Can Israel really call itself a 'Jewish state'?

The JC Essay


By Colin Shindler, October 11, 2012
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During his United Nations speech last month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proposed that "a demilitarised Palestinian state recognise the one and only Jewish state". While all previous holders of his office worked unceasingly for the recognition of Israel per se, the present incumbent has since his election four years ago insisted on the recognition of Israel "as a Jewish state" - almost as a matter of principle.

Diaspora Jews often interchange the terms "Israel" and "Jewish state" without a thought and logically believe that the outside world does the same. So when Netanyahu's approach is either rejected or circumvented, many Jews feel affronted. It tends to be interpreted as yet another step on the slippery path towards delegitimisation and labelling Israel as a pariah among the nations.

For example, when a communal delegation paid a visit to the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, in June 2011, it requested, in the context of any negotiated peace, "the acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state, with full and equal rights for all its citizens". Hague in turn acknowledged "the centrality of Israel as the Jewish national homeland, with full rights for all of its citizens". Were they in agreement? Or was Hague employing a subtle form of language that implied disagreement? Ironically, Hague was much closer to the wording of the Balfour Declaration of 1917.

The Balfour Declaration had spoken of "the creation of a Jewish national home in Palestine". Even the first Zionist Congress under Theodor Herzl's direction had promoted the issue of "a home for the Jewish people". In reality, the early Zionists had been circumspect about openly stating that their aim was to secure a state. Chaim Weizmann, Ahad Ha'am and Lord Rothschild all opposed any mention of "a Jewish state" in the Declaration and Balfour himself intimated that he would not be able to push the document through the cabinet if this was included.

Even Winston Churchill deleted the phrase from a draft of a statement to the Zionist Federation in 1908

As Herbert Samuel, later the High Commissioner of Palestine, stated in a memorandum to the British cabinet in early 1915: "To attempt to realise the aspiration of a Jewish state one century too soon might throw back its actual realisation for many centuries more." Even Winston Churchill deleted the phrase "the establishment of a strong, free Jewish state astride of the bridge between Europe and Africa" from a draft of a statement to the Zionist Federation in 1908.

While the concept of a nation-state - "the state of Israel" as opposed to the "Land of Israel"- was unknown in biblical and talmudic literature, the idea of a state of the Jews arose after the French revolution with the emergence of European nationalism. For example, Adam Mickiewicz, the Polish national poet, advocated the formation of a Jewish Legion in the 1850s to liberate Palestine - nearly 50 years before Herzl expanded on the topic.

For many of the early Zionists, "a Jewish state" meant a state with a Jewish majority whereby the Jews could exercise national self-determination. It did not mean an exclusive state of only Jews. Even Vladimir Jabotinsky, the so-called father of the Israeli political right, remarked in 1938 that "it must be hateful for any Jew to think that the rebirth of a Jewish state should ever be linked with such an odious suggestion as the removal of its non-Jewish citizens".

Zionist diplomats first advocated the term, "a Jewish Commonwealth" in 1942. This reflected the terrible news from Europe that Adolf Hitler had enacted a systematic slaughter of its Jews. The rise of an Arab nationalism that propagated a belief in a Greater Palestine further necessitated a political impetus to clarify Zionism's immediate objective. The idea of a Jewish state had already been aired in the Peel Commission's support for partition in 1937. David Ben-Gurion was now being far more vociferous in his demands than was the diplomatic anglophile, Chaim Weizmann.

With the war's end, the Anglo-American Commission of Inquiry into the future of Palestine was established in 1946. Yet it categorically refused to discuss the idea of a Jewish state on the basis that it was neither part of the obligations of the Balfour Declaration nor those of the British Mandate. When this inquiry led nowhere, the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine was formed - and a majority eventually recommended a two-state solution. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin leapt upon this and heartily promoted the creation of a Jewish state in 1947 in the hope of ejecting the British from the Middle East and preventing the Americans from entering it. As history records, this concluded in the establishment of the state of Israel in May 1948.

Yet Israeli foreign policy, led by Moshe Sharett, the second Prime Minister of Israel, broadly followed the line laid down by his predecessors in not erecting preconditions before negotiations. It continued the Zionist policy of being sensitive to the delicate political reality that all Israelis inhabited.

Menachem Begin therefore did not invoke recognition of Israel as a Jewish state in the peace agreement with Egypt in 1979. Neither did Yitzhak Rabin when he signed the peace accord with Jordan 15 years later. There was no mention of it when Israel negotiated with Syria's Hafez Assad in the 1990s. And more recently the Quartet on the Middle East argued that "Hamas should recognise Israel" - not "Israel as a Jewish state".

"Not recognising Israel as a Jewish state" therefore did not mean "not recognising Israel" - as Yasir Arafat and the PLO demonstrated in the early 1990s during the Oslo peace process.

