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The Undeniable Jewish State

The Undeniable Jewish State

Recognizing Israel as the Jewish state is the critical litmus test.


 Is Israel a Jewish state?

Is the pope Catholic?

Nothing about Israel could be more self-evident than its Jewishness. As Poland is the national state of the Polish people and Japan is the national state of the Japanese people, so Israel is the national state of the Jewish people. The UN's 1947 resolution on partitioning Palestine contains no fewer than 30 references to the "Jewish state" whose creation it was authorizing; 25 years earlier, the League of Nations had been similarly straightforward in mandating "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people." When Israel came into existence on May 15, 1948, its Jewish identity was the first detail reported. The New York Times's front-page story began: "The Jewish state, the world's newest sovereignty, to be known as the State of Israel, came into being in Palestine at midnight upon termination of the British mandate."

Today, half the planet's Jews live in that state, many of them refugees from anti-Semitic repression and violence elsewhere. In a world with more than 20 Arab states and 55 Muslim countries, the existence of a single small Jewish state should be unobjectionable. "Israel is a sovereign state, and the historic homeland of the Jewish people," President Barack Obama told the UN General Assembly last month. By now that should be a truism, no more controversial than calling Italy the sovereign homeland of the Italian people.

And yet to Israel's enemies, Jewish sovereignty is as intolerable today as it was in 1948, when five Arab armies invaded the newborn Jewish state, vowing "a war of extermination and a momentous massacre." Endless rounds of talks and countless invocations of the "peace process" have not changed the underlying reality of the Arab-Israeli conflict, which is not about settlements or borders or Jerusalem or the rights of Palestinians. The root of the hostility is the refusal to recognize the immutable right of the Jewish people to a sovereign state in its historic homeland. Until that changes, no lasting peace is possible.

That is why the Israeli government is correct to insist that the Palestinian Authority publicly recognize Israel as the Jewish state. It is the critical litmus test. "Palestinian nationalism was based on driving all Israelis out," Edward Said told an interviewer in 1999, and the best evidence that most Palestinians are still intent on eliminating Israel is the vehemence with which even supposed "moderates" like Mahmoud Abbas will not -- or dare not -- acknowledge Israel's Jewishness as a legitimate fact of life. "What is a 'Jewish state?'" Abbas ranted on Palestinian TV. "You can call yourselves whatever you want, but I will not accept it. . . . You can call yourselves the Zionist Republic, the Hebrew, the National, the Socialist [Republic]. Call it whatever you like. I don't care."

There are those who argue that Israel cannot be both a Jewish state and a democracy. When Israel's parliament decided last week to require new non-Jewish citizens to take an oath of allegiance to Israel as a "Jewish and democratic" state, some people bristled. "The phrase itself is an oxymoron," one reader wrote to the Boston Globe. "How can a state openly favor one ethnic group over all others and declare itself to be democratic?"

There is no conflict at all between Israel's Jewish identity and its democratic values.

But there is no conflict at all between Israel's Jewish identity and its democratic values. Indeed, the UN's 1947 partition resolution not only called for subdividing Palestine into "independent Arab and Jewish states," it explicitly required each of them to "draft a democratic constitution" and to elect a government "by universal suffrage and by secret ballot." The Jews complied. The Arabs launched a war.

Many of the world's democracies have official state religions. Think of Britain, whose monarch is the supreme governor of the Church of England; or of Greece, whose constitution singles out the Eastern Orthodox Church as the country's "prevailing religion." The linking of national character with religion is a commonplace. Israel stands out only because its religion is Judaism, not Christianity, Islam, or Hinduism.

Nor is democracy incompatible with ethnic or national distinctiveness. Ireland waives its usual citizenship requirements for applicants of Irish descent. Bulgaria's constitution grants the right to "acquire Bulgarian citizenship through a facilitated procedure" to any "person of Bulgarian origin." It is not oxymoronic to describe Ireland as "Irish and democratic" or Bulgaria as "Bulgarian and democratic." Israel's flourishing little Jewish democracy is no oxymoron either.

