“To believe in a democratic Jewish state today is to be caught between the jaws of a pincer,” writes Peter Beinart in his widely circulated and hotly debated op-ed. Indeed — but it was ever thus.

Today the pincer is not, as Beinart would have it, the incongruity of the “democratic Israel” inside the Green Line and the “undemocratic Israel” outside it. It is the discrepancy between the notions that Israel — whether a Greater Israel encompassing West Bank settlements or the pre-1967 Israel for which Beinart pines — is both “democratic” and a “Jewish state.”

This discrepancy is nearly as old as the Palestine conflict itself. In the aftermath of World War I, the patent contradiction between Jewish colonization and the Wilsonian principle of democratic self-rule loomed large in the minds of Zionist luminaries. Quite simply, they understood that there was no way to reconcile the two. As David Ben Gurion told his colleagues in 1918, “There is no solution…. There’s a national question here. We want the country to be ours. Arabs want the country to be theirs.” He and his colleagues thus set out to convince the great powers that Palestine should not be democratic until it was considerably more Jewish.

Zionist leaders had good reason to believe their efforts would pay off. Less than one year earlier, the Balfour Declaration had promised British backing for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” while undertaking not to “prejudice the civil and religious rights” of the country’s “non-Jewish communities.” The Arabs of Palestine, who at the time comprised some 95 percent of the indigenous population, understood correctly that the text’s express delineation between Jewish “national” rights and Arab “civil and religious” rights was incompatible with the principle of national self-determination. In July 1919, the American King-Crane Commission traveled throughout the eastern Mediterranean to survey the political wishes of its inhabitants. Apart from the Zionists themselves, an overwhelming majority reiterated the demand for unified independence under democratic rule and an end to Jewish settlement. If immediate sovereignty was off the table, the only mandatory power they would accept was the United States, which (at the time) lacked the stain of imperial interference in the region.

The prospect of US rule was terrifying to Zionist boosters, who lobbied aggressively at the Allied peace talks in Paris to block it. Their fear derived from a simple numerical formula. Despite the near doubling of their demographic ratio since the 1880s, Jews still comprised less than 10 percent of Palestine’s population. As the Zionist Organization in London explained at the time, the possibility that the Americans might help to create a local democratic republic any time soon would make “the task of…developing a great Jewish Palestine…infinitely more difficult.”

Over the next three decades the conflict between democratic principles and demographic realities would dog Zionist leaders, Arab nationalists and the British government, which in 1922 received the League of Nations’ “Mandate” to shepherd the Palestinian people to self-rule. From the outset, the thorniest question for imperial officials was how they would balance their obligation to implement that task against their simultaneous duty to fulfill the terms of the Balfour Declaration, whose text formed Article 2 of the Mandate.

Britain’s dual imperative gave birth to a host of subtle yet fatal shifts in the way that the government identified and classified the Jewish settler community, or Yishuv. This process began with the text of the Mandate itself, the only one to include a specific nationality clause. Three years later Palestinians earned another distinction when theirs became the only post-Ottoman Mandate whose nationality law — a term used interchangeably with citizenship — was enacted in the metropole. That statute also made Palestine one of only two Arab successor states where native-born residents living abroad could gain automatic citizenship even if they “differ[ed] in race from the majority of the population.” (The other was Iraq.)

In international law at the time, the terms “race” and “culture” often appeared interchangeably with “nation.” It soon became important for Zionist leaders and their British backers, like the ardent Jewish nationalist Norman Bentwich, who was Mandate Palestine’s first attorney general, to promote a conception of the Yishuv as a racial group.

Here, again, the rub was the conflict between democracy and demography. For the same reason that they opposed an American Mandate, Jewish nationalists in Palestine were reluctant to join the legislative council the British had proposed. Whether the franchise would be territorial (one person, one vote) or communal (allotting an equal — much less proportional — number of seats to Jews, Christians and Muslims), the Yishuv would be outnumbered and thus politically stymied. For this reason movement leaders made clear that their participation on the council would be contingent upon the establishment of “racial parity,” or the allotment of an equal number of seats to Jews and Arabs.

The talks to establish the council collapsed permanently in 1936, but the racialization of Palestine’s inhabitants became a creeping reality, and not only in government statistics. In 1947, their bureaucratic classification as members of two distinct races, or nations, played a pivotal role in the UN recommendation to partition Palestine into two states despite the fact that the “Jewish” one was forecasted to have a 49 percent Arab “minority.”

When the Zionist movement became the government of Israel, it emplaced a raft of laws and regulations upholding the Mandate-era principle that the “nation” within its armistice lines was Jewish. Among them was its decision to prevent the return of the some 750,000 Palestinians who it had directly or indirectly driven into exile. The remnants of the “non-Jewish communities” who managed to remain — known today as the Palestinian citizens of Israel — are in many ways still treated as “civil and religious” minorities whose rights the state is not supposed to prejudice. They may have rights in the state, as former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told the Knesset in 2004, but not to it. For the past 64 years Israel has managed to weather Palestinian challenges to this distinction, but a series of recent statutory assaults on the rights of these citizens suggests that the liberal fantasy of a Jewish democracy may finally be starting to collapse under the weight of its own contradictions.

To recall this history is inevitably to unveil the fact that the system in both of Beinart’s “two Israels” has always been predicated on Jewish racial privilege. It may also explain why Western intellectuals sympathetic to Israel have been warning about the “crisis of Zionism” for almost as long as the Zionist idea itself has been around.

How to cite this article:

Shira Robinson "The Problem of Privilege," Middle East Report Online, March 22, 2012.

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