Pity the soul who has to forsake those sentimental (or rousing) Zionist songs of her youth, like Shir Ha’emek (my favorite), about night falling on the Jezreel valley. But Shuli Dichter did exactly that in order to make room for his and others’ aspirations for a ‘shared society,’ to be underpinned by a new Zionist vision, ‘Civic Zionism,’ one that includes Israel’s 1.8 million Arabs in it. He also learned fluent Arabic.
Dichter is a long-time veteran of NGO advocacy efforts on behalf of Israel’s Arabs. A Jew and kibbutznik, Dichter’s old (left) Zionist vision was a traditional one: Jewish self-determination, Palestine, ingathering of exiles, place of refuge, demonstration site for egalitarian practices, working the land, Jewish self-renewal.
It was premised on Jewish dominion over Israel’s Arabs in just about every sphere, beginning with the appropriation of Arab land for Jewish uses. Dichter came to see the limitations of this traditional premise through personal experience. He grew up on (Hashomer) kibbutz Ma’anit in Wadi Ara, partially surrounded by Arab villages, orchards, and pastures and had earnest conversations with his Arab neighbors, many amiable but others not. He tells of standing instructions from the kibbutz field work coordinator to make sure to furrow the land in such a way that kibbutz soil covered Arab soil so that, inch by inch, Jewish land expanded at the expense of Arab land. And then there was the time that the kibbutz, acting with the blessing of the Israel Lands Authority, enclosed for its own farmland a pasture used until then by neighboring Arab shepherds. Permission from the neighbors was not sought, nor compensation paid – nor even contemplated. ‘We won, they lost, let them suck it up,’ was the thinking. How could there be a Zionist redemption of ‘The Land’ if mere ‘lands’ could not be appropriated?
Even after years of personal, sincere, and humane conversations with his Arab colleagues and neighbors, Dichter did not, in his own estimation, take their point of view enough to heart. Eventually he did. But not at all by way of epiphany: the process of awakening revealed itself step by slow step. There came a point when he began to understand the injustice of Jewish expropriations. After that came the birth and, in his thinking, the development of ‘Civic Zionism,’ which essentially legitimates both Jewish and Palestinian interests and rights in a shared and multicultural Israel, one in which Arabs will feel themselves stakeholders equal to the Jews. Were this vision of an egalitarian shared society to take hold, argues Dichter, in time the Israeli government should and would offer compensation for expropriated land, augment budgets for Arab localities, have land transferred from Jewish to Arab local governments, and consider changing the symbols of the Jewish state. Arabs, in turn, would learn to embrace a sort of Zionism that accepts the Jewish presence in Palestine/Israel. Dichter writes movingly of his self-identification as a Jew and Zionist; and he argues that Civic Zionism and a shared society will be a stronger and more just Zionism than the older version.
The key to this transformation, writes Dichter, is a philosophical commitment to equality between Arabs and Jews in all respects. Many Jews, both in Israel and in the diaspora, could certainly support the idea of equal treatment for Palestinians and Jews, including equal respect for Palestinian history, culture, and religion. In reality, of course, ‘commitment to equality’ is usually more rhetorical than literal. It is another way of saying ‘provide more,’ as in more public financing for Arab villages and towns, and that is often a very good idea. It lies behind the government’s very sound resolution (GR-922) of 2015 to allocate to ‘Arab society’ an extra 10-15 billion shekels for economic development over a five-year period, even though this would not equalise expenditures between Jewish and Arab populations. Another 30 billion shekels were added in 2021 (GR-550). ‘Equality’ here references a trajectory and not a destination.
But if equality is a fine rallying call, it is not a generally useful touchstone for social justice either as trajectory or destination. With equality in the abstract as a moral and ideological touchstone, for instance, Israel would probably not be able to give benefits to (Jewish) IDF veterans that did not also go, following an egalitarian logic, somehow, to the Arab population, although universal national service might go some way towards offsetting this problem. In the purest form of equalitarianism, Israel could not refer to itself as ‘the Jewish homeland’ and might have to forego Hatikvah as its national anthem.
As a premise for everything good and just in the social and political world, equality is sometimes useful (equality before the law; one-man-one-vote; and mutuality of human respect) but is just as often pointless or treacherous. If you equalise incomes without equalising effort or talent, a prospect only in Marxist fantasy, you create injustice, in the eyes of a great many people, at least. If you equalise per capita local budgets, you fail to recognise differential need and efforts at self-help among recipients and differential capacity to make good use of the money. If you merely equalise educational resources among schools, you cannot attend to the much greater learning deficits in some schools than in others. And if, in the name of equalising inter-ethnic (Jewish and Arab) sense of identity and pride, you redistribute land from Jews to Arabs, as Dichter advises, you fail to probe the philosophical and psychological foundations on which these sentiments flourish, some of which are unjust. Though some egalitarian ideas rest on bedrock, others are anchored only in the clouds of religious conviction or unexamined tradition.
