The Palestinians and the "Jewish state"

16 April 2014

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Young people wave Israeli flags during nighttime rally

What is Israel’s definition of a Jewish state if it does not conform to ethnic and religious purity?

(Tali Mayer / ActiveStills)

Palestinian negotiators have a miserable task – each time they approach the Israeli position, the Israelis demand more.

One would have thought that the “Palestinian Versailles” – as Edward Said called the 1993 Oslo accords – were enough of a concession to Israel. But with the illegal settlement activity and the illegal West Bank wall, Israel continues to demand more land for less peace.

For decades Israeli negotiators would sullenly say that the Palestinian parties refused to accept Israel’s right to exist. Oslo invalided that call, but of course it did not bring from Israel its corollary – namely, the right to existence of Palestine.

Not long after Oslo, the Israeli position morphed; no longer was it sufficient to demand that Palestinians recognize Israel, they also had to accept that Israel is a “Jewish state.” It has become a demand of the current negotiations ongoing in fits and starts under the auspices of US Secretary of State John Kerry. The Israeli demand is so outrageous that Kerry told US Congress on 13 March that this is a “mistake.”

On 25 March, the Arab League passed a unanimous resolution stating: “We express our total rejection of the call to consider Israel as a Jewish state.” The League followed the argument made by a new UN report – “Arab Integration” – produced by the UN’s Economic and Social Commission of West Asia (ESCWA).

“Israel insists on being recognized by the world and the Arabs as an exclusively Jewish state,” notes the report, released in early March. “It imposes this recognition as a condition for reaching a settlement with the Palestinians. This policy is based on the concept of the religious or ethnic purity of states, which brought humanity the worst crimes and atrocities of the twentieth century.”

These are strong words. It implies that a better comparison for Israel than its preferred glance to the West is to its south – to Saudi Arabia, another state that bases itself on religious supremacy and denies minority rights. It is a comparison that the Israelis do not want to adopt.

Confusion and frustration

On 5 March and 7 April, Israel’s Ambassador to the UN Ron Prosor sent strong letters to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon condemning Rima Khalaf, a former Jordanian cabinet minister who heads ESCWA.

In his second letter, quoted by the Israeli daily Haaretz, Ambassador Prosor says that Dr. Khalaf “may have a PhD in Systems Science, but she deserves a PhD in science fiction for her 200 page report filled with conspiracy theories. There is far more fiction than fact in this report that alleges that Israel is reviving the concept of ‘state ethnic and religious purity.’” Prosor throws in the now conventional allegations that Dr. Khalaf’s “accusations represent the epitome of modern day anti-Semitism” and that she is “demonizing Israel.”

Reading these letters one would assume that Israel does not want to be called a “Jewish state,” a concept that is indeed about “state ethnic and religious purity.” If this is the case then there is confusion in many quarters, where there is indeed frustration with the new demand coming from Tel Aviv.

On 4 March, at his favorite venue, the Washington, DC conference of AIPAC, the powerful Israel lobby group, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to “recognize the Jewish state,” making clear that this would mean the invalidation of the Palestinian “right of return” (“You would be telling Palestinians to abandon the fantasy of flooding Israel with refugees”).

What is Israel’s definition of a Jewish state if it does not conform to “ethnic and religious purity?” Israel has not been able to settle this question. Parliamentarian Avi Dichter (Kadima) has put bills before the Knesset in 2010 and 2011 calling for an end to Arabic as an official language, with Jewish religious law taking the place of Israel’s Basic Law. These bills were withdrawn.

Last year, two sets of bills from Yariv Levin (Likud) and Ayelet Shaked (Jewish Home) as well as Ruth Calderon (Yesh Atid) tried to define the term “Jewish State,” but again could not find consensus. How can the Palestinian leadership agree to a vague term that Israeli lawmakers cannot define?

“Apartheid law”

The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs has an anodyne definition, linking the term to the idea of nationality: “Since their emergence in antiquity, the Jewish people have constituted a nation, a people and a civilization, anchored in basic aspects of their identity, such as Judaism and the Hebrew language. Israel is to the Jewish people what France is to the French people, Ireland is to the Irish and Japan is to the Japanese.”

But the Israeli state-building exercise – by the displacement of the Palestinians – is different from that of the French, Irish and Japanese. However, the comparison is salient in terms of minority rights. France suffers today from an absence of robust statutory and social protection for minority rights, and it also suffers from the growth of a xenophobic political force (captured to some extent by the National Front) that seeks to subordinate minorities.

This is precisely what Levin and Shaked’s bill sought, which is why the Israeli newspaper Haaretz called it an “apartheid law” (“Basic Law: Apartheid in Israel,” 30 March 2013).

