Thursday, November 11, 2010

What's Wrong With A Jewish State?

In the last few months, Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli government have demanded that the Palestinians formally recognize Israel as a “Jewish State.” Depending on the latest iteration, this new demand has been presented either as a precondition for negotiations over a two-state settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or as a necessary component of such a settlement. The demand has been strongly rejected by leading Palestinian officials: Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian National Authority, Nabil Shaath, the deputy prime minister, and Saab Erekat, the PNA’s chief negotiator have all said that while the Israelis can call their state whatever they want, the Palestinians will “never” recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

Most of my liberal Jewish colleagues and other critics of Israeli policies also oppose the Israeli demand. There are substantial reasons to do so. First, it is almost certain that Netanyahu has cynically seized on this new precondition as a means of sabotaging any possibility of a two-state settlement which, despite his recent rhetoric, he has always opposed. Consequently, even if the Palestinians accepted the demand, undoubtedly Netanyahu and the even more extremist rightwing Israeli politicians that are part of his governing coalition would have no difficulty in finding other obstacles to a negotiated settlement.

Second, it is argued that even if wasn’t hypocritical, the Jewish state demand would be an unjust one, since its acceptance would require the Palestinians to relinquish their own demand for the right of return of the Palestinian refugees from the 1948 and 1967 wars to their former homes, villages, and lands in Israel. Moreover, insofar as Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state is an Israeli precondition for negotiations, the Palestinians would have to give up the right of return without serious assurances that Israel would really agree to allow the establishment of a genuinely independent and viable Palestinian state.

To be sure, most Palestinian moderates—including Abbas and other West Bank political leaders—have quietly indicated that in the context of an overall settlement that meets their other goals, they will have to relinquish an unlimited right of return. However, they have refused to publicly and unambiguously state that in advance of negotiations. Somewhat surprisingly, even the New York Times has in effect supported that decision, criticizing the Jewish state demand on the grounds that while the Palestinians will have to compromise on the refugee issue later, “Prejudging it right now is too much.” Jerry Haber has made the same point somewhat more forcefully: “the rapists demand that the rapee not only acquiesce in the rape but its legitimacy.”

A third criticism is that the Jewish state demand is openly racist; as succinctly stated by Gideon Levy of Haaretz, “Defining Israel as a Jewish state condemns us to living in a racist state.”

Finally, it is argued that the demand for a Jewish state is inconsistent with the requirements of democracy, for it would condemn the one million Arab citizens of Israel to permanent political as well as social and economic inequality and marginalization.

These are powerful criticisms, and certainly constitute decisive reasons for the Palestinians to reject the Jewish state demand as a precondition for “negotiations” especially since under Netanyahu they would all too likely go nowhere. However, for the Palestinians to say that they will never do so is a major error. Rather, Abbas and other PNA leaders should publicly state that they would be willing to relinquish their demand for a large–scale right of return and formally recognize Israel as a Jewish state, but only as part of an overall settlement that included the following:

*The creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza that met the legitimate demands—requirements, really--of the Palestinians: territorial contiguity, the withdrawal of Israeli military forces and all or most of the Jewish settlements, the establishment of East Jerusalem as the state’s capitol, Palestinian sovereignty over the Haram-al-Sharif (Temple Mount) mosques and other religiously important Islamic sites, Palestinian control over the crucially important water aquifers in the West Bank, and other components of the international consensus two-state settlement.

*A formal commitment by Israel to accept the Arab Israelis that choose to remain in a Jewish state as full citizens, with equal political, economic, and social rights as the Jews.

           The Criticisms Considered

A Jewish State Would Negate the Palestinian Right of Return. Of course that is the case, but even in principle it is far from clear that a right of return is a good idea on the merits, for the influx of perhaps hundreds of thousands of Palestinians into Israel might well result in a worsening of the conflict, not its resolution. However, there is no need to puzzle over this issue, since there is no chance whatever that Israel will agree to it.

Moreover, most Palestinian leaders—including Yasir Arafat in the past—understand that the right of return demand is unrealistic. For example, in a widely noted 2002 New York Times oped, Arafat wrote the following: "We are ready to sit down now with any Israeli leader to negotiate freedom for the Palestinians, a complete end of the occupation, security for Israel and creative solutions to the plight of refugees while respecting Israel's demographic concerns.” (emphasis added)[1]

In recent years, it has become increasingly clear that the true demand of most Palestinian leaders is a symbolic one--that the Israelis acknowledge their responsibilities for the expulsion or flight of the Palestinians during and following the 1948 and 1967 wars[2]—and that in practice the rights of the Palestinian refugees can only be realized by some combination of a small-scale family reunification return to Israel, perhaps on the order of 10,000 or so; the return of most of the refugees and their descendants, if they so choose, to the Palestinian state; or voluntary resettlement elsewhere, accompanied by major international economic compensation and assistance.

