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Saturday, May 10, 2008

Examining Israel

The National Post has today wrapped up its big "Israel at 60" series, which dominated the op-ed pages for the past week. Coming as it did on the heels of cover stories in the Atlantic and Maclean's on the question of whether the country can survive in its current form, the series especially interesting and timely.

Of particular note was George Jonas's May 3rd column, in which he asserts, "Israel can survive without being a democracy. It's democracy that may not survive in the Middle East without being Jewish."

Israel is widely seen as a strong and vibrant democracy. And it's one important reason to support the country. But an important theme running through much of what I've read about the subject over the past few weeks boils down to this question: Will the democratic West continue to support Israel (financially, militarily, morally) if, in response to demographic pressures, Israel is "forced" to become less democratic (denying an Arab or Muslim majority full political equality, for example)?

But when pondering this question it is worth remembering that Israel already conducts some of its affairs in ways that run contrary to the multicultural, secular values that most Canadians supposedly support.

For example, as explained to me by Sara Saber-Freedman of the Canada-Israel Committee, the country discriminates in favour of Jewish immigrants, while requiring all other prospective immigrants to clear higher hurdles. "The State of Israel was created, as you know, following the Holocaust, in part in reaction to the fact that the Jews of Europe were refused entry in other countries," she explained to me in a recent e-mail.

"In order to provide a haven for those who had nowhere to turn when the Nazis began their extermination of the Jews of Europe, Israel adopted the same standard as Hitler: one Jewish grandparent was sufficient to send someone to his death, so one Jewish grandparent is enough to allow you to benefit from the law of return – citizenship in Israel upon request. A large number of those with one Jewish grandparent are not themselves Jewish by any standard, including self-identification.

"Indeed, a large number of immigrants from the former Soviet Union took advantage of the law of return to immigrate to Israel, where many remain as citizens who are not Jewish. In addition, there are about a million Arab citizens of Israel (both Moslem and Christian). So in all, about 20% of Israel’s population is not Jewish. Someone who wishes to immigrate to Israel who does NOT have a Jewish grandparent would have to follow the  same sort of immigration rules that we have in Canada (refugee status; various categories of immigration, etc)."

Her statement was in answer to my general question about what exactly it is that makes Israel a Jewish state. As part of this, I also also asked whether the Jewish religion enjoys a special place in the country. Here's her answer:

"Based on its Ottoman history, certain civil responsibilities, notably marriage and death, are handled by religious authorities (Jewish and otherwise) in Israel, regardless of whether one is Jewish, Christian, Moslem, etc. So, yes, there is a relationship between religious and secular authority that we don’t see here in Canada (although as recently as a couple of decades ago, Quebec sub-contracted its educational systems through the Catholic and Protestant Churches). Official Judaism, which in Israel means Orthodoxy (and here you would have to understand that there are various streams of Jewish practice, and that in North America, Orthodox practice represents a minority) does get funding through the state..."

So, in these two areas, Israel isn't exactly the epitome of a modern, pluralistic, multicultural, secular state that many, such as Lorne Gunter in his May 5 Post column, make it out to be. This isn't to say it does not deserve our support in its struggle to survive, but it is to say that the issue is a complex one.

Posted by Terry O'Neill on May 10, 2008 in International Affairs | Permalink


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If you ever want an example of Israel at its best, you need look no further than July 4, 1976 - the Raid on Entebbe.

Posted by: Zebulon Pike | 2008-05-10 2:30:32 PM

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