As a touchstone for justice, in a real-world practical as well as philosophical sense, ‘fairness’ is much more promising than equality, even if equality is construed as a trajectory rather than as a destination, and even if the concept of fairness is subject philosophically to much debate and, in practice, to much negotiation. Fairness, in my usage, is grounded in reciprocity, agreement about what parties owe to each other. These rights and obligations must be grounded in the full awareness and appreciation of the experiences, perceptions, and feelings of the other and of the social context to which they belong. Evolutionary anthropology has uncovered vast evidence of the deep embeddedness in human nature and society of this kind of fairness norm. As a concept, reciprocity is simple, but its practical application entails parsing many tens or hundreds or thousands of interrelated dimensions of human relationships. Understanding evolved fairness thus demands empirical granularity in the thinking of the involved parties, for which a genuine ‘partnership,’ as Dichter puts it, between ‘self’ (Jews, say) and ‘other’ (Palestinians and Arabs, say) is needed.
As Aristotle might advise, evolutionary fairness, to be of practical use, must be worked on by human craftsmanship. One such effort involves a simple thought experiment: if you were in the other party’s shoes, would you consider this fair? But this minimalist thought experiment is a far cry from those cooked up by professional philosophers. For instance, there is the thought experiment proposed by the moral philosopher John Rawls, in his highly influential analysis of justice-as-fairness. It relies on assumptions about the ‘veil of ignorance’ that disguises from oneself one’s own endowments and risks, and an individual’s stripped down and highly abstract assumptions about the design of a social safety net in the ‘the original position,’ a sort of hypothetical prenatal location. Unfortunately, these assumptions are powerful magnets attracting the philosophers’ prior commitments that themselves guide the choice of assumptions, such as that of homogeneous and low risk preferences across individuals. One suspects that pre-determined conclusions have guided the design of the thought experiment and the reasoning it supports, and mostly for rhetorical purposes. They might be fine for that purpose, but that is not the same as thoroughgoing deductions from first principles.
The best example of reciprocity-based practical reasoning is what we can infer from the history of Anglo-Saxon common-law jurisprudence (judge-made, as opposed to statutory law affecting torts, contracts, and property), which has, through implicit averaging, crafted welfare-maximising and also acceptably fair doctrines out of the aggregation of millions of heterogeneous actual cases adjudicated across at least two centuries. This aggregation eliminates the need for such self-trickery as the veil of ignorance and the original position. In the service of evolved fairness too, this huge bundle of common-law doctrines is backed up by the world’s major religions. They recommend empathy for the less fortunate, and sometimes weave into this empathy more philosophical ideas about personal responsibility and the randomness of bad luck and/or bad genes.
Because reciprocity is evolutionarily more anchored within ingroup than within outgroup relationships, invoking reciprocity norms in Jewish-Arab dialogue welcomes both parties to belong to each other’s ingroups.
Best of all, the idea of fairness is more flexible than equality. There is more room for negotiation and compromise. Equality has the potential to set goals that are rigid and dogmatic. With important exceptions, neither equality nor fairness is particularly better than the other as a vehicle for recommending justice. Because Arabs are now, and have often been, treated unjustly, demands for greater equality, conceived as trajectory if not necessarily as destination, are germane. But these could as readily be premised on fairness as on equality.
In truth, fairness can often encompass equality by making judicious use of it. Though he does not say so, Dichter’s approach is fundamentally based on methods recommended by fairness – remember all Dichter’s heart-to-heart encounters with Ma’anit’s neighboring Israeli Arabs – but also colors fairness with intuitions derived from egalitarianism, probably the egalitarianism valued by his kibbutz background. He starts with a fairness-based premise that people need and demand respect from each other and adds an equality-based prescription that this respect should be equal on both sides. He goes on to apply the equality test to public budgets, land distribution, and so forth.
Dichter implicitly uses the fairness framework exclusively to address the Jews as ‘self’ and the Arabs as ‘other,’ and details the many ways in which the Jews have unjustly dispossessed and humiliated the Arabs. But in the normative framework of a shared and just society, at least in my fairness-based reading of it, reciprocity is required by the Arabs towards the Jews as well. Dichter does not discuss this, perhaps aware of the potential for rattling his Arab audience. But it is not premature to consider reciprocity, partly because Jews who might be won over would want to know about Arab dispositions before committing themselves.
What might this imply? Start with personal security. Jews as well as Arabs should feel safe, and therefore Arab leaders should make all efforts to prevent terrorism, refrain from making martyrs and heroes out of terrorists, and stop legitimating terrorism with antisemitic rhetoric. Arab leaders should reassure their Jewish fellow citizens that they understand their security fears and are making all reasonable effort to remove their foundations. In this regard Mansour Abbas, in the previous government the first Arab to serve as a Minister, was and is an exemplary figure. Secondly, Arabs should support Israel’s legitimacy, its right to exist. As a corollary, although Arabs need not vocally support the Zionist/Jewish national renewal project, they should not vocally oppose it either. This means accepting Jewish symbols – a flag with the star of David, Hatikvah as a national anthem, Remembrance Day, and the like – as symbols of Israel the nation-state, just as Jews recognise that a National Christmas tree is suitable for the U.S. (Nakba should also be recognised as a day of respect for Palestinian losses in the 1948 war.)