Moreover, it is of great significance that in 2007 the twenty-two states of the Arab League unanimously approved a peace plan that does not mention a Palestinian “right of return” but rather states that “a just resolution of the refugee problem” should be “agreed upon.” And it is hard to believe that this carefully chosen language, effectively granting Israel a veto on the issue, would have received such support if the Palestinian National Authority had objected.

It is often argued that for domestic political reasons no Palestinian political leaders can publicly and unambiguously renounce the right of return, even if conditioned on an overall peace settlement. Undoubtedly that is a real problem, but it is equally or probably even more true that as matters stand now domestic political constraints might well prevent Israeli political leaders from ending the occupation and removing large numbers of settlers from the West Bank and East Jerusalem—supposing, of course, that they really wanted to do so--even in return for an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Both sides, then, would face major and perhaps violent internal opposition to a peace settlement, but what follows? Should we throw up our hands and accept that it is impossible to end the conflict? Many years ago George Kennan famously wrote: "History does not forgive us our national mistakes because they are explicable in terms of our domestic politics.…A nation which excuses its own failures by the sacred untouchableness of its own habits can excuse itself into complete disaster."  

In that light, there is nothing to do but continue the efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and hope that wise political leadership on both sides might yet be able to overcome domestic opposition to a realistic, rational, and a reasonably if not perfectly just settlement.

The Rights of Palestinian Arabs in a Jewish State.

Under its founding Declaration of Independence, Israel committed itself to “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex…and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.” However, from the outset Israel discriminated against the Israeli Arabs in a variety of ways, initially in practice though not in principle, but in recent years increasingly by official legislation and executive decrees.

Consequently, it could be argued that even if Israel agreed to full equality for the Palestinian and other minorities in a Jewish state, there would be no guarantee that it would honor its new commitments and no means of enforcement if it didn’t. That is correct, but what is the alternative? It stands to reason that the rights of the Israeli Arabs would have a greater chance of being realized if a peace settlement included a formal commitment by Israel that it will grant and enforce full citizenship and equality to them. And in the context of real peace between the Israeli and Palestinian people, there would be a much greater likelihood that Israel would honor its own declared principles and new formal guarantees, especially if they are structured so that they were commitments not only to the Palestinians but to the international community.

Is the Demand for a Jewish State Racist? In a famous or infamous 1975 resolution (later revoked in 1991), the UN General Assembly stated that “Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination." Aside from its political stupidity, that argument is untrue on the merits. To be sure, it is evident that many Israelis have racist attitudes towards Arabs in general and the Palestinians in particular. Still, it is important to distinguish between Zionism in principle and its increasing corruption in practice, and to consider whether Zionism and the demand for a Jewish state is inherently racist.

If it is to have any objective meaning, as distinct from being merely an instrument of denunciation, the term “racism” must include the belief that other races or peoples are inferior to one’s own. In that sense, Zionism is not inherently or necessarily racist: the driving force behind the Zionist quest for a Jewish state was not the belief that it was imperative because the Jews were superior but the belief that it was imperative because the Jews were vulnerable.

Israel today is increasingly compared with South Africa under apartheid, and there are substantial reasons to do so. However, there are also important differences, among other reasons because South African apartheid was inherently racist, based as it was on the belief that whites were superior to blacks and therefore should rule over them, when necessary by great force and violence. Moreover, South Africa could not claim that because whites were vulnerable all over the world, they needed a state of their own.

To reiterate, by any reasonable definition the Israelis have become increasingly racist. Even so, the argument for a Jewish state is not racist by its very nature, and even in Israel today the predominant driving force behind the demand for formal Arab recognition of Israel as a Jewish state is not so much racism as it is a consequence of a continuing and probably growing sense of Jewish vulnerability in what is believed to be an inherently anti-Semitic world. Of course, this belief blindly equates opposition to the Israeli occupation and repression of the Palestinians with hatred of Jews as such; nonetheless, however paranoid and mindless, genuine beliefs have real consequences, including consequences that the Palestinians have to take into account.

Zionism and Democracy. Whether or not the Jewish state concept is inherently racist, there is a clear tension between a continuing commitment to a Zionist Jewish state and the requirements of democracy in the context of a substantial non-Jewish minority. This is the most difficult issue for defenders of the Jewish state concept, for once the tension between Zionism and democracy is acknowledged, as it must be, the issue of whether Zionism was ever justified or at least is justified today, is unavoidable.

