Monday, October 03, 2011

Why Israel Can’t Be a “Jewish State”

The following is by Sari Nusseibeh, a professor of philosophy at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem. (I have a few additional comments after his article and have appended a list of titles for ‘further reading.’):

“The Israeli government’s current mantra is that the Palestinians must recognise a ‘Jewish State.’ Of course, the Palestinians have clearly and repeatedly recognised the State of Israel as such in the 1993 Oslo Accords (which were based on an Israeli promise to establish a Palestinian state within five years—a promise now shattered) and many times since. Recently, however, Israeli leaders have dramatically and unilaterally moved the goal-posts and are now clamouring that Palestinians must recognise Israel as a ‘Jewish State.’

In 1946, the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry concluded that the demand for a ‘Jewish State’ was not part of the obligations of the Balfour Declaration or the British Mandate. Even in the First Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897, when Zionists sought to ‘establish a home for the Jewish people,’ there was no reference of a ‘Jewish State.’ The Zionist Organisation preferred at first to use the description ‘Jewish homeland’ or ‘Jewish Commonwealth.’ Many pioneering Zionist leaders, such as Judah Magnes and Martin Buber also avoided the clear and explicit term ‘Jewish State’ for their project of a homeland for Jews, and preferred instead the concept of a democratic bi-national state.

Today, however, demands for a ‘Jewish State’ from Israeli politicians are growing without giving thought to what this might mean, and its supporters claim that it would be as natural as calling France a French State. However, if we consider the subject dispassionately, the idea of a ‘Jewish State’ is logically and morally problematic because of its legal, religious, historical and social implications. The implications of this term therefore need to be spelled out, and we are sure that once they are, most people—and most Israeli citizens, we trust—will not accept these implications.

Many implications

First, let us say that confusion immediately arises here because the term ‘Jewish’ can be applied both to the ancient race of Israelites and their descendants, as well as to those who believe in and practice the religion of Judaism. These generally overlap, but not always. For example, some ethnic Jews are atheists and there are converts to Judaism (leaving aside the question of whether these are accepted as such by Ultra-Orthodox Jews) who are not ethnic Jews.

Second, let us suggest also that having a modern nation-state being defined by one ethnicity or one religion is problematic in itself—if not inherently self-contradictory—because the modern nation-state as such is a temporal and civic institution, and because no state in the world is—or can be in practice—ethnically or religiously homogenous.

Third, recognition of Israel as a ‘Jewish state’ implies that Israel is, or should be, either a theocracy (if we take the word ‘Jewish’ to apply to the religion of Judaism) or an apartheid state (if we take the word ‘Jewish’ to apply to the ethnicity of Jews), or both, and in all of these cases, Israel is then no longer a democracy—something which has rightly been the pride of most Israelis since the country’s founding in 1948.

Fourth, at least one in five Israelis—20 per cent of the population, according to the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics—is ethnically Arab (and are mostly either Muslim, Christian, Druze or Bahai), and recognising Israel as a ‘Jewish State’ as such makes one-fifth of the population of Israel automatically strangers in their own native land and opens the door to legally reducing them, most undemocratically, to second-class citizens (or perhaps even stripping them of their citizenship and other rights)—something that no-one, much less a Palestinian leader, has a right to do.

Fifth, recognising a ‘Jewish State’ as such in Israel would mean legally that while Palestinians no longer have citizens’ rights there, any member of world Jewry outside of Israel (up to 10 million people perhaps), should be entitled to full citizens’ rights there, no matter wherever they may be in the world today and regardless of their current nationality. Indeed, Israel publicly admits that it does not hold the land for the benefit of its citizens but holds it, in trust, on behalf of the Jews of the world for all time. This is something that happens in practice, but that obviously Palestinians in the occupied territories—including Jerusalem—do not see as fair, especially as they are constantly forcibly evicted off their ancestral homeland by Israel to make way for foreign Jewish settlers, and because Palestinians in their diaspora are denied the same right to come and live.

Sixth, it means, before final status negotiations have even started, that Palestinians would have then given up the rights of about 7 million Palestinians in the diaspora to repatriation or compensation; 7 million Palestinians descended from the Palestinians who in 1900 lived in historical Palestine (i.e. what is now Israel, the West Bank including Jerusalem, and Gaza) and at that time made up 800,000 of its 840,000 inhabitants; and who were driven off their land through war, violent eviction or fear.

