Dissent on ‘Jewish State’ controversy

Dissent on ‘Jewish State’ controversy

Apparently, I’m in the minority as a peace activist who sees some merit in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s offer to extend Israel’s settlements freeze in exchange for Palestinian President Abbas declaring his acknowledgment of Israel as a “Jewish state.”  What liberal/left critics are missing is that Netanyahu may not simply be throwing a grenade into the peace process (which would be deplorable if that’s his entire intent); he may be engaged in horse trading, which is part & parcel of political negotiations. 

They are also overlooking that–because of the second intifada launched in late 2000, and then the Hamas electoral victory and the on-again/off-again attacks on Israel even after its complete withdrawal from Gaza in 2005–most Israelis have lost confidence in the Palestinians’ willingness to live in peace.  A clear Palestinian recognition of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people would help rebuild this confidence.

But more importantly, there is no two-state solution without a recognition by both sides that Israel is the Jewish state (allowing also for equal rights for non-Jewish Israeli citizens) and that a new sovereign Palestine is the Arab state which the United Nations General Assembly voted for in November 1947.  It was the violent Arab rejection of this UN decision that extended the Arab-Jewish conflict beyond Israel’s independence in 1948.  How does this conflict end without such a clear mutual understanding of two states for two peoples?

Naomi Chazan is correct that Israel does not absolutely need this outside confirmation.  But she’s neglecting the psychological element that Anwar Sadat understood so keenly when he addressed the Knesset in 1977 and explicitly indicated that Israel is now welcomed as part of the Middle East. 

I understand why Hussein Ibish and others in the pro-Palestinian camp see Netanyahu’s offer as a non-starter.   It’s reasonable that the quid pro quo for recognizing Israel as a Jewish state or the Jewish homeland should be a long-term settlements freeze, for at least as long as negotiations continue, rather than a mere two months.  Dr. Ibish sees this as a “final status” matter that should be decided in conjunction with the refugees issue.  But this would only keep alive the suspicion of many Israelis, or even most, that the Palestinians still envision a full-scale “right of return” for the refugees of 1948 to what is now Israel.  There can be no meaningful two-state solution if this were true.  A declaration on this would clear the air for Israelis and help engender the trust needed for meaningful negotiations. 

Ibish’s position is reminiscent of the mistake that Prime Minister Rabin made in 1994 after Baruch Goldstein murdered 29 Muslims at prayer in Hebron.  Rabin’s government came close to forcibly removing extremist settlers from Hebron and/or Kiryat Arba—the latter being the hard-line settlement community where Goldstein lived.  This would have been a concrete sign of atonement by Israel for Goldstein’s crime; instead, Rabin decided that he would not touch settlements at that point because it was a “final status” issue. 

Sadly, Israel is still saddled with the cancer of extremist settlers in Hebron and Kiryat Arba.  Moreover, Israel’s official apology for Goldstein, without compensatory action at that time, rang hollow and helped trigger the waves of terrorist attacks in retaliation.  It’s even thought that Yiyah Ayyash was inspired by the Goldstein atrocity to become the Hamas master bomb-maker known as “the engineer.”  We can only imagine what might have happened if Israel had acted forcibly against extremist settlers back then.  

The similarity is not in the moral weight of these issues but that each side–Israel in the Goldstein case and the Palestinians regarding the Jewish state–has needed to reassure the other of its good faith. 

By | 2010-10-19T16:27:00-04:00 October 19th, 2010|Blog|13 Comments


  1. Anonymous October 19, 2010 at 6:40 pm - Reply

    Dear Ralph,

    In this vein, I look forward to your recognition of the US as a Christian state. This hopefully will accompany Native Americans’ recognition of the US a state for white people.

    Surely any “peace activist” would agree that the US would be justified in bartering both of those recognitions in exchange for committing for a brief period not to commit a small number of war crimes against US minorities.



  2. Ralph Seliger October 19, 2010 at 9:04 pm - Reply

    Not surprisingly, Ted purposely confuses Jewish identity with religion. There is an aspect of Jewish identity that relates to the Jewish faith, but about half of all Jews, and nearly half of Israeli Jews are totally irreligious.

    Moreover, the United Nations recognizes Israel as the Jewish state that it endorsed within the borders of the former British Mandate of Palestine, alongside an Arab state. If Israel is true to its declaration of independence, Israel’s Jewish character will not compromise the rights of its non-Jewish citizens.

