Jewish space plays host to spirited debate over whether Israel is a democracy

Israel/Palestine
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Panelists at a debate over whether Israel is a democracy. From the left: Kathleen Peratis; Marilyn Kleinberg Neimark; Lizzy Ratner; Rebecca Vilkomerson and J.J. Goldberg (Photo: Alex Kane)

“Do you still believe in the tooth fairy?” quipped Marilyn Kleinberg Neimark, a long-time activist and professor, in a question directed at Americans for Peace Now board member Kathleen Peratis.

Those eight words summed up the spirit of the evening last night at a New York City panel debating the question of whether Israel is or could be a democracy. The “tooth fairy” Neimark referred to was Peratis’ faith that a progressive, democratic Zionist vision of Israel can win out in the end, and that it is important to keep fighting for that vision.

Neimark and Rebecca Vilkomerson of Jewish Voice for Peace argued that Israel wasn’t a democracy as currently constituted and brought home to the audience the harsh reality Palestinians live under. Vilkomerson asserted that even within the Green Line, Israeli democracy is an ethnocracy that discriminates against Palestinian citizens of Israel. “There’s no getting around the fact that Israel is based on ethnic supremacy,” said Vilkomerson.

Peratis and J.J. Goldberg, an editor-at-large for the Jewish Daily Forward, argued that Israel was indeed a democracy–within the Green Line–though it was a flawed one. Goldberg and Peratis asserted that the Israel of the Oslo Accords-era is the Israel to believe in and fight for.

The back-and-forth over the question of Israeli democracy was aired in a Jewish space: Beit Simchat Torah, a progressive synagogue that caters to lesbian and gay Jews. All of the panelists were Jews, and the discussion was organized by progressive Jewish activists and moderated by Lizzy Ratner, a New York-based journalist who co-edited The Goldstone Report: The Legacy of the Landmark Investigation of the Gaza Conflict. The room at Beit Simchat Torah was almost full, and an audience of more than 200 listened to a largely respectful, civil debate about a contentious question in a Jewish space–something that all the panelists were grateful for.

The panel comes “at a moment” when some members of the Jewish community want to “restrict debate” on Israel, said Ratner. “It’s so moving to be here to have these discussions,” Vilkomerson said.

Controversy broke out over the panel even before it took place. It was originally scheduled to be held at Ansche Chesed, a Conservative synagogue on the Upper West Side, before the rabbi there squashed it for fear of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement being addressed. As it turned out, the BDS initiative barely came up at all during the panel discussion.

Ratner artfully moderated the debate, which centered around three questions: Why is democracy in Israel important to you? Do you believe Israel is, or could be, a democracy? Do American Jews have a role in shaping Israeli democracy?

All of the panelists said that their Jewish-American identity played a crucial role in why they were interested in having this debate. And most said they believe that American Jews have a role to play in shaping the nature of Israel, or at least trying to shape its nature. Neimark said that while “we have no role in shaping Israel’s democracy,” as Americans it’s important to consider the questions raised at the panel since the U.S. is the number one force enabling Israel’s policies. Peratis said that the mainstream American Jewish community “has ruined my dream of a democratic Israel,” though she later qualified the statement, saying the community has “not quite ruined it” and that a “Jewish, democratic Israel is still possible.”

The nub of the debate centered on the second question.

Vilkomerson took on the task of debunking the notion that Israel is a democracy within the Green Line because Palestinians can vote. She noted that Palestinians are discriminated against in every aspect of life, from education to housing to politics. The Jewish Voice for Peace director–who made clear that her opinions do not represent her organization–said that the “Nakba Law” was “emblematic” of how Israel treats Palestinians. That law authorizes the Israeli government to deny funding to institutions that commemorate the Nakba–the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in 1948, a historical event of paramount importance in the Palestinian national narrative. The body of laws that discriminate against Palestinian citizens of Israel “creates a second-class citizenship,” said Vilkomerson.

Peratis, who quipped that it was an “odd experience” for her to be on the political right of a panel, argued that Israel was a flawed democracy–though not in the occupied territories. “Discrimination against Palestinians is not structural,” she said. “I still have the hope that Israel’s flawed democracy” can be corrected, Peratis also said.

Neimark, a founding member of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, said that the fact that “such a question is necessary”–referring to the question of whether Israel is a democracy–speaks volumes.

Goldberg argued that Israel within the Green Line was a democracy, and that the settlements are not part of Israel. He claimed that even the Israeli government’s position is that the settlements are not part of Israel, but that the settler movement is wreaking havoc on Israeli democracy.

One of the more revealing discussions during the night centered on an Israeli Supreme Court decision in 2000 that ordered a Jewish community to allow a Palestinian family to live there after the community barred the family because they weren’t Jews. The Katzir decision was cited by Peratis and Goldberg in response to Vilkomerson’s statement that land distribution in Israel is discriminatory and an example of second-class Palestinian citizenship. The Katzir decision was hailed by Peratis as a “glimmer of hope”–and an example of how Israeli democracy can work, inasmuch as the Supreme Court ruled that the state was prohibited from land distribution discrimination on the basis of religion or nationality. 

But Peratis and Goldberg acknowledged that the decision has yet to be implemented–13 years after the fact. Indeed, a law passed in March 2011 authorizes small Jewish communities to “screen” applicants and reject them if they “do not suit the lifestyle and social fabric of the community.” In effect, as Adalah, a Palestinian rights group within Israel, points out, the law “validates and legalizes all bases for exclusion by admission committees, which overwhelming bars Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel from living in these towns.”

Another revealing moment came during the question and answer session. Dorothy Zellner, a long-time civil rights activist and member of Jews Say No!, questioned Goldberg and Peratis sharply: is there a contradiction between an ethnic state and democracy?

Peratis was honest on this front. “I really don’t have an answer to that question…I’m struggling with it.” Peratis said that she wants to “maintain a Jewish majority”– as an essential element of the Zionist vision. But she struggled with how to reconcile that position with her values in favor of democracy and equality. For Goldberg’s part, he said that many democracies around the world have a predominant ethnic majority.

Ratner closed out the talk by reminding the audience of how hermetic this debate was: the panelists were all Jewish Americans. She hoped that future discussions would include a diverse array of people invested in these questions, including Palestinians.

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