This kind of law, the newspaper’s editorial board writes, is shockingly low on tolerance for minorities. “Arabs will enjoy at best the status of a tolerated minority, with the option of turning them into a non-tolerated minority down the line, one which needs to be rid of because its presence spoils the state’s Jewish purity.”

Is this the “Jewish state” that the Israeli negotiators want the Palestinian leadership to accept? If so, then the ESCWA report is correct, and Ambassador Prosor needs to apologize to Dr. Khalaf.

“Torpedo the negotiations”

Frustration with Israel’s new demand – that the Palestinians accept it as a Jewish state – has gone into the heart of the US diplomatic establishment. In an open letter published by Politico on 8 April, six leading US diplomats (including former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski and former Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci) reject the Israeli demand and ask John Kerry to “stand firm.”

Israeli politicians “do not have the right to demand that Palestinians abandon their own national narrative,” they write, “and the United States should not be a party to such a demand … Israeli demands that Palestinians recognize that Israel has been and remains the national homeland of the Jewish people is intended to require the Palestinians to affirm the legitimacy of Israel’s replacement of Palestine’s Arab population with its own. It also raises fears of continuing differential treatment of Israel’s Arab citizens.”

In late March, Knesset member Zehava Galon (Meretz) said that Netanyahu’s insistence that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state “was meant to torpedo the negotiations.”

This seems to be the case. As the “peace process” goes once more into deep freeze, the Israeli government waits to change the “facts on the ground” with greater resolution — more settlements, more security barriers, less rights to Palestinians, and less chance of any political dialogue.

In 2003, Netanyahu said that the wall built to encage the West Bank would prevent a “demographic spillover” into Israel. The collapse of the “peace process” to deliver a two-state solution threatens to leave the Israelis with only two options – expel the Palestinians to Jordan and Egypt to liquidate the Palestinian question, or absorb the Palestinians into a non-racial single state.

Israeli policy leans toward the former, with the latter its nightmare. There is no seriousness of purpose in Israel toward any kind of negotiation. It has gained ground by obduracy. Why should it shift its strategy now?

Vijay Prashad is the Edward Said Chair at the American University of Beirut. He has an essay in Githa Hariharan’s edited volume From India to Palestine: Essays in Solidarity (New Delhi: LeftWord, 2014), reviewed by The Electronic Intifada.

Comments

Israeli demands to be recognized as a Jewish state in the same way that the USA is an American state and England is an English state. This has nothing to do with the Jewish religion or ethnicity. Judaism is a nationality that happens to have its own religion, like the English nationality has the Anglican religion, but when we talk about a "Jewish state" we mean only in the national sense.

You don't have to belong to the Jewish faith or ethnicity to be considered part of the Jewish nation of Israel. But you do have to accept that this nation began with the exodus from Egypt, and the state of Israel continues the history that began then. Just like if you would want to get American citizenship and be part of the American nation you would have to accept that it begins in the 1776 war of independence. And if the Americans were fighting a war against a nation that wanted to change that definition (for instance, if the UK attacked it in an attempt to make it part of the kingdom again), they would have demanded that as part of the peace deal that nation would recognize that it is an American state. And so would any other nation in that situation.

All Israel wants is to be recognized as a democratic state where the Jewish nation is the sovereign, the same as every other enlightened state in the world. You know that very well, because we have explained it to you millions of times. The fact that you choose to paint this as "ethnic purity" and such nonsense is pure demagoguery.

It really doesn't matter if you consider Judaism a religion, a nationality or an ethnicity, discrimination according to the origin of a group of people is racist, and when the intention is to retain the dominance of one group over the other (citing self defence or any other justification), it is considered apartheid.

This is not considered apartheid, this IS apartheid. And we would recognize Israel as a jewish state, of a pink unicorn state if they pretend, doesn't matter, but then we should also pretend to apply the international law against it due to the apartheid laws... a hundred years of suffering should be enough for palestinian people.

I get that you think that a state should not have any national identity, because that would be "discrimination". I'm interested to know if you would hold other states to that criterion.

Would you demand from the Brits to cease regarding Shakespeare as their national poet, because he's English and that would "discriminate" against the English-Pakistani minority?

Would you demand of the Americans to stop teaching about the founding fathers in schools, because none of them was Chinese and that would "discriminate" against Chinese-American kids?

Would you demand that the French cease treating Jeanne d'Arc as their national hero, because that would "discriminate" against the French-Algerian minority?