  3. Anonymous October 20, 2010 at 6:38 pm - Reply

    So Ralph, since you have now decided that the relevant distinction from your perspective is between Jewish faith and Jewish identity, you must be asking Abu Mazen to state to Netanyahu his recognition of Israel as a Jewish (identity) state, but not a Jewish (religion) state. Can you see Bibi accepting your distinction (because after all you suggested Abu Mazen agree to this with the Netanyahu government)?

    I’m still bit lost. Many US Christians I suspect are not religious. So then, similar to Israel, I guess you are saying you would be OK with people recognizing the US as a Christian (identity) state?

    And if identity is the issue, and not religion, as you said, you surely also feel Native Americans should have no qualms about recognizing the US as a state for the white people?


  4. Ralph Seliger October 21, 2010 at 1:01 am - Reply

    Ted still can’t wrap his head around the notion of Jewish peoplehood, apart from the Jewish religion. Zionism is about the re-emergence in history of the Jewish people; most early Zionists were atheists or secular.

    The modern State of Israel was founded as a haven from persecution for the Jewish people, but a fully modern democratic state must also provide equal rights under law for its minorities. Israel has a ways to go to obtain this ideal, yet if a two-state solution is finally reached, the Arab minority in Israel will likely benefit as much as everybody else. At any rate, this is what progressive Zionists, both here and in Israel, strive for.

  5. Anonymous October 22, 2010 at 12:43 am - Reply

    And so, as far as I can gather from Ralph’s logic, Palestinians should recognize Israel as a Jewish state, Native Americans should recognize the US as a state for white people, Tibetans recognize Tibet as Chinese, Sahraouis recognize the Western Sahara as Moroccan, etc..

    Seems logical. Beats me why the Algerians failed to recognize they lived in a French state and black South Africans a white state. I believe god gave the land to the Boers.


  6. Ralph Seliger October 22, 2010 at 1:24 pm - Reply

    Dear Ted,
    Liberal democracy is about majority rule and minority rights. Israel is rightfully the expression of self-determination for its Jewish majority. And just as the United States evolved from a society that originally favored white property-owning male Protestants, I would like to see Israel evolve to a point where its Arab minority feels more at home as citizens.

    But, just as most Americans understand at Christmas time and on Sundays that the US is still a predominantly Christian nation, it is not unreasonable for all of us to understand that Israel is predominantly Jewish—regardless of whether an individual’s Jewishness is defined religiously, culturally or ethnically.

    The Palestinian Authority acknowledges that Israel has the sovereign right to define itself in any way it decides. I am saying that it would help facilitate negotiations for a two-state solution that gives rise to a sovereign Palestine if the PA makes this recognition explicit that Israel is the “Jewish state” that the UN authorized in 1947. At the same time, it should be understood by all that Israel has non-Jewish minorities that should be accorded equal rights under the law.

  7. Anonymous October 23, 2010 at 4:41 am - Reply

    Hi Ralph,

    So now you’ve backtracked, or circled, or something, and now paralleled the US as Christian and Israel as Jewish:

    “But, just as most Americans understand at Christmas time and on Sundays that the US is still a predominantly Christian nation, it is not unreasonable for all of us to understand that Israel is predominantly Jewish—regardless of whether an individual’s Jewishness is defined religiously, culturally or ethnically.”

    So logically, per the above, if we ask Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, we can fairly ask non-Christians to recognize the US as a Christin state.

    Meretz-USA endorses US as Christian state!


  8. Ralph Seliger October 23, 2010 at 2:07 pm - Reply

    Ted insists on distorting my words. First of all, Ted, I’m but one person and I can’t speak for Meretz USA (I’m not even officially a member of Meretz USA’s board). Secondly, I wrote of the USA as a “predominantly Christian nation.” This, of course, is totally accurate. Let’s stop wasting our time on this.

  9. Anonymous October 25, 2010 at 3:58 pm - Reply

    On the one hand, Ted’s point is well taken. People who are offended by how a state/people identifies itself should not be forced to explicitly adopt that identification. The examples he provides illustrate the point.

