Israel must treat its minorities fairly

The Ottawa Citizen Thursday, July 11, 2002

Éditorial - Zionism holds that Israel is the national homeland of the Jewish people. Religious zionists say Jews have title to the land because God gave it to them, but most Israelis don't need the Bible to argue the case. The Jewish claim to Israel is based on aboriginal rights, pioneer rights, internationally granted rights (the 1947 UN vote) and, finally, rights of war (obtained after defeating Arab invaders).

But how far can Israel go to protect its Jewish character? At the moment, Israelis are engaged in a difficult internal debate. On Sunday, the Israeli cabinet approved a bill permitting state lands to be allocated exclusively to Jews. Israel's Arab minority, understandably upset, is calling the move discrimination. These Arab citizens are right.

Indeed, Israel's own Supreme Court ruled two years ago that such a law would be discriminatory. The new bill, apparently, is an orchestrated attempt by some nationalist politicians to circumvent the court's decision.

It speaks well of Israel's democracy that the debate about this is as noisy and open as it is. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel is up in arms, and senior members of the government, including the attorney-general, have denounced the proposal. Many Israelis are joking darkly that the dunderhead Knesset member who proposed the bill simply wanted to give Israelis a chance to talk about something other than terrorism.

But deep down, Israelis know that there is a tension between Israel as a liberal democracy and Israel as a Jewish homeland. In a very literal sense, Israel's Law of Return -- whereby all Jews are granted instant citizenship -- could be labelled discriminatory because non-Jews are excluded.

Yet Israel could not properly be called a Jewish state without the Law of Return.

Still, like any enlightened nation, it has a moral obligation to respect the rights of its minorities; the Jews have suffered bitter discrimination and would not want to inflict it on others. True, Israel also has a duty to provide security for its people, which sometimes means extreme actions to protect them from hostile Arab neighbours. But among its own citizens, it should not impose blanket property-purchase bans on an entire group.

For Israel, balancing identity, security and human rights has required, and will continue to require moral bravery.