On Sunday I had the pleasure of moderating the NIF panel at the J Street conference: "Conquering the Dividers: Racism, Exclusion and Ultranationalism in Israel." Our panelists – NIF grantees ACRI Executive Director Hagai El-Ad and #972 Editor Noam Sheizaf, along with Member of Knesset Merav Michaeli, led a spirited discussion on these thorny issues.
Some things were easy to agree on. It is impossible to divide the issues of racism and exclusion in Israeli society from the long-term impact of the conflict and occupation. A political climate that perpetuates an occupation and settlement enterprise that requires the denial of basic civil and political rights of millions of people is one that, ultimately, enables the erosion of its own democratic values. A political climate in which demagogues postulate survival as a zero-sum-game can always find excuses for laws preventing the commemoration of what Palestinian Arabs call the "Nakba" – the catastrophe, for them, of 1948 – and establishing internment camps to imprison African asylum-seekers. And a political climate in which the judiciary must serve as a bulwark against anti-democratic legislation creates a situation where the judiciary itself is threatened by extremists.
Other issues regarding the very nature of the state of Israel were more contentious. Although anti-Zionists root Israel's growing acceptance of racism in the Jewish nature of the state, claiming that Israel is and will always be an ethnocentric society that cannot help but exclude and discriminate, we at NIF reject that. For all of its complexities, there's nothing about the makeup of Israel that leads inexorably to racism. As our panelists discussed, however, there is something wrong when citizenship, immigration status and basic rights are often determined by the ultra-Orthodox definition of Jewish identity and the ultra-nationalist exclusion of the other. And there is certainly something wrong when nationalist legislators continue to propose a Basic Law that would enshrine the state's Jewish character as more important than its democracy.
Obviously it's not too late, not by any means, to reverse these trends. The recent court decision that labeled the ultranationalist, extremist group Im Tirtzu as having "facist attributes" and that threw out their attempt to silence left-wing criticism was a victory against a bullying organization that takes pride in its almost absurdly extremist rhetoric. Another recent court decision that will free hundreds of African refugees from internment camps now held to be illegal is a victory for inclusion and humanitarianism. Much of the legislation of the last Knesset that would privilege Jews over others, including sometimes other Jews, has not been re-introduced or is on hold, possibly reflecting a more centrist and pragmatic group of legislators now in power.
Beyond judges and politicians, there are tens of thousands of Israelis working for a better future for their country, and there is enormous potential for a truly shared society. The activists we support work on these issues tirelessly, and there are leaders building community in every sector in Israel. We can all support them, and whatever negotiations can achieve in bringing an end to the conflict and the occupation. We can support Israel's democratic institutions, counterbalance the Sheldon Adelsons and Central Funds that send millions to divide and conquer, and most important, take victories like those this month in the Israeli courts as a down payment on the promise of a democratic and just Israel.
Every society faces challenges accepting and integrating new and different minorities. From France to England to China, the issues of minority rights and social acceptance of difference are difficult; even here in our own democracy, which identifies with no ethnic or religious group, the racism evidenced in the Trayvon Martin case, in voter suppression and stop-and-frisk is troublesome. But for those of us who love and support Israel, working to offer an alternative to those who have an ideological or cynical interest in dividing is one of the most important tasks we can take on. And with your help, we will continue to do so.