What’s so bad about calling Israel the “Jewish state”?
Israeli’s demand for Palestinian leaders to recognise it as “the Jewish state” or “the nation state of the Jewish people” is treated by international officials and diplomats as either a superfluous statement of the obvious, or as a total enigma.
Writing in The Times of Israel Raphael Ahren says the demand “raises a plethora of questions — the answers of which are unknown even to many people who have dealt with the conflict for a long time.”
Apart from speculating whether he means it or it’s just a stalling tactic, Ahren says that “Netanyahu’s demand for recognition as a Jewish state hasn’t really been seriously discussed by world leaders, and the international community doesn’t seem sure about how to deal with this issue. … I have asked foreign ministers, diplomats and other senior officials from many different countries what they think about pressuring the Palestinians into recognizing Israel as a Jewish state. Few were able or willing to express a clear, principled stance on the issue, either in favor or against. ‘I don’t think we have any clear position on that because we’re not 100% sure what is meant by this concept of a Jewish state,’ the European Union’s ambassador to Israel, Lars Faaborg-Andersen, said earlier this year.”
While maybe no-one can be 100% sure “what is meant by the concept”, it is not at all difficult to enumerate some of the likely results:
Such a declaration would
* be bad for Palestinians legally, materially and culturally
* be bad for democracy and even peace around the world
* be bad and maybe dangerous for the world Jewish community
* be disastrous for Israel itself
Bad for Palestinians
For Palestinians, it is not a description but a statement of claim. It is intended to be the ultimate acceptance of their defeat and submission, an agreement to the Zionist propaganda that says there was never such a place as Palestine, that its inhabitants both before and since 1948 were intruders, infiltrators or squatters. It would be the culmination of the Zionists’ claiming and re-naming of the land, an ideological ethnic cleansing to match the physical demolition, destruction and replacement of the past 67 years.
It would mean the abandonment of the Palestinians in Israel and of Right of Return of all the internal and external exiles. As a formally constituted and internationally recognised State of the Jewish People, the treatment of “minority” populations as aliens would be ratified. They would have fewer means than ever to fight for their rights. Israel’s 20% indigenous minority have no positive identity relative to the state, they are simply NOT Jewish. In an officially Jewish state, to be Not Jewish is not to belong.
If Abbas and his team agreed to the “Jewish State” demand, the Palestinian Israelis’ democratic slogan of “a state for all its citizens” would be swamped by discrimination sanctioned by their own leaders.
All the ethnic cleansing, house demolitions, judaisation and obsession with demographics and baby-counting would be validated, as would Israel’s rationale for actions and attitudes that openly echo repressive, closed regimes marked by extreme and inflated ethnic nationalism.
The goal of guaranteeing a homogeneous Jewish entity with a cast-iron gerrymandered voting majority would be accepted in the name of completing the Nation State of the Jewish people. And beyond Netanyahu stand those like Lieberman who has just declared his aim of bringing in millions more Jews to prevent assimilation and inter-marriage of “the Jewish people”, and the “demographic catastrophe” of Jews who make their own choices of how to live their lives.
This he obscenely likens to the mass murder of the holocaust: “If this situation persists, we will lose another six million Jews in a generation or two.”
We already hear quite enough of this sickening verbiage, in which millions of Palestinians have faced squalor, stunted lives and violent deaths so that the “Jewish state” can retain its guaranteed Jewish majority. The massacres and expulsions of 1948, once they could no longer be denied, are now openly said even by liberal historians such as Simon Schama, to have been “a price that had to be paid” for creating Israel.
How bad would it be to have this demographic clap-trap enshrined into international law?
Bad for Democracy
International law has already had a pretty shabby ride since 1947, with UN resolutions and verdicts of the International Court simply left to rot. Little wonder that “ministers, diplomats and senior officials” can hardly figure out the difference between that and a full-frontal declaration of a “Jewish state”.
But there lies the difference between de facto and de jure, between standards being ignored or forgotten, and being officially overturned. Once the Palestinians sign up to it, the UN will be dragged down as well. The flouting of law in this case already makes a dangerous double standard internationally, just as flouting of law damages justice within a national jurisdiction. Accepting it cynically as a fact of life or proof of the inherent inequality of the world may sound radical but genuine democrats still fight to defend the principle of equality under the law.
The salient law in this case is the UN resolution 181 of November 1947, which gave Israel the green light. It specified that “No discrimination of any kind shall be made between the inhabitants on the ground of race, religion, language or sex. All persons within the jurisdiction of the State shall be entitled to equal protection of the laws. The State shall be bound by all the international agreements and conventions, both general and special, to which Palestine has become a party. No law, regulation or official action shall conflict or interfere with these stipulations, nor shall any law, regulation or official action prevail over them.”
