Thursday, 9 January 2014

Is Israel a Jewish State?

         This basic question – with a self-evident answer for most people – has, if media reports are to be believed, turned itself into a major stumbling block on the road to a negotiated settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.

What is at issue is not so much the fact of the matter as Palestinian acknowledgment of it.  Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly asked for Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.  He put it at its bluntest in his June 2009 speech at Bar-Ilan University: “The root of the conflict was, and remains, the refusal to recognize the right of the Jewish people to a state of their own in their his­toric homeland.”
Just as often Palestinian Authority (PA) president Mahmoud Abbas reiterates that this is something the Palestinians will never agree to.  On Egyptian TV Abbas said unequivocally: “I will never recognize a Jewish state” – a sentiment he repeated in December in a letter to President Obama. He contends that recognizing Israel as a Jewish state would disenfranchise its 1.6 million Arab citizens and undercut the right of return for millions of Palestinian refugees.  It would also imply the renunciation of the cherished dream, held equally by Fatah as by Hamas, of an eventual extension of an Arab Palestine “from the river to the sea”.

US foreign policy is quite clear on the matter. In his visit to the Middle East early in 2013, President Obama said, in so many words: “Palestinians must recognize that Israel will be a Jewish state” a sentiment endorsed pretty generally by the international community. When the Russian ambassador to Israel was asked to ratify the proposition, he gave a sensible answer. Why reiterate what we and 33 other nations accepted in the UN vote in 1947, he asked. That resolution stated explicitly that British mandate Palestinewould be two states — one Arab state and the other Jewish.” 

And indeed the wording of UN General Assembly Resolution 181 explicitly states that the territory of Palestine would be divided into “a Jewish State covering 56.47%”  and “an Arab State covering 43.53% of Palestine”.

The international determination to establish a homeland for the Jewish people harks back to the resolution passed by the San Remo conference in 1920, and confirmed by the League of Nations in July 1922 when appointing Britain as the mandatory power for Palestine.  

Israel’s Declaration of Independence, issued on May 14, 1948, the day that the British mandate to govern Palestine expired, says:
“This recognition by the United Nations of the right of the Jewish people to establish their State is irrevocable. This right is the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State… Accordingly, we hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish State in Eretz-Israel, to be known as the State of Israel.”

This original and unequivocal assertion of the nature and purpose of the new state should, on the face of it, be sufficient to provide the definitive answer to any question as to Israel’s essential character.  Of course, it is not.

An article earlier this month in a German paper compared Netanyahu’s call for the Palestinian leadership to recognize Israel as a Jewish state to the creation of an “apartheid state” or a “theocracy”, such as the Islamic Republic of Iran. The writer argued that if PA President Mahmoud Abbas were to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, “Arab Israelis would be second-class citizens.” 

The demand for recognition also has its challengers inside Israel.  It is a peculiarity of Israel that, while its inhabitants can categorize themselves as Israeli citizens, they cannot list their nationality as “Israeli”, only as “Jewish,” “Arab” or one of the other 130 possible nationalities adopted by the interior ministry for Israeli citizens. The category “Israeli” is not one of them.

Six years ago 21 appellants petitioned to be registered as “Israeli” in the Israeli national registry, arguing that without the existence of a secular Israeli identity, Israeli policies discriminate against minorities.  The case went before a Jerusalem district court judge who declined to give judgment, deeming the issue not a matter for the courts.

Last October the Supreme Court disagreed, and heard the appeal.  They rejected it, referring back to a ruling issued by then-Supreme Court President Shimon Agranat some 40 years ago. In Agranat’s words: “There is no Israeli nation separate from the Jewish people. The Jewish people is composed not only of those residing in Israel but also of diaspora Jewries.”

In short, although all Israelis qualify as “citizens of Israel,” the state is defined as belonging to the “Jewish nation,” meaning not only the 7 million Israeli Jews but also the 7 million in the diaspora.

A more down-to-earth challenge to the demand by Netanyahu for Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state comes from Israeli finance minister Yair Lapid.  Last autumn, in a TV interview in the States, Lapid said: "I don't feel we need a declaration from the Palestinians that they recognize Israel as a Jewish state. The whole concept of the State of Israel is that we recognize ourselves.”

Dr Tal Becker of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy points out in his detailed examination of the issue: “The term ‘Jewish state’ is sometimes misconceived as implying an aspiration for a Jewish theocracy. Properly understood, however, the claim seeks no more and no less than public recognition of the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in a state of their own.” 

So yes, Israel is a Jewish State, and given that it is also committed to preserving the rights of all its citizens and minority groups, there is nothing undemocratic about asserting the fact, however difficult its non-Jewish citizens may find singing the Zionist national anthem, “Hatikvah”.  Perhaps a new first verse that all can subscribe to is called for.  As for the claimed right of return of some 5 million Palestinians, this is clearly an issue for resolution within the context of a final peace accord, and acknowledging that Israel is the national home of the Jewish people should not affect that matter one way or the other.

In the final analysis, however, minister Lapid may have a point.  If Abbas decides during difficult peace negotiations to acknowledge Israel's essential nature, it would be a gesture of goodwill; however, the status of Israel as a Jewish state is for Israel itself to determine, and is not at all dependent on Palestinian endorsement.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 12 January 2014:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 9 January 2014:

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