Israel defines itself as a "Jewish democratic state", meaning: everyone of its citizens is equal, regardless of their religion, ethnicity, gender etc. But the identity of the state - its symbols, its history, its holidays, it's ethos - is based on the Jewish nation. Just like every enlightened democracy. We would not have to add the "Jewish" part (it was only added in the 1990s) if it wasn't for all the people denying its right to exist as such.

The "Jewish democratic state" is a very simple concept to understand. Those who refuse to understand it are doing so willfully because they want to perpetuate the war.

Israel made laws which discriminate an entire ethnicity: economic laws, restrictions, restrictions to commerce, to use the roads, to bnefit from services. Israel run a lot of palestinian people in Palestinian territories so it can't be a jewish state. I think it's quite simple...

The difference between Israel and UK, USA and France is that they actually own their land, Israel not. Nelson Mandela would throttle you...

Your point isn't valid cause you're conflating occupied territories (that aren't Israel) with Israel itself as established by UN and international law. Israel does "own" its land (within 1949 borders) with as much legitimacy as UK, USA, Jordan, India, etc.

All Israel wants is to be recognised as a democracy without being one.

In what way is Israel no a democracy?

I actually don't feel the need to expand with examples because a very quick glance at this site will show anyone whose mind is not twisted by racism all too many instances of undemocratic rule. But just to help you get past your racist outlook and try to understand what is meant by democracy I'll just point to one reality: Israel rules over subjects as well as citizens. And yes, it's true, those subjects are Palestinian Arabs not Israeli Jews, but, and here's the amazing thing, for democracy to exist, democratic rights have to belong to all the inhabitants of country regardless of ethnicity, race or religion. That is why it is significant that while Palestine is a geographic term, Israel is an ethnic nationalist term. A Jewish state of Israel is by definition not democratic.

No one in their right mind has ever accepted that the current state of Israel "began with the exodus from Egypt" (which by the way most likely never happened, even biblical scholars tend to agree that nothing on the level of the exodus actually happened - that's why "holy" books are never considered archeologically relevant unless evidence backs them up). It's not even a "thing" in international law. You just made up yet another "condition" that isn't even on the table. Are you predicting that it will be in a few years if the Palestinians are threatened once against with oblivion and forced to recognize that? What will be next? Forced to recognize that Jesus was actually Israeli, and not Palestinian?

Enough with this nonsense. No one in their right mind is buying it.

"1776 war of independence." -----Are you assuming England had the Land rights. No they did not, the land had others living on it. This failed argument, that no one was on this land, before the zio children marched out of Egypt. Is just part of the zio Hollywood story line, a political religious myth, " It's all Mine".

"Hogwash" is perhaps too much an American expression. I could have cited
more earthy expletives for a title...but declined.

Instead, I would recommend you to study the extensive documentation of the
absurdity of your viewpoint. There is the more journalistic GOLIATH: LIFE AND
LOATHING IN GREATER ISRAEL by Max Blumenthal. In a more scholarly
vein I recommend Ilan Pappe's THE ETHNIC CLEANSING OF PALESTINE (2006)
and from the beginning of this year (2014) THE IDEA OF ISRAEL by Pappe.
For a deeper understanding read DISHONEST BROKER: THE U.S. ROLE
IN ISRAEL AND PALESTINE by Naseer H. Aruri (2003).

For my part, I "see life from the underside" as a character in poetry once
put it ("arcy" in THE LIVES AND TIMES OF ARCHY AND MEHITABEL by Don
Marquis (pseudonoym). I also urge a more profound knowledge of history, in
particularly American history.

You may be in the position of others who have chosen to see life from one
side alone. There are unfortunately too many of you. (See I. PAPPE (2014).
I urge you to seriously reconsider. ---Peter Loeb, Boston,MA, USA

The Exodus did not happen. It is a myth. The only Semitic group which ever left Egypt on the run were its former Hyksos rulers after they were overthrown. Egypt ruled all of Palestine and southern Syria from 1550-1150, and parts of southeastern Anatolia and northwest Mesopotamia for a couple of centuries in there. During this time, Egypt had major administrative centers in Gaza and in Beth Shean at the junction of the Jezreel and the Jordan. Israel originated as a native Canaanite tribe, and when they entered Palestine they did so from the north.

No state has a right to exist for the sole or even primary benefit of a single ethnic and or sectarian group. Apartheid South Africa has no right to exist, the Jim Crow American South had no right to exist, Nazi Germany has no right to exist, and the State of Israel has no right to exist.

The only just solution, and the only workable solution in the long run, is One State, with completely secular democracy and equal rights for all.

There are many ethnic states that are considered legitimate: Bangladesh, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Czech Republic, Slovakia, etc. So I'm not sure what you're arguing.

