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-siècle 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...