ing for the army,“ and every time there is a sui­cide bomb­ing I think two things: Thank God my daugh­ter is not among the vic­tims, and I hope there is an Israeli Arab among the vic­tims, so they won’t blame my daughter.” 

Avishai blames this sit­u­a­tion on the Jew­ish nature of the Jew­ish state, where Jews have exclu­sive priv­i­leges, and non-Jews, such as its Arab pop­u­la­tion, are reduced to sec­ond class cit­i­zens. In an age of glob­al­iza­tion, where­by Israel plays a major role in the world’s econ­o­my, it can­not afford to antag­o­nize its eco­nom­ic part­ners by build­ing set­tle­ments in the West Bank, and con­tin­u­ing to mis­treat its non-Jew­ish cit­i­zens. His solu­tion would entail the end of spe­cial rights for Jews as indi­vid­u­als, and for the dis­es­tab­lish­ment of the Ortho­dox rab­binate. He would also put an end to the Law of Return, which con­tributes to the basic inequity of the sys­tem. In its place, Avishai calls for a Hebrew Repub­lic which would priv­i­lege Jew­ish nation­al cul­ture by main­tain­ing Hebrew as its offi­cial lan­guage, focus­ing on Jew­ish his­to­ry in the nation­al school sys­tem, and com­mem­o­rat­ing Jew­ish hol­i­days as nation­al hol­i­days, among his many oth­er sug­ges­tions. His mod­el for this is his native Que­bec which was the prod­uct of a Qui­et Rev­o­lu­tion” where­in a French major­i­ty in Que­bec, but liv­ing on a large­ly Eng­lish-speak­ing con­ti­nent, cel­e­brat­ed its French cul­ture, fos­tered its own edu­ca­tion­al sys­tem, and cel­e­brat­ed its reli­gious and sec­u­lar hol­i­days, while the rest of Cana­da cel­e­brat­ed its ties to the Eng­lish crown. Why, asks Avishai, would Israelis today not emu­late such a direc­tion, thus cre­at­ing a true Fed­er­al and demo­c­ra­t­ic soci­ety, while at the same time, tak­ing action to pre­serve their own nation­al culture? 

There is a lot more for the read­er to think about in this con­tentious book, includ­ing the author’s crit­i­cism of the role of the Ortho­dox Jew­ish estab­lish­ment in Israel, and the pol­i­tics of the Set­tler move­ment. This is a provoca­tive book with ideas worth considering.

Jack Fis­chel is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of his­to­ry at Millersville Uni­ver­si­ty, Millersville, PA and author of The Holo­caust (Green­wood Press) and His­tor­i­cal Dic­tio­nary of the Holo­caust (Row­man and Littlefield).

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