The Arabs should also accept that Israel is a ‘Jewish homeland’ at the same time that it is ‘a state of all its citizens.’ This is the not-quite-deft formulation of Ilan Peleg and Dov Waxman, political scientists expert in the constitutional and social challenges of multi-ethnic states. This formulation implicitly recognises Michael Walzer’s wisdom in noting that each sphere of social life has its own context for the appropriate tools to discern justice; and equality is not always the right tool. It is much more appropriate to the state sphere, while fairness is more appropriate to the societal sphere.
Of course, these differences in emphasis are only of degree, and ideas and practices from one sphere spill over into the other. If the Arabs were to win a Knesset majority in a democratic election, state-based egalitarian democracy should not be invoked to undo the society-based assertion of Israel as a Jewish homeland. Fairness in the sphere of society, backed up by various legal devices in the sphere of the state, should forbid it. The state’s egalitarianism should thus be interpreted in terms of the shared society’s idea of fairness. These ideas would recognise Jewish feelings about Israel as a Jewish homeland, about the 3500-year history of Jews within the local geography, about Israel as a unique place of Jewish refuge, about the trauma of the Shoah, and about the Jews’ disproportionate contributions to crafting a liberal-democratic Israeli state and a flourishing economy and society. Following a fairness-based version of Dichter’s ‘shared society,’ both Arabs and Jews would recognise Israel-as-Jewish-homeland as just, even though Dichter’s version of Civic Zionism, based on a rigid egalitarianism, might not.
The prospects for realising any version of a shared society in the near future are modest at best, although steps could be taken in that direction by both Arabs and Jews. Jewish resistance to the idea of a shared society would, of course, be strong in certain quarters – and all the more so with power in the hands of Bibi Netanyahu and his malignant political allies. Despite that, it is slowly making inroads. But what about the Israeli Arabs, who have for long been as rejectionist as the Jews? It was a great moment when the leader of the Islamist Party Ra’am, Mansour Abbas, agreed to serve in the last government. He declared in a February 2022 interview:
The state of Israel was born as a Jewish state. That was a decision by those who set up the state, the Jewish people. The Palestinians didn’t do that. Today there is a majority of Jews in the state of Israel, and they established that identity without consulting us. Now what am I going to do about this?… I’m trying to show Jews and Arabs a new way to live together in which each side will realize itself as a collective and as individuals. It is our role always to emphasize the rights of the minority, but the majority has rights too, and we have to preserve them as well.
Nevertheless, one wing of Ra’am, joined by many other Arabs, protested loudly. The idea of a ‘shared society’ could well be laughed out of court, as much on the Arab as on the Jewish side.
In his 1923 monograph The Iron Wall Ze’ev Jabotinsky, a supreme realist, foresaw that no amicable accommodation over land ownership and future sovereignty in Palestine was at all possible, then and forever, between Palestinian Arabs (78 per cent of the population) and Jews (11 per cent). As permanent hostility was inevitable, Jewish power was essential to Jewish survival and Zionist self-determination in Palestine. Presumably, Palestine’s Arabs felt the same about the Jews. But times are changing. The Arabs lost a war decisively in 1948, and they became a minority ethnic group in the new Jewish state. Since then, with ups and downs, they have become more accepting of that Jewish state, even though living under martial law until 1966. In a 2022 opinion survey, 48 per cent of the Arab citizens of East Jerusalem said they would prefer Israeli citizenship to citizenship in a Palestinian state (the choice of 43 per cent). And Mansour Abbas still treads the earth.
No doubt the goal of a shared society will require much time as well as determined and creative leadership on the part of both Jews and Arabs. You could say that however slowly – over a century, indeed – first steps toward a shared society have already been taken. Despite Dichter’s mild optimism, it is an open question just how much the prospects of more equality or fairness would accelerate further movement towards a shared society. Somewhat, certainly, but by how much?
Shortcomings in Dichter’s proposed route to a genuinely shared society aside, this is a book worth reading. Its very great value is its account of one man’s existential journey from one personal identity to another, both of which identities not only are personal but are broadly philosophical as well. This is a rare combination. It also has the virtue of attending to many, even though not all, of the details of practical policy (as do Peleg and Waxman only more so).
The book’s honest sympathy for Arab interests might shine a ray of hope for Arabs and Jews wishing to live in relative peace with one another, both until and after we exit from the present moment’s very dark tunnel in Israeli politics.
 Joseph Henrich, The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter, Princeton, 2016, ch. 11.
 John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Harvard, 1973.
 Ilan Peleg and Dov Waxman, Israel’s Palestinians: The Conflict Within, Cambridge, 2011, pp. 179-180.
 Michael Walzer, Spheres of Justice, Basic Books, 1983.
 Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 10 February 2022.