Pakistan an ethnic state? Which ethnicity is it the state of? Do tell!

The zios signed a agrement in 1948, with the U.N. that has been fradulently broken.

It is time for the world Court to rule on: there legal land borders, And requirments under the 1948 agreement.

Law Suit Filed with ICC Against the State of Israel By Ronald ...
www.ccun.org/.../Law%20Suit%20......‎
By Ronald Douglas Kennedy. Al-Jazeerah, ccun.org, April 12, 2010. Regarding MR. Mahmoud Abbas, the elected Palestinian prime minister of Hamas remarks ...

Lots of people have lived in that part of the world over the millennia -- Assyrians, Phoenicians, Philistines, Canaanites, Turks, Romans, Bedouin, Druze, the list goes on. Religious practices have changed over time -- pagan practices, Old Temple Judaism, New Temple Judaism, Christianity, Islam.

So why does it become a Jewish only homeland, pray tell? Why can't it be a state for all it's people? That's what a democracy is. Sorry Jewish and Democratic is a contradiction in terms. Zionist + Apartheid is more like it.

How does Israel being a Jewish state prevent it from being for all its people?

Israel defines itself as "Jewish and democratic". That means that all its citizens should have equal rights. But the identity of the state is Jewish. Its symbols are Jewish, its calendar is the Jewish calendar, it finances establishments dedicated to preserving Jewish culture and history, etc.

This is the same as every other democracy in the world. Every democratic state has a national identity. But for some reason, you don't believe the Jewish nation is entitled to what every other nation is entitled to. When the Jews want to have a state that is based on their national identity, you call it "apartheid". Why is that?

The Jews of the entire world do NOT constitute a nation. They don't even share a common ethnicity or a common language. There IS a Hebrew - speaking nation inside Israel which does have the right to national self - determination. But it doesn't have the right to oppress the Palestinians. Hence the unjustness not just of the occupation but if discriminatory laws inside Israel, including the Law of Return.

Your claim that there's no Jewish nation is laughable. Let's see, what does a nation need?

A national history and ethos: the Jews have a national history which they pass on from generation to generation. It is preserved in our rituals, which go back thousands of years. Every Jew learns that WE were once slaves in Egypt but then became a sovereign nation, that WE fought against the Greeks and drove them away from our country, that WE were conquered by the Romans and exiled into diaspora, etc.

Homeland: the Jewish homeland in Israel, and even 2000 years of diaspora couldn't make us forget it. Every single day, the Jews in diaspora would pray that one day we will all come back to Israel and be sovereign again (it is a prayer that is said three times a day).

Language: the Jews in diaspora spoke languages that were a hybrid of Hebrew and the local language. But when different Jewish communities would send letters to one another, they would do it in Hebrew. Thus, Hebrew remained the Jewish language.

Ethnicity: in 20 centuries of diaspora the Jews blended with many other ethnicities, and still, they have their own distinct look, their own unique names and surnames, their own cuisine, and every other ethnic mark you can think of.

No one in Israel is demanding the right to oppress Palestinians. We recognize their right to a state of their own. But we want them to recognize that we have the same right as well.

Any rational person realizes that there hasn't been a Jewish nation in any contemporary meaningful sense for well over 2,000 years. The only attribute common to all Jews is the Jewish religion, encoded in the Hebrew-cum-Aramaic language of its sacred texts and liturgy. And many "Jews" don't even practice the religion. Outside Israel secular Jewish identity tends to dissipate after two or three generations.

Obviously there once were people like the Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazim in the Russian empire and its immediate periphery who did constitute a sort of nation. But such people didn't constitute all the world's Jews (Ashkenazi Jews spoke Yiddish (a German dialect), Sephardi Jews spoke Ladino (Judeo-Spanish), Iraqi Jews spoke Judeo-Arabic, etc.) and in any case that particular nation no longer exists. World Jewry, again, is not a nation in the modern, post-French Revolution sense.

Zionist ideology is based on a myth: that Jews all over the world are a single ancient nation, forcibly exiled from its ancient homeland, the Land of Israel, to which it is "returning" thanks to the Zionist project of "ingathering of the exiles."

So the idea that a Jew who's never set foot in historic Palestine has more right to live there than an Arab refugee who was forced out of his/her home in '48 or '67 is plainly immoral. It is plain ethno-religious colonial-settler ideology. And any consistent democrat must oppose it.

The demand is so ludicrous and the average Israel doesn't even think....I don't even know where to begin....how about something simple....Israel has over 150 bilateral recognitions (you know countries that recognize your sovereignty), how many of them were asked to recognize Israel as a Jewish state? NONE