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Ze’ev Jabotinsky on the Proposed Jewish State Law

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu instructed Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mandelblit this evening to issue letters of dismissal to Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni. Tomorrow the Knesset will likely discuss a bill to dissolve the current Knesset. One of the main reasons for the breakup of the government has been the acrimonious debate over the Likud leader’s determination to pass a new Basic Law enshrining Israel’s status as a “Jewish state.”

In this context, it is worth reflecting on what Ze’ev Jabotinsky (1880–1940), the ideological godfather of the Israeli right and founder of the branch of Zionism now headed by Netanyahu, wrote on this question. The following commentary is composed entirely from Jabotinsky’s words.

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I do not believe that the constitution of Israel ought to include special paragraphs explicitly guaranteeing its “national” character. Rather, I believe that it would be better for the constitution if there were fewer of those kinds of paragraphs. The best and most natural way is for the “national” character of the state to be guaranteed by the fact of its having a certain majority.

There will always be two nations in Palestine—which is good enough for me, provided the Jews become the majority. A considerable Arab population will always remain in Palestine. If things fare badly for this group of inhabitants then things will fare badly for the entire country. The political, economic, and cultural welfare of the Arabs will thus always remain one of the main conditions for the well-being of the Land of Israel.

In the beginning, God created the individual, a king who is equal among kings. And the first consequence of “every man is a king” is, obviously, universal equality: the essence of your or my royalty is that there cannot be anyone above you or me in dignity or status. It is not true that man is citizen first; on the contrary, man is first of all something above a citizen—he is a king in his own right, and should not be bound by an outward duty to obligation unless absolutely necessary for his own and his neighbor’s protection.

Even a government of majority rule can negate freedom. Where there are no guarantees for freedom of the individual, there can be no democracy. These contradictions will have to be prevented. The Jewish state must ensure that the minority will not be rendered defenseless. The aim of democracy is to guarantee that the minority too has influence on matters of state policy.

Yes, we have a Jewish majority in Israel. But we have also created here a situation of total, absolute, and complete equal rights, with no exceptions. Whether Jew, Arab, Armenian, or German, there is no difference before the law; all paths are open before him. Complete equal rights would be granted not only to citizens as individuals but also to languages and nations.

Zionists want the best for the Arabs. We do not want to eject even one Arab. We want them to prosper both economically and culturally. Most of the population will be Jewish, but equal rights for all. Arab citizens rights will not only be guaranteed, they will also be fulfilled.

So, how does Zionism visualize the constitution?

  • In every Cabinet where the prime minister is a Jew, the vice-premiership shall be offered to an Arab, and vice-versa.
  • Proportional sharing by Jews and Arabs both in the charges and in the benefits of the state shall be the rule with regard to parliamentary elections, civil and military service, and budgetary grants.
  • Both Hebrew and Arabic shall be used with equal legal effect in Parliament, in the schools, and in general before any office or organ of the state. All offices of the state shall answer any applicant orally and in writing, in the language of his application, whether Hebrew or Arabic.
  • The Jewish and the Arab ethno-communities shall be recognized as autonomous public bodies of equal status before the law.
  • Each ethno-community shall elect its National Diet with the rights to issue ordinances and levy taxes within the limits of its autonomy, and to appoint a national executive responsible before the Diet.
  • After improvement at the expense of the state, reclaimed areas of the Land Reserve shall be divided into allotments to be granted equal status for both Hebrew and Arabic.

We must swear that we will never destroy this equality and we will never attempt to expel or oppress the Arabs. After all, it is from Jewish sources that the world has learned how “the stranger within thy gates” should be treated. 

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