Can Bibi Force Abbas to ‘Recognize’ an Oxymoron?

Satmar Hasidim, burying their rebbe: If they don’t recognize Israel as a “Jewish State”, why should the Palestinians?

In his own version of the evasion game that has become tradition for Israeli leaders when pressed by the U.S. and others to conclude a two-state peace agreement, Bibi Netanyahu has insisted that before he’ll talk to Mahmoud Abbas, the PLO Chairman would first have to recognize Israel as a “Jewish State” and “the national home of the Jewish people”.

Excuse me?

My own understanding of Judaism makes the very term “Jewish State” an oxymoron — a nation state cannot almost by definition be based on the universal ethical imperatives at the heart of Judaism; and as I’ve long argued, Israel is hardly an exemplar of Jewish values. And anyone who tells me that my “national home” is not Brooklyn or Cape Town or wherever I choose to make it, as I’ve also long argued, is an anti-Semite.

As I wrote in the National on Sunday,

In declining [Netanyahu’s demand that he recognize Israel as a “Jewish State”], Mr Abbas might also have inquired why a Palestinian national leader should be asked to confer upon Israel a status denied it even by many learned rabbis. The Satmar Hasidim, for example, one of the largest schools of ultra-Orthodox Judaism worldwide, has always refused to recognise the State of Israel, deeming its claim to Jewish sovereignty as blasphemy. In their reading of Jewish scripture, the mass return of Jews to the Holy Land is to coincide with the arrival of the Jewish Messiah, and any attempt to create a political regime of Jews to govern the Holy Land before that is an offence against God that will delay the Messiah’s coming. This perspective remains popular within a section of Israel’s own ultra-Orthodox community. When he visted Jerusalem in 1994, the late Satmar Rebbe Moses Teitelbaum paraded through the streets watched by a crowd of 100,000.

Nor is the scepticism over Jewish statehood and Jewish nationalism confined to the ultra-Orthodox. When the Zionist movement first emerged a little over a century ago and began campaigning for the creation of a Jewish state, its fiercest opponents were Jews who insisted that they were at home in the countries where they lived, and that a move to create a “homeland” elsewhere dovetailed with the anti-Semitic goal of the mass deportation of Jews…

… even if the PLO were to recognise Israel as “the national home of the Jewish people” it wouldn’t change the fact that the majority of the world’s Jews have voted otherwise – with their feet.

I received an email last weekend from veteran Israeli peace campaigner and esteemed Rootless Cosmopolitan guest commentator Uri Avnery adding some interesting thoughts. (He’s more forgiving of the idea of “Jewish State”, but sees “national home of the Jewish people” as a shocking demand, which he’d deem a hostile action if anyone adopted it. I’ll quote at length from Uri:

A “Jewish State” can mean a state with a majority of citizens who define themselves as Jews and/or a state whose main language is Hebrew, whose main culture is Jewish, whose weekly rest day is Saturday, which serves only Kosher food in the Knesset cafeteria etc.

A “State of the Jewish People” is a completely different story. It means that the state belongs not only to its citizens, but to something that is called “the Jewish People” – something that exists both inside and outside of the country. That can have wide-ranging implications. For instance: the abrogation of the citizenship of non-Jews, as proposed by Lieberman. Or the conferring of Israeli citizenship on all the Jews in the world, whether they want it or not.

The first question that arises is: what does “the Jewish People” mean? The term “people” – “am” in Hebrew, Volk in German – has no accepted precise definition. Generally it is taken to mean a group of human beings who live in a specific territory and speak a specific language. The “Jewish People” is not like that.

Two hundred years ago it was clear that the Jews were a religious community dispersed throughout the world and united by religious beliefs and myths (including the belief in a common ancestry). The Zionists were determined to change this self-perception. “We are a people, one people”, Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, wrote in German, using the word Volk.