During the last decade there were occasional substitutions of the phrase "Jewish state" for "Israel" by US Secretary of State, Colin Powell and by President George W Bush. Barack Obama used the term during his 2008 election campaign and in a speech to the UN in September 2010. Similarly Kadima's Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni occasionally raised the issue during their terms of office. But it only became a matter of apparent Zionist conviction with the formation of Netanyahu's centre right-far right coalition in 2009. Projected with patriotic ardour, many Israelis and diaspora Jews believed they were rallying to the flag.

Indeed, few have stopped to ask why, if this is indeed a fundamental matter of principle, Netanyahu did not advocate recognition of Israel as a Jewish state during his first period of office between 1996 and 1999? Why now?

C learly it can be interpreted as a counter-measure designed to combat delegitmisation and the call for a one-state solution. Moreover, most forms of Islamism in the Arab world refuse to recognise Israel theologically, while some European Marxists do not do so ideologically. In addition, there has been a deepening of the belief in universal citizenship in Europe, despite the fact that Israel and Palestine have not passed through the nation-state phase of peaceful coexistence - a transition that Europe has been making ever since 1945.

Netanyahu's espousal of "Israel as a Jewish state" has a Herzlian ring to it, even though the title of Herzl's Zionist primer The Jewish State is actually a mistranslation from the German "The State of the Jews". Netanyahu's approach is also symptomatic, historically, of the Israeli right's difficulty in accepting the legitimacy of the right of an opponent to have a different view.

The right's absolutism has been raised to new heights with the Knesset's ongoing attempt at legislation that is directed at perceived "enemies of the people" and often introduced by populists with an eye on future office. Netanyahu has quashed a fair number of these attempts at the politics of exclusion but he has simultaneously continued and refined his previous policy of reciprocity - conducting negotiations according to the letter of the law rather than to its spirit.

Damping down initiatives and expecting something in return for every Israeli move. This contrasted dramatically with Yitzhak Rabin's very different approach of constructive ambiguity, based on building trust and the accumulation of piecemeal peace agreements.

There has been a concerted criticism of Netanyahu's approach made by various Israeli public figures, even by those who are not specifically aligned with the political left. Israeli President Shimon Peres is apparently not in favour, while Gabriela Shalev, Israel's former ambassador to the UN, bluntly commented that "the demand to recognise Israel as a Jewish state is superfluous; there are no preconditions for talks with Palestinians".

Others resent Netanyahu's implication that Israel's self-definition was not a product of the Zionist determination to frame the nature of the state. Ephraim Halevy, the London-born former head of the Mossad, pointed out that "our Jewishness does not depend on them, but we need the recognition of the state".

Interestingly, the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas supported this by stating that it was not up to the Palestinians to define the national character of Israel.

Netanyahu told the United States congress in May 2011 that the six words "I will accept a Jewish state" would change history. This was easily delivered to rapturous applause, but the Palestinians did not see it in such simplistic terms. Some pointed out that Arafat had implicitly recognised the Jewish state when he proclaimed a Palestinian state in 1988, invoking UN Resolution 181 of November 1947, which advocated a two-state solution.

T he Palestinians viewed Netanyahu's initiative as a means of pre-empting a final-status agreement and a general undermining of the negotiating process. Many regarded it as no more than a diversionary tactic in further uncoupling the deteriorating Israeli-Palestinian relationship - an exercise in the politics of prevarication. On an emotional level, many Palestinians rhetorically asked whether it meant that Palestinians should not have their own narrative of the conflict? Was the Zionist version the only one?

The Palestinian academic, Sari Nusseibeh, tried to locate a way out of the morass and proposed the recognition of Israel as "a civil, democratic, and pluralistic state whose official religion is Judaism, and whose majority is Jewish" - in the same fashion as the official religion of Greece is Christianity. It's an idea that clearly would not be welcomed by Israel's secular majority. A Jewish state is not a Judaic state. Moreover, many Palestinian Arabs, both Muslim and Christian, would probably not wish to privilege Judaism in this manner.

"Recognising Israel as a Jewish state" has featured as a means of seducing the Jewish or pro-Israel voter during the current US election campaign. The Republican programme speaks of "a secure Jewish state of Israel" and the Republican Jewish Coalition is consequently spending more than $6 million in targeting Jewish voters in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Nevada and Florida.

President Obama's standing among Jewish voters - historically core Democrat voters - is currently around 68 per cent. This is approximately 10 per cent lower than the turn-out for him in 2008, therefore it is unsurprising that the Democrats in turn want to "sustain Israel's identity as a Jewish and democratic state".

Elections are now set to be held in Israel in early 2013. With the left in total disarray and Kadima on the point of disintegration, Netanyahu will almost certainly be returned and the far right fortified.

Repeating the mantra that the Palestinians and the Arab world must recognise Israel as a Jewish state will be a clarion call and help ensure his re-election, piercing the heart of the most cynical Israeli voter.

It will act as a bulwark against emerging fresh faces such as Yair Lapid and counteract the potential loss of the political centre-ground. After all, who would now dare to question the very idea of recognising "Israel as a Jewish state"?

An updated second edition of Colin Shindler's 'History of Modern Israel' will be published by Cambridge University Press in December 2012

Last updated: 4:50pm, October 11 2012