Friday, June 26, 2009

State Of The Jewish People? Yes and No.

The demand that Palestinians recognize Israel as "the state of the Jewish people" has at least three layers to it: The first is symbolic, without practical significance, and understandable. The second is partly symbolic, is meant to have future practical significance, and is contentious (though resolvable). The third, however, is legal, has great practical significance, and is, for any Palestinian (or democrat, for that matter) unacceptable. It is time to stop working through symbols and start saying what we mean.

1. Israel is obviously the state of the Jewish people in the sense that vanguard Jewish groups in Eastern Europe dreamed a Hebrew revolution, which launched the Zionist colonial project, which engendered a Jewish national home in Mandate Palestine, which earned international backing to organize a state after the Holocaust--a state that became a place of refuge for Jews from Europe and Arab countries--that is, a state with a large Jewish majority whose binding tie (to bring things back to Zionism's DNA) is the spoken Hebrew language.

When Palestinians say they recognize "Israel," they are implicitly recognizing this reality; they are acknowledging, to paraphrase Irving Howe, the name of our desire. At the most visceral level, when Israelis insist Israel be recognized as Jewish, they mean they want this narrative recognized, the same way they implicitly acknowledge the peculiar formative sufferings of Palestinians at the hands of Zionism when they say "Palestinians" and mean "not Jordanians or southern Syrians." When Palestinian spokespeople speak to Israeli reporters in Hebrew, they are recognizing Israel in the most poignant possible way.

2. Why is this not enough? Because, claims Netanyahu (like Olmert and Livni before him), in any negotiation with the Palestinians it must be understood in advance that there can be no "right of return" for Palestinians to Israel--that accepting this formulation, "the state of the Jewish people," really means precluding a flood of Palestinian refugees into Israel's borders and onto its electoral roles.

But the claim is false and puts a stumbling block where a pathway needs to be cleared. You can obviously find a formulation for the refugees which does not ruin Israel's Hebrew character; one that preserves "the right of return" as a seminal piece of the Palestinians' narrative, the name of their desire. You can say the refugees have a right of return to their homes but that the forms of compensation, the number, etc., must be agreeable to Israel, and that, in any case, the vast majority will exercise that right by returning to the Palestinian state. The contradiction between "the recognition of Israel" and "the right of return" may sound impossible to resolve. In fact, it has already been resolved at Taba in January 2001. Why resort to distracting principles when a little tact will do?

3. Unfortunately, however, Netanyahu cannot, or will not, simply leave things there. For the phrase, "state of the Jewish people," also has legal ramifications dear to the heart of Israeli rightists (including old Labor Zionists in love with the saga of the settler state); ramifications that derive from the historical application (some would say misapplication) of Zionist ideas over two generations and which seriously impinge on democratic standards. It is one thing to think of Israel as a democratic republic whose citizens speak a dominant language inflected by Jewish nuances--you know, poetic allusions to classical Jewish texts and liturgy and the like. It is quite another to think of Israel as state that represents, or embodies privileges in law for, certified members of a world Jewish people:

I mean (as I've said often before) a state that allocates land almost exclusively to certified Jews, empowers the Jewish Agency to advance the material well-being of certified Jews, appoints rabbis to marry certified Jews only to one another, creates immigration laws to bestow citizenship on certified Jews, founds an educational system to produce certified Jews, assumes a sacred capital to be a kind of theme park for the world's certified Jews--indeed, a state that presumes to certify Jews in the first place. Such a state must be anathema to Palestinian leaders, who cannot but notice that a fifth (soon, a quarter) of Israeli citizens are Palestinian in origin: they can recognize Israel but cannot possibly accept this Jewish state. But then, neither can Israeli Jews with ordinary democratic instincts. I, for one, do not.

By the way, if you want a poster-child for this creepy, growing Israel within Israel, you could do worse than Natan Sharansky, who has just been "elected" president of the Jewish Agency; a man who preaches Jeffersonian democracy to the world, but whose conception of democracy in Israel is, shall we say, squishy Rousseauian; a General Will interpreted by, well, generals.

"We're in a world where Jews are losing their identity," Sharansky says, "Israel and world Jewry are like receding galaxies, floating apart at a time when contact is easier than ever...Abroad there is the problem of assimilation, but in Israel, too, young Jews are growing away from their roots...The Jewish Agency is [a] meeting place, the ideal tool for developing that connection."