In thinking about this issue, it is important to distinguish between anti-Zionism and “post-Zionism.” Anti-Zionism usually entails the belief that the state of Israel should never have been created--though except for a handful of well-known crazies it does not include opposition to the continued “existence” of that state and its people, despite disingenuous or hysterical Israeli claims and propaganda. Post-Zionism accepts the need for the creation of a Jewish state in the past but holds that Israel today should no longer be regarded as a Jewish state, as opposed to the state of all its citizens, Jewish and non-Jewish alike; indeed, some post-Zionists accept the full logic of their position, in the sense that they would be prepared to accept an Israel in which Jews eventually might become a minority.

It is my view that in light of the long history of anti-Semitism, often murderous anti-Semitism, few if any other nationalist movements have had a more convincing claim to an imperative need for a state of their own than Jewish nationalism, or Zionism. Thus, the anti-Zionist argument, as applied to the founding of Israel, is quite unpersuasive. Post-Zionism today is another matter; even so, in the final analysis it is not convincing, for on what basis can one be confident that anti-Semitism will never again make life difficult—or impossible—for Jews anywhere in the world?

For that reason I cannot agree with my estimable colleague Tony Karon, who writes:

“The majority of the world’s Jews have not claimed a right to self-determination as Jews. On the contrary, we’re very happy that anti-Semitism in the West has been marginalized to the point that we can freely integrate ourselves into the democratic societies in which we’ve chosen to live….most young Jews in the West today are not assuming that their gentile neighbors are going to turn on them.”[3]

True enough—today. However, go back to the 1920s and substitute the word “Germany” for “the West.”

In short, it is historically short-sighted to be confident that the problem of anti-Semitism-- a problem that has repeatedly and with disastrous consequences recurred for more than two thousand years--has now been solved and will not reappear in the future, anywhere. Nor is it necessary to cite the Holocaust to cast doubt on the End of History assumptions implicit in post Zionism--in the last thirty years there has been considerable Ethiopian and massive Russian Jewish immigration into Israel in order to escape growing anti-Semitism and persecution in those countries. In that light, the case for a continued Zionism and the need for a Jewish state remains a reasonably strong one.

All that said, there is no denying that there is inherent tension between the requirements of Zionism and the requirements of democracy, a tension that already is a problem in Israel today and one that could become far more acute to the degree that the Israeli Arab minority becomes larger or increasingly alienated from the Jewish majority. While it is not only the size of the minority that matters, it is worthwhile to consider that issue: if the Israeli Arab minority should become substantially larger, would the tension between a Jewish state and a democratic one become irresolvable?

Perhaps surprisingly, Moshe Arens, one of Israel’s most prominent rightwing politicians, has addressed this issue in an interesting and forthright manner:

“Most Israelis are determined to assure the state’s Jewish character...while respecting its Arab citizens. We insist on continuing the mission that the Jewish state has set for itself of providing a haven for those Jews throughout the world who may need one. What happened during the Holocaust can never be allowed to happen again. This requires a substantial Jewish majority.”

“How big a majority? That’s a question that needs to be pondered. Is the present 80 percent Jewish majority sufficient? Would a reduction to a 70 percent Jewish majority be a catastrophe? Is it solely a question of numbers or is it also a function of the degree to which Israel’s minority population has been integrated into Israeli society?”[4]

As implied in Arens’ argument-- but not sufficiently emphasized--the degree of tension between two legitimate goals, a Jewish but still democratic state, depends not only on the size of the minority but also whether it is satisfied to continue to live in a Jewish state. Today the Arab minority is about 20% of the Israeli population; to some degree it is integrated into the fabric of Israeli life (although, of course, not equally so) and to some degree--apparently increasing--it is at odds with it.

In the context of an overall peace settlement with the Palestinians and the Arab world—readily attainable if only the Israelis would agree to it—the size of the minority might well decrease rather than increase because of the likelihood of some voluntary emigration of Israeli Palestinians into a full Palestinian state, especially if it becomes a political and economic success.

Perhaps more importantly, if Israel finally makes good on its commitment to full equality and rights for all its citizens, the “demographic problem,” to employ the Israeli euphemism, would likely become increasingly less important as non-Jewish citizens become fully integrated into the Israeli political system, economy, society, and culture.

The Case for Palestinian Acceptance of Israel as a Jewish State.