The idea of “the State of the Jewish People” is decidedly anti-Zionist. Herzl did not dream of a situation in which a Jewish State and a Jewish Diaspora would coexist. According to his plan, all the Jews who wish to remain Jews would immigrate to their state. The Jews who prefer to live outside the state would stop being Jews and be absorbed into their host nations, finally becoming real Germans, Britons and Frenchmen. The vision of the “Visionary of the State” (as he is officially designated in Israel) was supposed, when put into practice, to bring about the disappearance of the Jewish Diaspora – the Jewish people outside the “Judenstaat”.

David Ben-Gurion was a partner to this vision. He stated that a Jew who does not immigrate to Israel is not a Zionist and should not enjoy any rights in Israel, except the right to immigrate there. He demanded the dismantling of the Zionist organization, seeing in it only the “scaffolding” for building the state. Once the state has been set up, he thought quite rightly, the scaffolding should be discarded.

Netanyahu’s demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as “the State of the Jewish People” is ridiculous, even as a tactic for preventing peace.

A state recognizes a state, not its ideology or political regime. Nobody recognizes Saudi Arabia, the homeland of the Hajj, as “the State of the Muslim Umma” (the community of believers.)

Moreover, the demand puts the Jews all over the world in an impossible position. If the Palestinians have to recognize Israel as “the State of the Jewish People”, then all the governments in the world must do the same. The United States, for example. That means that the Jewish US citizens Rahm Emmanuel and David Axelrod, Obama’s closest advisors, are officially represented by the government of Israel. The same goes for the Jews in Russia, the UK and France.

Even if Mahmoud Abbas were persuaded to accept this demand – and thereby indirectly put in doubt the citizenship of a million and a half Arabs in Israel – I would oppose this strenuously. More than that, I would consider it an unfriendly act.

The character of the State of Israel must be decided by the citizens of Israel (who hold a wide range of opinions about this matter). Pending before the Israeli courts is an application by dozens of Israeli patriots, including myself, who demand that the state recognize the “Israeli nation”. We request the court to instruct the government to register us in the official Population Registration, under the heading “nation”, as Israelis. The government refuses adamantly and insists that our nation is Jewish.
I ask Mahmoud Abbas, Obama and everyone else who is not an Israeli citizen not to interfere in this domestic debate.

Netanyahu knows, of course, that nobody will take his demand seriously. It is quite obviously just another device to avoid serious peace negotiations. If he is compelled to drop it, it will not be long before he comes up with another.

To paraphrase Groucho Marx: “This is my pretext. If you don’t like it, well, I have a lot of others.”

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21 Responses to Can Bibi Force Abbas to ‘Recognize’ an Oxymoron?

  1. DaveS says:

    Avnery’s interesting analysis aside, the notion that Abbas, or Hamas, or any Palestinian, must accept Israel as a Jewish State seems like a non-starter – as Avnery says, a pretext to avoid negotiations. Why should they be required to accept my “right” as an American Jew to move to Israel and enjoy superior rights and status to people who have lived there for centuries, even those who are citizens and have the right to vote but no true equality to Jewish citizens? Even I reject that “right.” The most that can be asked of Palestinians is that they accept the right of Jewish people presently living there to stay there, and pledge not to use violence to transform the “Jewish State” into a state in which, God forbid, all citizens enjoy equality regardless of ethnicity or religion. Even those demands should not be preconditions to negotiation, but suitable goals. After all, Israel has not forsworn violence to maintain Jewish superiority, nor has it recognized the Palestinians’ right to live in any particular place.

  2. Murphy says:

    Good article, and a good comment above.

    I think one more point about this whole “Jewish state” thing is that, if it is OK – indeed desirable – for Israel to be defined as an ethno-religious state, why should the same not be true for any state? Would “Bibi” be happy if the nation in which he lived for many years, the US, were to be defined as a ‘white state’ or a “Christian state” (maybe even ‘Protestant state’?)

