The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Hath Not a Jew . . . a State?

Israel’s Insistence on Palestinian Recognition May
Hurt It in the Long Run

In Shakespeare’s play, The Merchant of Venice, the title character, Shylock, ends up getting into trouble by using a combination of desperation and contract law for leverage against his enemies, with the aim of gratuitous revenge.  He was essentially too clever for his own good.  John Kerry probably knows exactly how he felt.

Kerry joins a long line of U.S. Secretaries of State who have charged into Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations with high hopes and aggressive timelines only to see both dashed against the hard reality of intransigence.  Kerry has been forced to drop his self-imposed deadline to unveil not a peace agreement in favor of a more nebulous “framework for peace.”  However, even that already may be dead on arrival over its expected insistence that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
Finance Minister Yair Lapid calls
recognizing Israel as a Jewish
state “rubbish.”

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has already publicly rejected the idea as unnecessary.  “Why?” he asks Israel.  “To make peace?  You made peace with Egypt and you didn't ask them to recognize you.  You made peace with Jordan and you didn't ask them.”

For many people, the idea that Israel is a Jewish state – indeed, the Jewish state – is obvious.  Its population is seventy-five percent Jewish.  The U.N. resolution that formed Israel in 1947 explicitly mentions the concept of a Jewish State.

Not all Palestinians are as hostile to the idea as their government leaders.  Khazan Dhar, a West Bank resident told NPR that while she is reluctant to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, she admits she would accept that if it meant peace.  “If we can live peacefully in our state and they live peacefully in their state, then why not?”

Yet there is an interesting and long-standing argument that Israel need not make such demands of Palestinians.  It maintains that such recognition is not only unnecessary but actually insulting to Israel.  As far back as 1977, a democratic head of state proclaimed, “[Israel’s] right to exist – have you ever heard of such a thing?  Would it enter the mind of any Briton or Frenchman, Belgian or Dutchman, Hungarian or Bulgarian, Russian or American, to request for people’s recognition of its right to exist?”

That head of state was not U.S. President Jimmy Carter but rather Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in a speech before the Israeli Knesset.   Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid told the New York Times in August 2013, ”The fact that we demand from Palestinians a declaration that they recognize Israel as a Jewish state, I just think this is rubbish.”

Others wonder what such a declaration by Palestinians or others would mean for the twenty-five percent of Israeli citizens who are non-Jewish, twenty percent of whom are Arab.  Would this relegate them to second-class citizenship?

There is no question that Israel is surrounded by hostile neighbors, many of whom would like nothing better for the nation to disappear.  Likewise, it is apparent that these neighbors are both Arab and Muslim majority countries and these are leading reasons for their animus.  But I would argue this may well be the best argument for Israel to back off its insistence on being recognized as Jewish.  Its chances of survival may be increased by maintaining a lower, less flagrant profile in the region.

Part of the problem is that the term “Jewish” can be thought of as a national and/or ethnic identify as easily as it can a religious identify.  Israeli Economic Minister Naftali Bennett, a proponent of recognition, recently made this argument with CNN.  “Because I'm talking about the Jewish nation, not the Jewish religion . . . [For example,] France is for the French.    France views itself as a French state.”

Unfortunately, that argument comes across as more legal cuteness than smart, given the long-standing tensions in the region.  Most people would probably be skeptical of a country that insisted on being recognized as a Muslim state while simultaneously denying any influence by Sharia law in its governance.  In the end, Israel is a secular democracy with a traditional Jewish majority, such as the United States is a secular democracy with a traditional Christian majority.  Those traditions, while important, are not the critical factors behind who we are.

Israeli writer Ari Shavit argues that even if Israel was founded as a Jewish state over sixty year ago in the aftermath of the Holocaust’s horrors, “We evolved and now we define ourselves, rightly so, as a Jewish democratic state.  It's not perfect . . . But if you look at the Middle East this is the lesser evil of all options.”

I strongly endorse the requirement for Palestinians to acknowledge the right of Israel to exist, just as Israel must acknowledge the right of a Palestinian nation to exist.  However, forced recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, while something that Palestinians might ultimately endure, is a pound of flesh that Israel cannot afford to accept within the larger, hostile existence they occupy.

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