American liberals are divided over Israel. On the one hand, Israel is a democracy, plunked down in a part of the world where no other democracy has flourished. On the other hand, Israel has been brutal in its treatment of 4 million Arabs living in Gaza and the West Bank. Israel has turned Gaza into a ghetto, and is meanwhile colonizing the West Bank, using apartheid to control the region’s Arab population. Israel’s poor treatment of Palestinians cannot be excused by security concerns.
But putting aside conditions and policies in Occupied Palestine, what about the Arab citizens of Israel, who comprise 20% of Israel’s population? It is sometimes observed that minorities within Israel – whether ethnic, religious or LGBT – are treated much better than minorities in neighboring countries. Israel’s Supreme Court is quite liberal, and quick to strike down most (if not all) of the biased laws that issue from Israel’s legislature. If one had to be a minority in the Middle East, one could do much worse than to be an Arab citizen of Israel proper.
Nonetheless, discrimination against Arab citizens of Israel is significant, widespread and systemic, across all sectors of society. To cite a few examples: Arab schools are severely underfunded compared to Jewish schools. Arabs are badly under-represented in government service. Arabs tend to receive harsher sentences and be denied bail. Arab protesters are occasionally killed by security forces – but not one Jewish protester has been killed in Israel, going back to 1949. While Jews the world over have a right to come to live in Israel with their spouses, and be granted automatic citizenship, the law excludes spouses from occupied Palestine, and several other Muslim-majority countries, which works to discriminate against Arab Israelis. While Jews are given the right to reclaim land in East Jerusalem that they abandoned because of war, Arabs are denied the analogous right to reclaim land anywhere in Israel. Much worse, Israel wont even let Palestinians refugees – who fled Israel during war – return to their own country!
Even in the absence of discrimination, the bare conception of Israel as a “Jewish State” is at odds with the most fundamental principles of liberalism, and an affront to the rule of law. The bedrock of liberal governance is procedural fairness, with laws that are neutral in word and application. A state cannot be committed to the benefit of a specific, identifiable group without undermining the political and civil rights of other groups living within its borders.
This point is not especially contentious – the chief response to it isnt an explanation, but rather an excuse: in light of centuries of oppression, culminating in the Holocaust, a “Jewish State” is needed to provide Jews with a safe haven – a homeland they lacked for millennia. Thus it is that many of Israel’s most discriminatory policies – in immigration and land management – bear directly on the maintenance of Israel’s majority Jewish population. However the best protection from tyranny in the long term – not merely for Jews, but for all people – is liberalism, democracy, and the rule of law. Carving out exceptions to our most precious rules of justice and fairness inevitably makes the world less just and less safe – for everyone.