    And if not, why not? If one state is allowed to define itself according to the race or religion held – at least in theory – by most of its citizens, surely the same should apply to all states?

  3. dz alexander says:

    Abbas seems to be a bit tired with the demand —

    “Jewish state, what’s that? You can be called as you like, but I do not accept it and I say it publicly,” said Abbas in a speech in Ramallah, West Bank.
    “You can call it the Zionist Hebrew Republic National Socialist if you like; it is none of my business. I know there is a State of Israel on the borders of 1967 (before the occupation of Palestinian territories) and not an inch more or less, said the Palestinian President.

  4. Mary says:

    In addition, the demand to be called a Jewish state is deeply dissonant with Israel’s worldwide campaign to demonize Islamic states. The United States is wrong to support these concepts.

  5. olivio says:

    i always thought the real purpose of this demand, (aside from its current application as a distraction by natanyahu) was to kneecap the right of return issue, since insistence by the palestinians, should they accept the initial demand, would be effectively sabotaging or challenging this via demographics should they insist on the right of return. there are also darker implications, mainly in form of the blank cheque international acceptance of this definition grants the israeli govenment in ‘managing’ undesirable (from the zionist perspective) demographic trends.

  6. Renfro says:

    It is amusing how Israel always “Demands” this, that and the other.

    Who are they to “demand” anything?

    According to the 2005 congressional ordered study on Israel….(can be found at the Library of Congress)…Israel is still not economically self sufficent and depends on aid from the US, Germany, etc….to survive.

    So what we have here is welfare state of psychopaths pretending to be paraniods on order to steal land and resources and be tough guys in the ME.

    Maybe they need to actually be self supporting and not eternal welfare babies and rabid dogs before they do any more “demanding”.

    When they aren’t whinning, they are demanding….the world is tired of them.

  7. Ketchup lobby says:

    I think we should call Palestinians living in the West bank “western Jordanians” and Gazans should be called “Eastern Egyptians”

  8. Y. Ben-David says:

    The large majority of Jews living in Israel recognize Israel as a “Jewish State”. The Satmar Hasidim, although a significant group are a minority within the Haredi community. The majority of Haredim, although it may be possible to call them “non-Zionist” DO recognize Israel as a “Jewish State”, that is the reason they are concerned about legislative matters that involve things like “who is a Jew”, the public nature of Shabbat observance and the such. I would say the majority of Jews OUTSIDE also view Israel as a “Jewish State”. Tony says “My own understanding of Judaism makes the very term “Jewish State” an oxymoron “. That is his own personal definition, he has no right to speak for any other Jews. He also says:
    “a nation state cannot almost by definition be based on the universal ethical imperatives at the heart of Judaism; and as I’ve long argued, Israel is hardly an exemplar of Jewish values. ” Again, this is Tony’s own personal definition of Judaism, but it does not reflect traditional Judaism. Sort of like a Christian saying “I am a Christian, but I don’t believe in Jesus” which is nonsensicle. Tony can invent any new form of Judaism he wants, but he can not define Judaism for the rest of the Jewish people, and the concept of a “Jewish state” is there for anybody to see in the texts that traditional Jews have used for millenia, such as the Bible, the Talmud and the legal decidors. If Tony is uncomfortable with that, well, that is too bad.

    I now prepare for the inevitable barrage of insults, foul language, curses and the such I have come to expect at “progressive” sites…..

  9. olivio says:

    you fail to address the question of my charge re: the jewish state demand of netanyahu and my comment regarding its relationship to the right of return etc. worse still, what happens if in spite of the various cruel means employed by the state, non jewish (esp arabs) still become a majority? will the minority retain greater rights over the majority, and how does that differ from south africa of old.

  10. Y. Ben-David says:

    Jews will remain the majority in Israel. Arab birthrates have been falling precipitously and the Jewish birth rate was increased. Also a large number of Jews will immigrate, particularly from Western Europe and North America.

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