Seventh, recognising a ‘Jewish state’ in Israel—a state which purports to annex the whole of Jerusalem, East and West, and calls Jerusalem its “eternal, undivided capital” (as if the city, or even the world itself, were eternal; as if it were really undivided, and as if it actually were legally recognised by the international community as Israel’s capital)—means completely ignoring the fact that Jerusalem is as holy to 2.2 billion Christians and 1.6 billion Muslims, as it is to 15-20 million Jews worldwide.

In other words, this would be to privilege Judaism above the religions of Christianity and Islam, whose adherents together comprise 55 per cent of the world’s population. Regrettably this is a narrative propagated even by renowned Jewish author and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, who, on April 15, 2010, took out full page ads in The New York Times and The Washington Post and claimed that Jerusalem ‘is mentioned more than six hundred times in Scripture—and not a single time in the Qur’an.’ Now we do not propose to speak for native Palestinian Arab Christians—except to say the that Jerusalem is quite obviously the city of Jesus Christ the Messiah—but as Muslims, we believe that Jerusalem is not the ‘third holiest city of Islam’ as is sometimes claimed, but simply one of Islam’s three holy cities. And, of course, despite what Mr Wiesel seems to believe, Jerusalem is indeed clearly referred to in the Holy Qur’an in Surat al-Isra’ (17:1):

Glorified be He Who transported His servant by night from the Inviolable Place of Worship to the Aqsa Place of Worship whose precincts We have blessed, that We might show him of Our tokens! Lo! He, only He, is the Hearer, the Seer.

Moreover, Muslims wanting to take a similar, religiously exclusive narrative, could point out that while Jerusalem is mentioned 600 times in the Bible, it is not mentioned once in the Torah as such—a fact that any Biblical Concordance will easily confirm. Of course we do, however, recognise the importance of the land of Israel in the religion of Judaism—this is even mentioned in the Qur’an, 5:21—we only ask that the Israeli government reciprocate this courtesy and allow Muslims to speak for themselves in expressing what they consider, and have always considered, as holy to them.

There is another reason, more serious than all of the seven mentioned above, why Palestinian leaders—and indeed no responsible person—can morally recognise Israel as a ‘Jewish State’ as such. It has to do with the very Covenant of God in the Bible with Ancient Israelites of the promise of a homeland for Jews. God says to Abraham in the Bible:

On the same day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying: ‘To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the River Euphrates - the Kenites, the Kenezzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.’ (Genesis, 15:18-21; NKJ)

The ancient Israelites then go on to possess this land in the time of Moses, upon God’s command, as follows:

‘When the LORD your God brings you into the land which you go to possess, and has cast out many nations before you, the Hittites and the Girgashites and the Amorites and the Canaanites and the Perizzites and the Hivites and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and mightier than you, and when the LORD your God delivers them over to you, you shall conquer them and utterly destroy them. You shall make no covenant with them nor show mercy to them.’ (Deuteronomy, 7:1-2; NKJ)

‘Hear, O Israel: You are to cross over the Jordan today, and go in to dispossess nations greater and mightier than yourself, cities great and fortified up to heaven, a people great and tall, the descendants of the Anakim, whom you know, and of whom you heard it said: 'Who can stand before the descendants of Anak?' Therefore understand today that the LORD your God is He who goes over before you as a consuming fire. He will destroy them and bring them down before you; so you shall drive them out and destroy them quickly, as the LORD has said to you.’ (Deuteronomy, 9:1-4; NKJ)

The fate of many of the original inhabitants is then as follows:

And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, ox and sheep and donkey, with the edge of the sword. (Joshua, 6:21; NKJ)

And this continues even later on in time, as follows:

Samuel also said to Saul: ‘The LORD sent me to anoint you king over His people, over Israel. Now therefore, heed the voice of the words of the LORD. Thus says the LORD of hosts: “I will punish Amalek for what he did to Israel, how he ambushed him on the way when he came up from Egypt. Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and do not spare them. But kill both man and woman, infant and nursing child, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.”’ (1 Samuel, 15:1-3; NKJ)

Now it is very easy to cherry-pick quotes from scripture permitting or enjoining violence. One could cite, out of context, verses such as the ‘sword verse’ in the Holy Qur’an:

Then, when the sacred months have passed, slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them, and confine them, and lie in wait for them at every place of ambush. But if they repent, and establish prayer and pay the alms, then leave their way free. God is Forgiving, Merciful. (Al-Tawbah, 9:5) [….]

Democracy or a Jewish State?