Formal recognition of Israel as a Jewish state is hardly a new or radical idea; indeed, the 1947 United Nations partition resolution specifically provided for the division of Palestine into a “Jewish state” and “an Arab state.” To be sure, there is every reason to believe that the Netanyahu government has seized upon what should be regarded as a non-issue as a cynical tactic to torpedo negotiations leading to a Palestinian state. But now that the Israeli government has made an issue of it, there is no doubt that for psychological and symbolic reasons most Israelis genuinely support the Jewish state demand—including many serious critics of the occupation.[5]

There is a growing concern in Israel that the state is becoming “delegitimized”—its very existence supposedly under a coordinated and deliberate “international campaign.” Of course this concern is entirely misplaced: most Israelis, invariably blind to the consequences of their country’s policies and actions, simply deny the obvious, namely that it is not the “existence” of Israel but its occupation and ugly repression of the Palestinians that is regarded as illegitimate, especially since it is clear that in the context of a two-state settlement the Palestinian Authority and most of the Arab world are ready to accept Israel and normalize relations with it.

Nonetheless, for obvious historical and psychological reasons most Israelis apparently genuinely fear “delegitimization,” and for that reason the fear, however unfounded, is a real obstacle to peace. In that light, it could be very helpful if the Palestinians were to reassure the Israelis by agreeing to recognize it as a "Jewish State" and dropping essentially symbolic demands, like the right of return, that are unrealistic and have no chance of being accepted.

Indeed, over the years, Palestinian leaders have often indicated that they recognize the realities, and are prepared to act accordingly in the context of a settlement. For example:

* In 2003, unofficial but high level Palestinian negotiators, tacitly backed by Yasir Arafat (at the time still the unchallenged leader of the Palestinians) signed the Geneva Accord, the most detailed and authoritative plan for a two-state settlement. The Accord recognized “the right of the Jewish people to statehood and the recognition of the right of the Palestinian people to statehood, without prejudice to the equal rights of the Parties' respective citizens.” Mahmoud Abbas—then known as Abu Mazen—was among the Palestinian leaders who have supported the Accord; indeed, he was the joint author of the 1995 Israeli-Palestinian “Beilin-Abu Mazen” statement, which set forth the principles on which the Geneva Accord was constructed.

*In 2004 Arafat was asked in an interview with Haaretz whether he understood that Israel had to remain a Jewish state. Reinforcing his 2002 New York Times oped, and this time talking directly to the Israelis, his reply was: “Definitely.”

*Recently, Yasser Abed Rabbo, the head of the Palestinian delegation that negotiated the Geneva Accord and today secretary general of the PLO, publicly stated that the Palestinians should “recognize Israel under any formula” in return for an Israeli commitment to a Palestinian state with the 1967 borders.[6]

In short, the Palestinians have nothing to lose by publicly and unambiguously stating that they will agree to formally recognize Israel as a Jewish state as part of an overall two-state settlement that meets their realistic and justifiable requirements. To be sure, it is only too likely that such a Palestinian concession would, in the short run, result only in the Netanyahu government and its rightwing supporters finding other pretexts for refusing a two-state settlement—but at least the Palestinians would dramatically be calling Netanyahu’s bluff and increasingly international pressures on Israel. Moreover, continued and even more obvious Israeli obduracy might lead to changes in the attitudes of my fellow American Jews, most of whom continue to reflexively support almost any Israeli behavior, thus enabling their most powerful organized leadership to continue abetting an Israel that is now accelerating its descent into a moral and security catastrophe.


[1]Arafat, "The Palestinian Vision of Peace," New York Times oped, Feb. 3, 2002.

[2]For example, in an October 20, 2010 oped in Haaretz, Nabil Shaath, chief of international relations for Fatah and a member of the Palestinian negotiating team, wrote that “We demand that Israel acknowledges its responsibility for the creation and perpetuation of the Palestinian refugee issue, and work with us toward finding a just resolution to this issue.” (“Does Israel Want Peace or to Play the Blame Game.”)

[3] “Who Made Netanyahu the Leader of the Jewish People?” Email to members of the Israeli-Palestinian List, Oct. 18, 2010.

[4]Haaretz, Sept. 14, 2010

[5] The Israeli centrist Yossi Alpher recently wrote that Netahyahu’s demand has broad support within the Israeli public: “The right wing likes it because it is patriotic and seemingly ‘anti-Arab.’ The left and center cannot easily oppose it because it dovetails with their emphasis on ending the occupation in order to maintain Israel as a Jewish and democratic state in view of the demographic threat.” (“The ‘Jewish State’ Condition,” Bitterlemons, October 25, 2010.

[6] For a discussion, see Alpher, cited in note 5.