Stop Calling Israel a Jewish Democracy

The looming annexation of the West Bank will create a one-state reality, forcing American elites to choose between a commitment to the country’s Jewishness and democratic values.

A young Palestinian walks along Israel's controversial wall in the occupied West Bank Palestinian village of Abu Dis on Jan. 29.
A young Palestinian walks along Israel's controversial wall in the occupied West Bank Palestinian village of Abu Dis on Jan. 29. EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP via Getty Images

As Israel contemplates annexing large parts of the West Bank, in harmony with U.S. President Donald Trump’s so-called peace plan, some troubling interpretations of Israel’s identity as a Jewish state, and its relationship to democracy, have come to the fore. These views of Israel’s Jewish identity do not only concern Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, but also the approximately 20 percent of Israeli citizens who identify as Arab or Palestinian. Now there is a U.S. plan proposing not only annexing occupied territories, but also carving out towns in Israel to hand over to the Palestinian Authority, just because their Israeli inhabitants aren’t Jewish.

One of the architects of Trump’s plan, U.S. Ambassador David Friedman, has frequently invoked biblical narratives to support claims of Israeli sovereignty over occupied Palestinian lands—essentially allowing an interpretation of Jewish scripture to supersede international law and fundamental Palestinian rights. Even the New York Times has hosted contributors such as Daniel Pipes proclaiming Israeli Arab citizens are the “ultimate enemy of Israel’s status as a Jewish state.”

The brand of Jewishness on display here is not the one that most Americans mean when they say they support Israel as a Jewish state—and not one they would embrace, polls show. These developments are deeply troubling but not altogether disconnected; they have been partly enabled by the discourse about Israel’s Jewishness and democracy among U.S. political elites that unwittingly posits non-Jewish Israelis as a demographic problem.

Public debate about Israel’s Jewishness and democracy among U.S. political elites unwittingly posits non-Jewish Israelis as a demographic problem.  

Long before Trump became president, many U.S. liberals and conservatives alike have taken for granted that Israel is a Jewish state whose Jewishness must be protected. For most, the definition is qualified by insisting on Israel being both Jewish and democratic—something that the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel asserts.

This notion of a Jewish democracy has served to comfort liberal advocates of a Jewish state, who are not normally inclined to champion states defined by ethnic or religious nationalism; the word democracy makes it all seem fine.

To be sure—Palestinians under occupation aside—Israeli citizens who identify as Arab or Palestinian have come a long way since the first 18 years of Israel’s existence, when they were under military administration; they now have rights as citizens under the law, vote and get elected, and have been more integrated into parts of the Israeli economy. But their status has lagged far behind Jewish Israelis.

Beyond structural inequality and discriminatory treatment by successive governments, the issue at the core is one of their perceived illegitimacy, echoed by statements by the prime minister presenting them as a threat, and by the fact that, even when Arab parties seem eager to join government, the Jewish mainstream finds it hard to accept them.

If being both Jewish and democratic were possible at all, Israel could presumably be defined as a national home “of the Jewish people and of all its citizens” equally. But the fact is there has always, since 1948, been a concession to Jewishness over democracy—by allowing Jews around the world to become Israeli citizens while denying others the same right, including Palestinians whose families left or were expelled from what is now Israel before it became an independent state. Beyond this, Israel could presumably still be blind to religion and ethnicity.

But Israel has never been blind to the religion or ethnicity of its citizens—and since the passage of the 2018 “nation-state” law, it has even more boldly emphasized its Jewishness and downgraded everyone who’s not Jewish. This law defines Israel as “the nation state of the Jewish People” and holds that “the exercise of the right to national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish People”; it makes no mention of democracy or equality for others.

The law is anchored in pervasive Israeli Jewish public attitudes in favor of Jewishness over democracy. A major 2014-2015 Pew study of 5,601 Israelis showed that 79 percent of Jewish Israelis say Jews deserve preferential treatment in Israel.

By contrast, polling suggest that Americans strongly choose democracy over Jewishness in Israel. For years, polls have shown that, in the absence of a two-state solution, about two-thirds of Americans, and more than three-quarters of Democrats, would choose a democratic Israel with full equality for its citizens—even if it means Israel may no longer be a Jewish-majority state—over a Jewish state without full equality for all its citizens.

In a way, this American ethos sums up the dilemma for political elites: They have made an axiomatic commitment to Israel’s Jewishness that few are prepared to challenge, while at the same time they believe themselves to be democracy advocates.

The commitment to a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians has been in part a psychological trick, as its prospects have visibly diminished. To admit a one-state reality is to be forced to choose between Israel’s democracy and its Jewishness—and few want to be put in that position. It’s much easier to present existing inequality in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories as a temporary state of affairs, not as a permanent one requiring painful choices.

But in truth, U.S. public attitudes aside, the language of American political elites has emphasized Israel’s Jewishness, even when advocating for equitable and democratic outcomes.

A common argument employed on behalf of a two-state solution—that Israel would otherwise lose either its Jewishness or its democracy—emphasizes demography: If Israel annexes the West Bank, it would cease to be a Jewish-majority state, as Arabs could outnumber Jews; to preserve its Jewish character, Israel would have to be nondemocratic. Arabs are thus inadvertently posited as a demographic problem if not a potential threat. Proclaiming that Israel’s Arab citizens are the “ultimate enemy” is but an extreme conclusion of demographic emphasis.

The United States often lives with realities it does not like. But it’s unprecedented to see Washington pushing such ideas and employing the assets of a superpower to implement them.

Indeed, one can imagine even more extreme measures, especially if violence escalates, including further expulsions of Palestinians; the Pew study found that 48 percent of Israeli Jews favored expelling or “transferring” Arabs—a position that advocates of ethnic cleansing on the extreme Israeli right have long espoused.

It isn’t that Israel is the only state defining itself increasingly in ethnoreligious terms—the rise of Hindu hypernationalism in India is just one example—although it is the state carrying out the world’s longest internationally acknowledged military occupation. The United States often lives with realities it does not like. But it’s unprecedented to see Washington pushing such ideas and employing the assets of a superpower to implement them. The carelessly permissive U.S. discourse has opened an unintended path for the extreme conclusions now appearing everywhere from the White House to op-ed pages.

Trumpism is a passing moment that the United States will hopefully overcome. But in confronting the moment, it’s not enough to oppose Trump’s subversion of U.S. power to undermine U.S. values; the language used, and the justifications employed have consequences. Opposition to policies must avoid troubling arguments about demographic threats and weak appeals to saving a nonexistent peace process; they must be grounded in the principles of international law and norms, and in core American values.

Shibley Telhami is professor of government and politics and director of the Critical Issues Poll at the University of Maryland, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is co-author of The Peace Puzzle: America’s Quest for Arab-Israeli Peace, 1989-2011, and of a forthcoming sequel on the Obama and Trump presidencies. Twitter: @ShibleyTelhami