The murder a few days ago of the well-known Palestinian actor Juliano Mer-Khamis seems ominous to me in ways that are only tangentially related to the victim’s life and work. He was, to say the least, a strange mix of things. Although his father was a Palestinian Christian, he was, technically speaking, a Jewish man, the son also of an Israeli Jewish mother. He had an Israeli passport. He maintained two homes, one in the Palestinian city of Jenin and one in Haifa. Since no one knew quite what to make of him, he was almost a professional outsider: most Israelis thought of him as an Arab, while his murderers, presumed to be Palestinian militants, clearly thought of him as a Jew (or at least as a kind of a Jew). He was fifty-two years old when he died, shot to death in a car nearby the Freedom Theater where he worked. He was buried by his mother’s side in her kibbutz’s cemetery. Yet even as his body was being brought to a Jewish cemetery for burial, he was already being acclaimed by Palestinians (presumably not including his murderers) as a martyr for their cause. Miri Aloni, a Jewish Israeli, sang at his funeral in Hebrew and in Arabic.
Juliano Mer-Khamis was clearly and openly sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. He appeared in movies that are openly hostile to Israel. He specifically claimed not to be interested in the two-state solution, insisting that the path to a secure future for the region lies in there being one state for Jews and Palestinians in which each citizen has his or her own vote and the majority rules. Clearly, the state thus envisioned is not a Jewish state at all, merely a Middle Eastern country with a significant Jewish population. He was thus unwilling to imagine Israel as a state that self-defines as Jewish and that labors to preserve its Jewish identity. It is that specific approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that I would like to write to you about today.
For Americans, the notion of a democratic state in which every citizen has a vote that carries the same weight has a natural feel to it. And, of course, the one-citizen-one-vote principle is at the core of our American democracy as well. But our country was designed as a melting pot from the very beginning when our country’s founders imagined people from all over the world coming together in this place to forge something new. (Our founders were broad-minded in that regard, but even they were not quite broad-minded enough to notice the degree to which they were excluding native Americans and slaves, not to mention women, from participating in the effort to create that more perfect union they were laboring so intensely to will into existence.) Yet many people, myself very much included, who feel completely certain that the ideal democracy is one in which each citizen is invited to cast his or her vote according to the dictates of his or her own conscience, also feel that nations have the right to secure their own character and to exclude from the mix people who are openly hostile to the establishment, maintenance, and furtherance of that character.
Another way to frame that same question is to ask if there is, or could be, a place in the forum of nations for the political equivalent of the phenomenon we know from the world of business as the hostile takeover. In public companies, the direction the enterprise takes is a direct function of the wishes of the shareholders. If someone acquires a majority interest in any specific company, then that individual simultaneously acquires the right to dictate the company’s future direction regardless of how its employees, including even its senior employees, feel about the matter. The consequences may be brutal for some, but the process itself couldn’t be easier to describe or even to justify because, in the end, a public company’s publicly traded shares constitute tiny pieces of the company itself. All of them taken together are the company. When someone owns enough of them to outvote the people who own the rest of them even if all of those other shareholders vote together as a block featuring no dissenters at all, then that individual could effectively be said to own that company and thus to have the right to chart its course into the future as he or she sees fit.
That possibility—that the people who currently own a company could lose control if someone else seizes a majority of shares in the business—is the big drawback to going public. Yet companies do it all the time, presumably after having calculated that the odds of that happening are sufficiently remote for the potential profit to be worth the presumed risk. As a result, it seems almost natural for those of us who live in mercantile societies to apply the lessons we learn from the world of business to the governance of nations as well and to suppose that when the majority of a nation’s citizens votes for a sea change the government should have no choice but to comply with the voters’ wishes. Yet even the right to self-govern through majority rule is not absolute. No one thinks the rogue regimes of recent history can justify their crimes with reference to the popular support they garnered in some election! Would anyone, for example, argue that the Nazi regime in pre-war and wartime Germany had the right to perpetrate their unimaginable bestiality simply because they were duly elected if not by a majority than at least by a plurality of voters in 1932? And in our own country too we have established a complex system of checks and balances specifically designed to prevent legislators representing a majority of citizens from enacting legislation intended to curtail or cancel the rights of citizens who belong to recognizable minority groups. And at the core of this notion that it is reasonable to place restraints on the application of the pure democratic principle is the idea that nations have an inalienable right to self-define.
Nations, like people, have national characters. And, as such, they have the right to do what it takes to preserve that character. The French have a right to insist that France remain French. We Americans have the right to insist that immigrants to our shores embrace the values we as a nation have determined to be basic to our way of life. Yet Israel’s most potentially harmful enemies are precisely those who come in sheep’s clothing espousing ideas which sound entirely reasonable. Why shouldn’t all the citizens of the land vote on what kind of country to have? Why shouldn’t the Jewishness of the state be on the line, or at least be negotiable, if a large majority of voters want nothing of it? Wouldn’t it be simpler just to create a unified nation founded on the one-citizen-one-vote principle and then let the electorate decide what culture it wishes to promote?
All of that sounds right, sort of. But what of the inalienable right of the Jewish people to live within a sovereign Jewish state in their ancestral homeland, in the Land of Israel? What of the right that Israelis share with the citizens of every other nation in the world specifically not to be honor- or duty-bound to admit to the electorate huge numbers of people with zero interest in preserving the national character of their country? The whole impetus behind Zionism was to provide a homeland for Jewish people in which they would always be safe from persecution, and in which Judaism and Jewishness would be permitted to flourish naturally as the dominant culture. The whole point of declaring Israeli independence in the first place was to create such a haven for Jews in which Jewish culture would not have to compete with a dominant culture. So to say that somehow the Israelis have less of a right to wish to determine the character of their state than the Norwegians or the Laotians or the Bolivians enjoy with respect to their own countries—that is not a denial of the democratic principle as much as it is an affirmation of the inalienable right of nations to self-define.
And so we return to the late Juliano Mer-Khamis. In life, he stood for the fantasy that he could somehow transcend the givens of the situation and personally exist as an Israeli and as a Palestinian, as a Christian and as a Jew, as a citizen of Israel and as an enemy of Israel, as a resident of Jenin and as a resident of Haifa. For his effort to promote the idea that such a one-state solution would be the ideal for Jews and Arabs in the Land of Israel, an idea that mirrored his own sense of himself as one person with dual identities, he was murdered last week and buried just yesterday. I didn’t know him personally, obviously. I have no reason to suppose that he was a terrorist or that he condoned terrorism. By all accounts, he was a talented actor. But his death only makes it clearer to me that the proponents of the so-called “one state solution” are enemies of Israel whose idea, whether they understand its implications or not, will lead first to civil unrest, then to civil war, then to unimaginable unhappiness for all concerned. The right of the Jewish people to live securely and safely as Jewish citizens of a Jewish state seems to me to be at the core of the matter and, that being the case, people fall in on either side of the dispute based on the degree to which they accept or reject that specific notion.
Majority rule is a sacred principle that correctly governs day-to-day life in republics such as our own. But there have to be exceptions to that general principle, and the right of nations to self-determination—and to pursue futures framed by their own sense of themselves and their national culture—that seems equally basic to my sense of how the world should work and how its nations should learn to live together in peace.