    On the other hand, a sovereign nation has the right to identify itself as it deems appropriate. Those that deal with it, implicitly accept that identification. Israel is not alone in identifying itself by its religion/nationality/ethnicity, call “Jewish” what you will. For example, Title One, Article One of The Palestinian Basic Law (2003 Amended), which is to form the foundation of the future Palestinian Constitution, explicitly provides: “Palestine is part of the larger Arab world, and the Palestinian people are part of the Arab nation.” Article 4, Subsection 1 explicitly states: “Islam is the official religion in Palestine. Respect for the sanctity of all other divine religions shall be maintained.” [The future will determine whether the rights of Hindus and Buddists will be respected in Palestine or whether they will be unprotected because their religion will not be deemed “divine”.] Subsection 2 of Article 4 provides: “The principles of Islamic Shari’a shall be a principal source of legislation.” Subsection 3 of Article 4 makes Arabic “the official language”, not “an” official language (according to the English translation provided by the PA). The Introduction to the Basic Law refers repeatedly to “the Arab Palestinian people”, making no mention of the other ethnic groups (including Jews) who do or who have lived in Palestine. If Israel (or the U.S.A., or the Peoples Republic of China, or the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, or the Syrian Arab Republic) recognizes “Palestine”, it will recognize implicitly these principles by which the Palestinians have chosen to govern and identify themselves.

    Nor are the Palestinians unique among Middle Eastern states in explicitly asserting their ethnic/ religious identity. The constitutions of The Arab Republic of Egypt, The Syrian Arab Republic, The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, The Kingdom of Morocco, and The Libyan Arab Republic all assert that they are “Arab” nations, that Islam is their official religion, and that Arabic is their official language.

    Many European states derive their legal authority from Christianity, according to their formative legal documents, including Ireland, England, and Greece.

    The USA does not define itself as a “Christian” state and never did, primarily because the multitude of Christian denominations could not agree that one would be supreme. To that extent, Ted’s suggestion that the US so define itself has the support (today) of only the most extreme right wing minority.

    Ralph is right that explicit Palestinian recognition of Israel as a “Jewish” state would pacify many suspicious Israelis but certainly not all. It is a lot to trade for an extension, of whatever length, of the temporary settlement freeze.

    More soothing, I suspect, would be some indication that Abbas is serious about dealing with some Israeli leader. If there is any truth to the suggestions in David Horowitz’ article in the Jerusalem Post that Olmert proposed final borders, joint control of Jerusalem and the Holy Basin, and use of the Arab Peace Plan as the basis for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement and that Abbas refused to agree to such terms and proposed no counter-offer, one is forced to question whether there are any terms which will lead the Palestinians to agree to end the war, and whether we have been deluding ourselves as to the willingness of the Palestinian leadership to accept statehood under any terms in lieu of their maximal demands.

    Mark Itzkowitz

  10. Anonymous October 27, 2010 at 8:01 pm - Reply

    Ralph – Ted Jonas here (not the Ted you’ve been sparring with). I am really surprised by the sudden surfacing of the “recognition-as-a-Jewish-state” issue and believe it shows either the most neurotic insecurity of those on the right, or alternatively, it is indeed a ruse and a canard to scuttle the peace talks. I thought the issue of Israel as a Jewish state was settled in the UN resolution that first authorized its creation in 1947, and that the PLO’s recognition of Israel as a state in the early 1990s settled this issue as far as mainstream political Palestinian acceptance was concerned. Who cares if the Palestinians say “Oh, it’s a Jewish state” or not? It is what it is. What makes it a Jewish state, or a Jewish homeland, is having a Jewish majority in a democracy. And as you well know, that will soon change on both fronts if they don’t soon get a two-state deal done. This issue is merely a distraction from that goal.

    • A.O. November 8, 2019 at 10:22 am - Reply

      Ted–I have been searching for
      you to discuss Algeria. How
      can I contact you?

  11. Ralph Seliger October 27, 2010 at 8:16 pm - Reply

    I don’t disagree with Ted Jonas in principle. Israel is a “Jewish state” in both the sense of the identity of its majority population and the fact that the UN authorized it as such in 1947. But a Palestinian assent on this matter would facilitate negotiations by affirming their good faith commitment to two states for two peoples.

  12. Anonymous October 27, 2010 at 8:35 pm - Reply

    Okay, so it would be nice, but it’s not worth making a big deal about it. And Netanyahu is making a big deal about it. I really think it is a toss up whether this is a matter of the remarkable psychological insecurity of Israeli right wingers, or it is instead a deliberate ruse. The former possibility is more fascinating: their ambitions and demands are extreme; this is precisely what creates this insecurity, where they have to have someone else “validate” the most minimalist and fundamental aspect of their position: that Israel is a Jewish state. I think it is ironic that most left wing Israelis I meet do not have this insecurity: they are secure in their sense that they belong in Israel, and partly that is because they also know they have to share it with someone else. Their ambitions are grounded in the real world. Not true of the right: which is why they need someone else to tell them that they have a right to be where they are. Ironic indeed. Sorry to get psychological about it, but I think it’s interesting.

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