Friday, January 3, 2014

The Jewish State in Question, Again

Jodi Rudoren writes in today’s Times that the great sticking point for Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations is Benjamin Netanyahu’s demand that Palestinians recognize Israel as a “Jewish state,” or as “the nation-state of the Jewish people”—something along these lines. Rudoren asks, “Can Israel preserve its identity as a Jewish democratic state while also providing equal rights and opportunities to citizens of other faiths and backgrounds? With a largely secular population, who interprets Jewish law and custom for public institutions and public spaces? Is Judaism a religion, an ethnicity or both?”

Netanyahu’s demand has at least three layers to it. The first is symbolic, without practical significance—understandable, but superfluous. The second is partly symbolic, but is meant to have future practical significance; it is contentious but resolvable. The third, however, is legal: it has great practical significance, and is, for any Palestinian or, for that matter, Israeli democrat, deplorable. We are no longer debating resolutions at fin-de-si├Ęcle Zionist congresses. Making laws requires settled definitions, and what’s being settled in Israel is increasingly dangerous. Netanyahu’s demand is a symptom of the disease that presents itself as the cure.

On the first, symbolic point: Israel is obviously the state of the Jewish people, in the sense that vanguard Jewish groups in Eastern Europe dreamed of a Hebrew revolution, which launched the Zionist colonial project, which engendered a Jewish national home in Mandate Palestine, which earned international backing to organize a state after the Holocaust—a state that became a place of refuge for Jews from Europe and Arab countries—that is, a state with a large Jewish majority whose binding tie (to bring things back to Zionism’s DNA) is the spoken Hebrew language.

When Palestinians say they recognize Israel, they are implicitly recognizing this reality; they are acknowledging the name of a communal desire. The state is not called Ishmael, after all.

Continue reading at The New Yorker...

6 comments:

Potter said...

Demand that Palestinians recognize a Jewish State is certainly a stumbling block and it is meant to be that. Surely ways around that (not to also mention softening the demand or letting go of it altogether) and your other points have been made to Netanyahu and he is deaf to these. Why? Because the demand for such recognition is accomplishing just what is wanted. No news: the term "Jewish State" has been used liberally since and before it's birth. But for Palestinians recognition of that term has particular meaning as you describe. And this is what Israeli's, Jews, are refusing to deal with. Good luck with rationality, with reasoning through this blindness and self-destructive stubbornness. It's plain, Netanyahu fools nobody; he wants no deal and refuses to show real leadership. I look for no awakening from him. I think Israel will have a lot of trouble ahead, not that I wish it, because pain is the only way, it seems, of awakening to reality.

Anonymous said...

As usual, terrific posting. But I was most pleased because the 'New Yorker' article included a YouTube link to your 2008 lecture at Vanderbilt. What a great lecture!

Anonymous said...

... and still timely!

Y. Ben-David said...

The Palestinians demanded that Israel recognize "the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people" which they did with the Oslo Agreements. The Palestinian Constitution states that the Palestinians are an integral part of the Arab nation (thus excluding non-Arabs from full identity with the state) and that Islam is the state religion (thus discriminating against non-Muslims). If this is okay for "progressives", then what is wrong with Israel being defined as a Jewish state?

Potter said...

Ben-David--Israel can define itself as it likes. But it can't demand that Palestinians define Israel as "Jewish State" until the issues that prevent that are resolved. Read Bernard Avishai's article for some clues as to what Palestinians think is wrong with that before any end-of-conflict agreement settles those issues.

As well, Palestinians can define themselves as they like. And if Jews are permitted to live there and want to stay they will have to deal with whether it is a democracy or not, and whther they want to live in an Arab nation or a Muslim nation or whatever.

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