In the wake of Barack Obama’s victory in the U.S., there have been a spate of op-eds and blog posts on whether an Arab could ever become prime minister of Israel. Some present it as a challenge to Zionism, at least as conventionally conceived, while others try to explain why such a thing could not, should not ever be. The latest installment is Daniel Gordis’s piece in The Jerusalem Post.
Gordis is correct in saying that an Arab majority in Israel would be the end of Israel as a Jewish state, and that an Arab majority in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, would reflect that loss of majority status. Zionism requires a Jewish majority–and not just a bare majority but a large one–for the state to be Jewish. This is the reasoning that means the two-state solution is the only way of preserving Israel as a Jewish state.
But while the election of an Arab to head Israel’s government, while improbable, is certainly not impossible, and would not in and of itself signify the end of Zionism. It’s certainly conceivable that the country’s voters, a majority of them Jewish and a minority Arab, might decide in a given election that an Arab is the best qualified candidate for the job. Or coalition negotiations in the Knesset whose members are largely Jewish might lead to the elevation of an Arab parliamentarian to the post of prime minister.
Such a candidate would need to have the sensitivity and political skill required to govern a state that constitutes the Jewish homeland. But this person would hardly be disqualified simply because he or she is an Arab.
In fact, there’s a historical precedent. The Mishna tells us of King Agrippas, who ruled Judea during the Roman period. The grandson of Herod the Great, his status of a Jew was questionable. The Mishna tells us of Agrippas performing the mitzvah of Hakhel–the public reading of the Torah that the Jewish king must conduct once every seven years:
King Agrippas stood and received [the Torah] and read while standing [although, strictly speaking, he could have sat while reading], and the Sages praised him. And when he reached the verse, ‘You shall not place upon yourselves a gentile man,’ his eyes flowed with tears [for he was a descendant of Herod, the Edomite]. They said to him: Fear not, Agrippas, you are our brother, you are our brother.