…[I]t remains true that, in the Old Testament, God commands the Jewish state in the land of Israel to come into being through warfare and violent dispossession of the original inhabitants. Moreover, this command has its roots in the very Covenant of God with Abraham (or rather ‘Abram’ at that time) in the Bible and it thus forms one of the core tenets of Judaism as such, at least as we understand it. No one then can blame Palestinians and descendents of the ancient Canaanites, Jebusites and others who inhabited the land before the Ancient Israelites (as seen in the Bible itself) for a little trepidation as regards what recognising Israel as a ‘Jewish State’ means for them, particularly to certain Orthodox and Ultra Orthodox Jews. No one then can blame Palestinians for asking if recognising Israel as a ‘Jewish State’ means recognising the legitimacy of offensive warfare or violence against them by Israel to take what remains of Palestine from them.

We need hardly say that this comes against a background where every day the Israeli settler movement is grabbing more land in the West Bank and Jerusalem (there are now 500,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank alone)—aided, abetted, funded and empowered by the current Israeli government - and throwing or forcing more and more Palestinians out, in so many different ways that it would take volumes to describe. [….]

So, rather than demand that Palestinians recognise Israel as a ‘Jewish State’ as such—adding ‘beyond chutzpah’ to insult and injury—we offer the suggestion that Israeli leaders ask instead that Palestinians recognise Israel (proper) as a civil, democratic, and pluralistic state whose official religion is Judaism, and whose majority is Jewish. Many states (including Israel’s neighbours Jordan and Egypt, and countries such as Greece) have their official religion as Christianity or Islam (but grant equal civil rights to all citizens) and there is no reason why Israeli Jews should not want the religion of their state to be officially Jewish. [….]

Please see the entire article at Al Jazeera.

Aharon Barak writes in The Judge in a Democracy (2006) that “Israel was founded as the state of the Jewish people.” The founding of not a few nation-states on along exclusivist ethnic and/or religious principles is similar in this regard, but what is more troubling is what follows from this historical premise, namely, an axiomatic “constitutional premise:” “The reason for the existence of the State of Israel is its existence as a Jewish state. That character is central to its existence, and it is ‘an axiom of the state.’ It is a ‘fundamental principle of our law and our system.’ We therefore cannot allow a list or an individual seeking to negate this reason and this foundation to participate in elections.” This goes far beyond requiring would-be electoral participants to recognize the right of the state of Israel to exist, for it excludes participants who would seek to put all religious and other worldviews on equal footing with Judaism vis-à-vis the democratic character of the nation-state of Israel.

Needless to say, Israel’s so-called demographic problem renders this amended (in 1992) Basic Law (as interpreted and applied by the Supreme Court) a pragmatic contradiction. Concrete “facts on the ground,” implications, and consequences are not lacking: pervasive discrimination against Arab citizens, the political role of religion, the blurring of the state’s geography, including the military control and settlement of territory in the West Bank and Gaza (e.g., roughly ‘60 percent of the West Bank is now held by Israeli Jews as private, state, or military land,’ and segregation is very real for Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox Jews, Russian immigrants, and Palestinian Arabs, among others). And this should not prevent us from acknowledging whenever and wherever we discern democratic principles and practices belonging to the state of Israel.

What it troubling, however, is the legislative, political and cultural licensing of the notion that one cannot sufficiently separate, in the case of Israel, the “Jewish” from “the democratic,” hence even well-motivated or well-meaning criticisms of the Jewish nature of the state are seen as equivalent to, indeed, are in fact reduced to, “attacks on democracy.” The Judaization of Israel should therefore remain an important concern for all who cherish the democratic elements of this particular State, especially in light of what has been tellingly christened the “Arab demographic danger” and the resistance of Palestinians to a particular government’s agenda and policies, including those of the IDF.

In several and important respects, Israel can be described as a democracy, but it has some distance to go in ridding itself of those Zionist features that have come to be indissolubly associated with Israel insofar as it is at the same time (normatively) described as a Jewish state. Note that I’m not making the claim that all those who historically identified with Zionism were Jewish in the religious sense, they were not, but those who favored a more messianic-like understanding of Zionism were front and center among the founders of the state of Israel and have remained the ideological pool from which its political leadership has been drawn. This is made clear in Jacqueline Rose’s The Question of Zion (2005), for in the end, there turned out to be very little difference between secular and religious Zionists: both imbued nationalism with a messianic strain, for leaders like Weizmann “merely displaced” the “false messianic hope” they avowedly “relinquished.” Indeed, “the language of secular Zionism bears the traces and scars of a messianic narrative that it barely seeks, or fails, to repress.” An exemplar here is David Ben-Gurion: “A secular Jew, like so many of the key figures in the early political history of Zionism, Ben-Gurion bequeathed to Israel in his rhetoric the messianic destiny of the nation-in-waiting,” as the “language of salvation and redemption saturates...[his] prose.” One disturbing consequence: “Under pressure of the biblical narrative, two thousand years of history fall into the dust,” one reason why Palestine, to the Zionists, was a “land without a people” (when confronted with unavoidable empirical evidence to the contrary, ‘ethnic cleasing’ became the norm: cf. Ilan Pappe’s The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, 2006). Ben-Gurion understood the implications: “We must create a majority in the Land of Israel in the next twenty years.” Is it any wonder that, today, Israel’s “demographic problem” is both a manifest and latent cause of so much political and cultural anxiety? Alas, “Messianism, as unconscious inspiration, is in the air and soil of Israel.”

