Jewish State? Please Explain


Posted by Bob Lord

Israel-Palestine has percolated to the surface for me. Tammy wanted to read a "balanced" book on the subject, so she purchased Ari Shavit's My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, then persuaded me to get it as well, so we could discuss. Today, I read Roger Cohen of the NYT's op-ed, My Jewish State, then turned to Truthdig and found Stanley Kutler's post, Israel Can Do No Wrong

Cohen and Kutler both mention Israel's demand for recognition, which has evolved from the Palestinians recognizing Israel's right to exist, to recognizing Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state. Why the change?

And what the hell does that mean? It's an easy concept to slide by most people, as we tend to connect Israel and Judaism. Even J Street, the supposedly moderate pro-Israel, pro-peace lobbying group, contends that the two-state solution is the only way Israel can have a future as both a "majority Jewish state and a Democracy." 

Does "Jewish" refer to the religion, the race, or a nationality? Whichever of those options you choose, there are logical dead ends. If the reference is to the religion, how do you square it with the fact that most Israeiis are secular and that is home to 1.6 million Palestinians? What happens if over time less than half the populace are practicing Jews? And what is the significance of being a Jewish state in this context? Do Jews have rights that others don't and, if so, can others achieve those rights through conversion? Is this the equivalent of America being a "Christian nation" and, if so, why do American Jews reject the notion of a Christian nation, yet demand Israel be a Jewish state?

If "Jewish" in Jewish state refers to race, rather than religion, what is the purpose of being a Jewish state? Would that be like America a few decades back declaring itself a White country? Putting aside the definitional problems of a Jewish race, would a state that is Jewish by race confer greater rights on members of that race? Is that why non-Israelis of Jewish heritage have the right to become Israeli citizens? If so, does that mean a recent convert to the Jewish religion has inferior status to an Atheist member of the Jewish race? Does that mean the rights of Israeli citizens to have family members immigrate to Israel vary depending on the race of the citizen and his family? Does the requirement that Israel be a Jewish state then mean that it can take steps to ensure that Jews by race remain in the majority? If so, can it adopt anti-miscegenation laws similar to those we used to had in the US 50 years ago? Can it go a step further and limit the procreation of non-Jewish citizens? Could it even expel those non-Jewish citizens? And what if the populace abandons the Jewish religion altogether? Is it still a Jewish state?

So does "Jewish" in Jewish state refer to neither religion nor race but a sort of nationality? If so, what is that nationality? Wouldn't the more appropriate term be "Israeli"? After all, a Hebrew speaking gentile Israeli would have more in common with an Israeli Jew than would, say, an American Jew. That's why nationalities are associated with geographic regions. Of course, if you undo the intellectual sleight of hand here, the term becomes redundant, and absurd: Israel is an "Israeli state." Well, yes, and America is an American nation and France is a French nation. So what?

Here's how Cohen sees the Jewish state thing: 

Then there is the rebounding Israel-is-a-Jewish-state bugbear: Netanyahu wants Palestinians to recognize his nation as such. He has recently called it “the real key to peace.” His argument is that this is the touchstone by which to judge whether Palestinians will accept “the Jewish state in any border” — whether, in other words, the Palestinian leadership would accept territorial compromise or is still set on reversal of 1948 and mass return to Haifa.

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, says no; this “nyet” will endure. For Palestinians, such a form of recognition would amount to explicit acquiescence to second-class citizenship for the 1.6 million Arabs in Israel; undermine the rights of millions of Palestinian refugees; upend a national narrative of mass expulsion from land that was theirs; and demand of them something not demanded from Egypt or Jordan in peace agreements, nor of the Palestine Liberation Organization when, in 1993, Yasir Arafat wrote to Yitzhak Rabin that it recognizes the right of Israel “to exist in peace and security.”

This issue is a waste of time, a complicating diversion when none is needed. As Shlomo Avineri, a leading Israeli political scientist, put it to me, “It’s a tactical issue raised by Netanyahu in order to make negotiations more difficult.”

I agree with Cohen (and Avineri), but I still want my questions answered.