A crowning of Israel’s cherished claim to Jewish hegemony with its ethnic separations and differential laws and practices would be a precedent that signals the abandonment of the UN’s universal human rights and democratic values and aspirations, and the abrogation of Resolution 181. If Israel can be accepted as an ethno-religious state, why cannot every fundamentalist faction engage in pogroms, massacres and civil wars to establish their own version? What price accountability to an electorate if the fundamentals of a state (such as who is a citizen) lie with the dictats of rabbis, clerics or ayatollahs?
Bad for Jews
“Israel as the national state of the Jewish people” relegates the entire global Jewish community to the status of diaspora, onlookers and outriders, exiles to be saved from assimilation, spiritually impoverished until they have emigrated to their real home: in Hebrew this is “aliyah”, a rising up to a higher state. Israel already claims to speak for Jews and is now hijacking Jewish festivals as “Israeli festivals”. Any other homeland than Israel is just a limbo, a waiting room. Israel thus (as it has so often since the inception of Zionism) inverts and echoes the anti-semites’ view of Jews as foreigners and outsiders.
Anti-semitism should be fought wherever it threatens, and all refugees from persecution, not just Jews, need to find open doors and asylum wherever and for as long as they need it. The existence of a country that claims to be the Jewish homeland, and a second homeland for those who are quite settled elsewhere, and that sees anti-semitism and persecution as a demographic immigration opportunity, would hinder this, as Jews could be told to “go to Israel”.
Meanwhile, the precious values and exemplary morality of Judaism are being re-defined and re-written by a settler colonial ghetto or “kraal” mentality that has entirely abandoned the universalism of Jewish culture and beliefs. Israel will have carte blanche to speak for “Judaism” when it in fact speaks only for a Zionist establishment dominated by its powerful military caste and burgeoning religious fundamentalists: both of these were virtually unheard of or non-existent in Jewish history and culture.
Jews have a distinguished record of support, commitment, sacrifice and leadership in movements for freedom and progress, for democracy and human rights, for causes that defended the under-dog and the persecuted, for trade union and workers’ rights, for freedom of speech. In South Africa many prominent Jewish ANC activists played a powerful role in defeating apartheid. In America Jews were prominent in the labour movement and the fight for Civil Rights.
The designation of a triumphalist, racist, aggressive apartheid Israel as the Jewish nation-state threatens to sweep all that away and do more existential harm to the Jewish tradition than 2000 years of persecution and grievous loss of life.
Bad for Israel
The reasons that the “Jewish” designation appears to be a statement of the obvious are that Israel’s leaders, ideologues and front-runners have gone ahead and implemented it in their practice for nearly seven decades.
All Israel’s people, and very many geographic areas, towns and municipalities, planning zones and facilities are officially divided between “Jewish” and “non-Jewish”, with colour-coded ID, car number-plates, travel documents and permits.Official policy is to increase the Jewish and squeeze and decrease the non-Jewish.
Several attempts to establish instead the inclusive designation of “Israeli” have been rejected in the courts, who have ruled that “there is no such thing as an Israeli”. Even within this there are sub-divisions: towns and districts and their schools and institutions, colleges and army regiments, are allowed to exclude people according to their particular Jewish religious affiliation.
At a time when other once-settler states such as the US and Australia are making gestures towards rehabilitating indigenous minorities, Israel is marching in the opposite direction.
Getting the Palestinian and international seal of approval as a Jewish State will remove any restraints that had to be exercised to keep up the appearance of democracy. Now the state’s definition as “Jewish and Democratic” (always a problematic mix) has openly given way to “Jewish”.
The idea that Zionism will then relax its grip is naïve: never and nowhere has a tendency to a repressive and closed society been mitigated by international appeasement. Israel’s dramatic win in 1967 could have been a demonstration that Zionism had arrived, was secure and pre-eminent and could afford to relax its grip. But rather than re-uniting the country from a position of strength, bringing back the Nakba refugees and establishing a democracy for all, the conquests led to military dictatorship in the occupied territories and further wars and repression.
“Jewish state” is not a description of its character but a statement of ownership and control. All the facts point to a growing push forward now by the ultra right to exert more and more control and press their demands ever further. Among them, and in positions of increasing power and influence, the bully-boy religious fundamentalists will also be further empowered: because for fanatics, there are no limits.
There is quite enough evidence already that a public designation of “the Jewish state” would before long be the perfect incubator for enforcement of a Jewish theocracy, whose forces have so far tested and pushed to segregate buses and public spaces between men and women, to ban images of women from posters and hoardings and to ban women from singing at state and army ceremonial functions.
Whether “Jewish” refers to creed and practice or to blood and genes, an open and unalloyed “Jewish state” bodes ill for what is left of secular Israel, for freedom of speech and the press, for personal freedom e.g. in matters of marriage and divorce (already bizarre), for women’s rights, and for equality under the law even among Jewish Israelis, in a culture of loyalty oaths, right wing violence, armed gangs and militias and terror groups out for blood.
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