In Value, Respect, and Attachment (2001), Joseph Raz attempts to explain the underlying principled and rational interpretation of Barak’s characterization of Israel as a “Jewish state:”

“An Israeli Basic Law declares that the State of Israel is a Jewish state. Israeli courts struggled with the implications of the law for their practice. The president of the Supreme Court, Mr. Justice Barak, said that a Jewish state means a state which embraces the values which Judaism gave the world, namely (and I quote) ‘the love of mankind, the sanctity of life, social justice, equity, protecting human dignity, the rule of law over the legislature, etc.’ I think that he gave the statute the only acceptable interpretation. Notice that in the same sense France too can be a Jewish state. It too can embrace the values which Judaism gave to the world.... Indeed, it may well be said that in that sense no state can be a morally good state unless it is a Jewish state. Does that show that Barak adopted the wrong interpretation? Did he not empty that article in the law of all meaning? No and yes. He did empty the law of meaning, but it was the right thing to do. It would be wrong to suppose that on top of following justice, equity, dignity, and other universal values, Israeli law should follow some additional specifically Jewish values, which may conflict with justice or other values, and compromise them.”

Unfortunately, the fact that the wording of the law remains on the books, means it is always liable to an interpretation other than that provided by the former President of the Supreme Court of Israel. Indeed, if the law is thereby emptied of all meaning, why not change it? The plain meaning of the language here is not at all conducive to the secular apologetic gloss, indeed, it implicates the centrality of “specifically Jewish values” in the State by its inclusion and non-Jews can be forgiven for understanding it in just that fashion.