The disease that presumes itself the cure.


Margaret said...

Understanding is difficult to achieve, balance is difficult to maintain. Your thoughts and words help do both.

Potter said...

“Why resort to distracting principles when a little tact will do?”

Maybe because like Arafat, Netanyahu is constitutionally incapable of presiding over an agreement, taking the responsibility of it, for it ( or what he may feel would be blame, not credit). Thus roadblocks, excuses...

Sharansky too can't open up enough to see the whole galaxy from inside his bubble, why Jews feel choked. Indeed, the disease is being offered for a cure- a good way of putting it.

Duncan Cookson said...

Thanks for this and your talk at Vanderbilt because I didn't really understand the nuances of the whole thing.

So do they give certified Jews a little yellow badge to wear to identify them? A Yellow Card maybe? It does seem to play into the Palestinian narrative that Israel is an irony, the abused becoming the abuser, the master race becoming the chosen race, lebensraum and settlement expansion etc. I'm not saying that's my view because there's no comparison in terms of scale but there's a percentage, however tiny, in what they say.

What I'm wondering is whether everybody knows the distinctions of a 'Jewish State' or the 'State of the Jewish People' etc. Are they fuzzy concepts that leave room for negotiation? Could compromises be made on some or all of the issues you mention and a politician still be able to claim that the result is a Jewish State or have they drawn lines in the sand? It would be nice to think that the US wouldn't want to sell a deal to the world that included a sectarian Israel but recent statements casting Hamas as the eternal aggressor show facts like these can be papered over.

It strikes me that although your vision of a Hebrew Republic is an attractive one it doesn't look acheivable. It's a poor analogy, but it brought to mind the issue of ID cards in the UK. Instead of introducing a national scheme that was a smallish step from what we had already, the government went straight for the option of iris scans, finger prints and all the rest of it. That was just too much of a conceptual leap for most British people, but Blair pressed ahead regardless. Instead of a scheme we might have had in place for 5 years or more, with incremental advances every 5 years, we now have a situation where companies are holding off on signing contracts because the Conservatives say they'll scrap the scheme. God knows how much money has been wasted.

That's a long and painful way to say that I think you'll have to start from a lower (more medieval) base. We have an established church in the UK for example, and they have some minor priviledges. Technically we're a christian state but even the Church of England isn't too keen on that anymore. For reasons probably to do with fear of offending the Queen, disestablishing the church is proving extremely difficult. People actually care about Judaism in Israel so good luck trying to separate church and state there. Is there a way to tinker at the margins symbolically just to try to get the show on the road? Are civil marriages (discussed here) ever put in the context of a peace agreement?

I wonder about this because I haven't seen much about what a Palestinian State would look like. I'm sure sharia law will be in there somewhere. Won't it be an Islamic State? What will be the status of jews living in a Palestinian state? If it's to be the product of the current democratic expression of the Palestinian people then Hamas and Fatah will have to come up with something. They can't expect democratic standards from Israel that they won't implement themselves. Settlements for example. Surely the responsibilities of statehood include having minorities? Just draw the line and if settlements end up in Palestine so be it. Dismantling them falls into the trap of saying that 'you shouldn't have done that', which leads to 'well you did this before that' and 'you started it' etc. Israel has an arab minority, let Palestine have a jewish one. Just as it's important not to expect Hamas to abandon the kind of violence that Israel wouldn't, don't you need to see the proposal for a Palestinian state before you let Hamas put conditions on the democratic standards of Israel? That's not really a debate I've heard.

A bunch of questions in there that are kind of rhetorical but if you have any links or would like to mention some of them in future posts that would be great.

Anonymous said...

I don't really understand how you can oppose the law of return while living in Israel and having been born somewhere else.

Duncan Cookson said...

This article by A.B. Yehoshua filled in some of my questions about the Jewish state. I had ignored Jewishness as a kind of nationality and not just a religious identity probably because it hurt my head. This article also gives an indication of what Palestinians are thinking about the rights of Jews in a future Palestinian state. Encouraging.

I'm including these just in case people are passing through and reading the comments, not because I'm trying to explain something to an expert :)

Molly said...

I think you might be interested in what A.B. Yehoshua has to say about Americans for Peace Now...a pro-Israel pro-Peace organization.

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