It is something different: a beacon of decency in a dangerous and hate-filled neighborhood. If the enemies of the Jewish state could only shed their malice, what an Eden that neighborhood could become.

This article originally appeared in the Boston Globe.

October 24, 2010

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Visitor Comments: 14

(12) Deborah Iwo, December 28, 2016 9:45 AM

On the Jewish State

Key point: unlike the vast majority of states in the world, Israel is the ONLY place that Jews can call home. Arabs could call Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia etc. home. Europeans can call Britain, France etc. home. Africans can call the entire continent of Africa home. The Jews can only call Israel home hence why they have the right to protect the Jewish character of the state. As for the rights of Israeli citizens, the law enshrines equality for all. That means the 20% of Israeli Arabs are equal before the law and call Israel home too. So the Jewish State is not incompatible with democracy.

(11) Frank Adam, December 12, 2010 5:51 PM

Stop discriminating

This sort of circular argument occurs when people do not swot their history. When the 1936 Peel Enquiry asked Weizmann what were Zionist ambitions for Palestine, Weizmann replied, "A Palestine as Jewish as England is English," which leaves more than enough room for democratic tolerance of minorities. Use the whole formula in Heinz 57 varieties, "Israel as Jewish as France is French / China is Chinese...." and the Arabs will look as ridiculous as ever they were before 1967 when they called for the elimination of Israel. Further the US seems cowardy custard about big sticking the PA. If baker could twist Arab arms to come to Madrid by threatening to publicly recognise the legitimacy of Israeli settlement across the Green Line then it should not be beyond Obama / Clinton to threaten the PA into talks by similar means or to twist Arab arms to recognise an Israel as Jewish as Italy is Italian if they do not recognise Israeli self- determination to be as Jewish as Scotland is Scottish.

(10) David, November 6, 2010 4:54 AM

This article is naive. Will the Jewish state have a conflict with democracy when the arabs become the demographic majority? Of course it will. If Israel intends to stay Jewish and democratic it will have to do something about the demographic problem. Another reason Israel will eventually be totally at odds with the western world is that the west today believes whole heartedly in a multicultural, secular, relativisitic view of society and the world at large. This view holds any country that includes religion as part of its identity as backward and uninclusive at best. To say that the phrases "Japan is Japanese" and "Israel is Jewish" are equivalent is frankly absurd and an insult to Jews and what they stand for. Being Japanese does not require a set of religous beliefs and values. Being Jewish does, or at least should. Moreover, the comparison with the Christian nature of Britian is ironic. Britian is facing its own demographic problem and will likely be a majority Muslim country within the century, if not the next 50 years. I wonder if the Muslim majority will still allow the King (I doubt they will stand for queens, even as figureheads), to be the head of a Church. Moreover, England is Christian in name only, and only for the sake of history and tradition, which no doubt many enlightened secular Britons find distasteful. In America the idea of a national religion is unconstitutional. I dont know the answer to these problems, but it does no good to write an article that pretends there will be no conflict now or in the future between western style democracy and the Jewish identity of Israel. Israel needs to ignore the west and just do what is has to in order to survive and maintain its identity. Just dont expect the west or the arabs to like it. For once, live or die, Jews need to be Jews, protect their bithright, and leave the rest to God. All this pandering and expression of half truths is pathetic and makes us look weak and dishonest.

(9) Dovie E., November 5, 2010 7:57 PM

Mistaken Assumption

Mr. Jacoby writes that "Nothing about Israel could be more self-evident than its Jewishness." When Israel uses its beaches to attract tourism, and when Jerusalem has gay parades, I would not say that Israel's Jewishness is "self-evident".

(8) Anonymous, October 30, 2010 9:09 PM

A fool is unfit to be a statesman!

Mahmoud Abbas is a fool as revealed by his own statements. His statements have disqualified him from statesmanship; an example of the blind leading the blind!

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