Further Reading:
  • Abu-Lughod, Ibrahim. The Transformation of Palestine: Essays on the Origin and Development of the Arab-Israeli Conflict. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1971.
  • Abu-Lughod, Ibrahim. Palestinian Rights: Affirmation and Denial. Wilmette, IL: Medina Press, 1982.
  • Abu-Lughod, Ibrahim, ed. The Arab-Israeli Confrontation of June 1967: An Arab Perspective. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1970.
  • Alam, M. Shahid. Israeli Exceptionalism: The Destabilizing Logic of Zionism. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
  • Aruri, Naseer H. Dishonest Broker: The Role of the United States in Palestine and Israel. Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2003.
  • Aruri, Naseer H., ed. Occupation: Israel Over Palestine. London: Zed Books, 1984.
  • Asali, Kamil J., ed. Jerusalem in History. New York: Olive Branch Press/Interlink, 2000. ]
  • Barghouti, Omar. BDS: Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions—The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, 2011.
  • Benvenisti, Eyal. Legal Dualism: The Absorption of the Occupied Territories into Israel. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1990.
  • Benvenisti, Eyal. The International Law of Occupation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.
  • Black, Edwin. The Transfer Agreement: The Dramatic Story of the Pact Between the Third Reich and Jewish Palestine. New York: Basic Books, 2001. ed.
  • Bowen, Stephen, ed. Human Rights, Self-Determination, and Political Change in the Occupied Territories. The Hague: Kluwer Law International, 1997.
  • Boyle, Francis A. Palestine, Palestinians, and International Law. Atlanta, GA: Clarity Press, 2003.
  • Chomsky, Noam. The Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel and the Palestinians. Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 1999 ed.
  • Chomsky, Noam. Middle East Illusions. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003.
  • Farsoun, Samih K. (with Christian E. Zacharia). Palestine and the Palestinians. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1997.
  • Finkelstein, Norman G.. Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict. London: Verso, 1995.
  • Finkelstein, Norman G. Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2008 ed.
  • Flapan, Simha. The Birth of Israel: Myths and Realities. New York: Pantheon, 1987.
  • Friedman, Robert I. Zealots for Zion: Inside Israel’s West Bank Settler Movement. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1992.
  • Gans, Chaim. A Just Zionism: On the Morality of the Jewish State. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • Glass, Charles. “The Great Lie,” London Review of Books, Vol. 22, No. 23, 30 November 2000.
  • Glass, Charles. “Balfour, Weizmann and the Creation of Israel,” London Review of Books, Vol. 23, No. 11, 7 June 2001.
  • Gordon, Neve. Israel’s Occupation. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2008.
  • Gorenberg, Gershom. The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977. New York: Times Books, 2006.
  • Hadawi, Sami. Bitter Harvest: A Modern History of Palestine. New York: Olive Branch Press, 1989.
  • Hajjar, Lisa. Courting Conflict: The Israeli Military Court System in the West Bank and Gaza. London: University of California Press, 2005.
  • Kattan, Victor. From Coexistence to Conquest: International Law and the Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1891-1949. London: Pluto Press, 2009.
  • Kattan, Victor, ed. The Palestine Question in International Law. London: British Institute of International and Comparative Law, 2008.
  • Khalidi, Rashid. The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2006.
  • Kimmerling, Baruch. Zionism and Territory: The Socio-Territorial Dimensions of Zionist Politics. Berkeley, CA; University of California Press, 1983.
  • Kimmerling, Baruch. Politicide: Ariel Sharon’s War Against the Palestinians. London: Verso, 2003.
  • Kimmerling, Baruch and Joel S. Migdal. The Palestinian People: A History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.
  • King, Mary Elizabeth. A Quiet Revolution: The First Palestinian Intifada and Nonviolent Resistance. New York: Nation Books, 2007.
  • Krämer, Gudrun. A History of Palestine: From the Ottoman Conquest to the Founding of the State of Israel. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008.
  • Kretzmer, David. The Occupation of Justice: The Supreme Court of Israel and the Occupied Territories. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2002.
  • Laor, Yitzhak. The Myth of Liberal Zionism. London: Verso, 2009.
  • Lustik, Ian. Arabs in the Jewish State: Israel’s Control of a National Minority. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1980.
  • Makdisi, Saree. Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 2008.
  • Maoz, Zeev. Defending the Holy Land: A Critical Analysis of Israel’s Security and Foreign Policy. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2006.
  • Marmor, Andrei, “Entitlement to Land and the Right of Return: An Embarrassing Challenge for Liberal Zionism” (2003), USC Law and Public Policy Research Paper, No. 03-17. Available:
  • Masalha, Nur. The Politics of Denial: Israel and the Palestinian Refugee Problem. London: Pluto, 2003.
  • Masalha, Nur. The Bible and Zionism: Invented Traditions, Archaeology, and Post-Colonialism in Israel-Palestine. London: Zed Books, 2007.
  • Mearsheimer, John J. and Stephen M. Walt. The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007.
  • Pappé, Ilan. The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. Oxford, UK: Oneworld, 2006.
  • Pappé, Ilan, ed. The Israel/Palestine Question: A Reader. New York: Routledge, 2007.
  • Peleg, Ilan. Human Rights in the West Bank and Gaza: Legacy and Politics. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1995.
  • Quigley, John. The Statehood of Palestine: International Law in the Middle East Conflict. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
  • Rodinson, Maxime. Israel: A Colonial-Settler State? New York: Anchor Foundation/Pathfinder, 1973.
  • Rogan, Eugene L. and Avi Shlaim, eds. The War for Palestine: Rewriting the History of 1948. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
  • Rose, Jacqueline. The Question of Zion. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007 ed.
  • Rose, John. The Myths of Zionism. London: Pluto Press, 2004.
  • Ross, Dennis. The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004.
  • Said, Edward W. The Question of Palestine. New York: Vintage Books, 1979.
  • Said, Edward W. The End of the Peace Process: Oslo and After. New York: Vintage Books, 2001 ed.
  • Said, Edward W. and Christopher Hitchens, eds. Blaming the Victims: Spurious Scholarship and the Palestinian Question. London: Verso, 1988.
  • Shlaim, Avi. Israel and Palestine: Reappraisals, Revisions, Refutations. London: Verso, 2009.
  • Slater, Jerome. “What Went Wrong? The Collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process,” Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 116, No. 2 (Summer 2001), pp. 171-199.
  • Weizman, Eyal. Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation. London: Verso, 2007.
  • Wheatcroft, Geoffrey. The Controversy of Zion: Jewish Nationalism, the Jewish State, and the Unresolved Jewish Dilemma. New York: Perseus, 1996.
  • Yiftachel, Oren. Ethnocracy: Land and Identity Politics in Israel/Palestine. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.
  • Zertal, Idith and Akiva Eldar. Lords of the Land: The War Over Israel’s Settlements in the Occupied Territories, 1967-2007. New York: The Nation Books, 2007.


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