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Saturday, October 25, 2014

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What the PQ’s Bill 14 teaches us about Israel

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In an interesting overlap, in mid-March, the PQ’s restrictive language law, Bill 14, ended up being considered in the Quebec National Assembly just as a dustup began over a New York Times blog post by a philosophy professor named Joseph Levine denying Israel’s legitimacy because it dares to be a Jewish State. Bill 14’s heavy hand – and, in fact, the restrictiveness of the original Bill 101– helps make the argument why Israel can be a Jewish, democratic and legitimate state, well within the international consensus.

In Bill 14, Premier Pauline Marois’ separatist Quebec government proposes extending the language law to smaller businesses, revoking a municipality’s bilingual status when its English population drops to half and depriving military families of their right to send their children to English schools. The separatists cheer this attempt to eliminate some of what they consider the “loopholes” in Bill 101, or what many of us would consider its rare safety valves.

I would have no problem with a bill encouraging the study of French, the use of French and the cultural expression of French in Quebec. As a Zionist, I’m a big fan of positive nationalism and understand a people’s need to express and preserve a traditional culture through public displays. But my problem comes from Bill 101’s – and now the more oppressive Bill 14’s – negative nationalism. It shifts from promoting French to knocking down English, so much so that the Quebec legislature repeatedly has had to invoke the ridiculous notwithstanding clause in Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, basically saying that notwithstanding the basic rights and freedoms this law violates, the legislature is passing this flawed bill.

Israel takes a different approach – especially theoretically, and increasingly in practice, too. Yes, Israel is a Jewish State, seeking to foster a rich, thick, public culture that expresses and preserves Jewish ideas, values, rituals and holidays. Israeli culture, as we know it, also synthesizes traditional Jewish cultural expressions with western sensibilities, all done with the occasional Arabic or Middle Eastern accent added, but with a clear cultural and legal bias for Judaism. However, this bias “for” is also trumped by an important counter-tradition.

Israel’s Declaration of Independence promises civic equality to all the country’s inhabitants. In the great philosopher Michael Walzer’s terms, this recognizes that Israel is not just an exclusive “club” or a “family” but is also a state based on a certain “neighbourhood” or territory, and everyone in that neighbourhood deserves basic legal democratic rights. As a result, there are no oppressive language laws. In fact, English, Arabic and Hebrew signs can be found throughout the country, and I see more English on the streets of Jerusalem than on the streets of Montreal – where the English language is banned, an absurdity in a modern democracy.

With these basic protections, Israeli nationalism – meaning Zionism – can be a positive, not a negative, nationalism. And, thanks to these basic protections, there are Arab Supreme Court justices, Arab Knesset members, Arab celebrities, Arab doctors, Arab lawyers, all thriving in the Jewish state. Of course, Israel sometimes violates its founding ideals and must work harder to ensure that all Arabs face no discrimination – but theoretically, especially, I am far more comfortable with the Israeli approach than the separatist Quebec approach.

And yet, for all the delightful democratic duality of the Israeli situation, for all the compelling complexity of its legal and ideological posture, this is the country regularly singled out for censure, this is the nation whose basic legitimacy is questioned, in the New York Times, throughout Europe, and, in much uglier ways, throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds.

This demonization is disproportional. There seems to be an endless supply of indignation directed toward the Jewish state. And these kinds of existential attacks, these kinds of sweeping, one-sided rejections of Israel’s right to exist, these negations of all the good it does and tries to do, invite a deep pessimism. These kinds of arguments and this kind of obsession transcend questions of borders and boundaries, of settlements and of settling accounts.

When we see intellectuals, when we hear progressives, and when we read academics joining the pile-on against Israel, we need to confront them. We should challenge their arguments. We must point out that they’re enabling the fanatics. And we need to accuse them of being obstacles to peace in perpetuating these untruths.

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