Ah, the devious Benjamin Netanyahu! Just when we are on the cusp of a breakthrough in Israeli-Palestinian conflict negotiations, Israel’s slippery prime minister introduces a potential deal-breaker, in the form of insisting that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
That, in essence, is the narrative that has emerged over the past fortnight, as shaped by the tiresome pundits who spend their days forensically examining Netanyahu’s statements and actions. Writing in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Hussein Ibish, a faux moderate working for the American Task Force on Palestine, described the “Jewish state” negotiating theme as a “new demand” deliberately engineered to undermine what he termed “the greatest of Palestinian concessions, their 1993 recognition of the State of Israel.” Also in Haaretz, Peter Beinart, a professional Jewish critic of Israel, opined— without offering a scintilla of evidence—that what Netanyahu really wants is a Jewish state that rides roughshod over its non-Jewish minorities, so as to ensure that “Jewish political power trumps pretty much everything else.”
Ibish, Beinart, and their co-thinkers have made much of their dubious claim that Israel has never defined what a Jewish state means. For Ibish, the problem is that the Jewish state demand “suggests a trans-historical claim to this land on behalf of an entire but undefined ethno-religious group the world over”—this typically dense and obfuscatory language is Ibish’s way of arguing that he rejects Zionism. As for Beinart, the type of Jewish state he believes Netanyahu wants—one that will use any means to entrench its Jewish majority, and which regards democratic norms as an irritant—isn’t worth endorsing in the first place. In this, Ibish faithfully echoes Beinart, asserting that the PLO will never endorse a formula that cements “the restrictions Palestinian citizens of Israel now face.” (This, by the way, is the same logic that underpins Vladimir Putin’s declaration that he invaded Crimea to secure the rights of vulnerable Russian citizens facing vengeful Ukrainian nationalists.)
Once you cast aside these caricatures, though, two facts become clear.
Firstly, the demand for recognition of Israel’s status as a Jewish state is hardly new. The Israeli archivist Yaacov Lozowick has revealed that, within the context of negotiations with the Palestinians, the demand emerged as early as 2001, a few months into the second Palestinian intifada, articulated by a group of Israeli leftists, no less. Wrote Lozowick: “The Palestinians were willing to join in stating that there should be two independent states alongside one another, but the Israelis, alerted by the fiascos of Camp David and Taba to a nuance they had previously overlooked, demanded that the statement clearly say that Israel would be a Jewish state and Palestine an Arab one. The Palestinians refused. Jews, they said, are a religion, not a nationality, and neither need nor deserve their own state. They were welcome to live in Israel, but the Palestinian refugees would come back, and perhaps she would cease to be a Jewish state.”
This brings us to the second fact: rather than being an afterthought designed to derail negotiations, the Jewish state demand gets to the heart of this conflict. The Palestinians and the Arab states have never conceded that there is a legitimate connection between the Jewish people and the land of Israel that is expressed through the reality of self-determination. Hence, a world of difference separates the moral recognition of Jewish national legitimacy from the tactical recognition, in 1993, of Israel as a state.
As Lozowick documented, and as Ibish implicitly acknowledged in his article, the Palestinians reject the idea of the Jews as a nation wholesale, whether that’s through the theological baggage of Islam, which recognizes the Jews only as a subordinate religious group, or the ostensibly secular reasoning of Ibish, which faithfully reflects the reactionary nineteenth century conception of the Jews as an unnatural, “non-organic” people whose claim to self-determination is necessarily based upon historical falsehoods.
And what is it, precisely, that is being rejected here? If you comb through the archive of Zionist writings, you will find that there are many definitions of what a Jewish state means. In my view, the most succinct and modest definition was coined by Leo Pinsker, a Russian Zionist who founded the group “Hovevei Zion,” or “Lovers of Zion.” In 1882, almost two decades before the first Zionist Congress, Pinker wrote a tract entitled “Autoemancipation” in which he pleaded, “Grant us but our independence, allow us to take care of ourselves, give us but a little strip of land like that of the Serbians and Romanians, give us a chance to lead a national existence.”
It is this Jewish desire to lead a normal national existence, like the “Serbians and Romanians,” that underpins both Zionism as an ideology and Israel as a Jewish state. In rejecting the Jewish ambition to be a nation like other nations, Israel’s opponents distort the debate by insinuating that the Jews—who aren’t really a proper nation anyway—want special treatment, even if that means trampling on the rights of the true indigenous people, the Palestinian Arabs.
For more than a century, Zionists have been countering these slanders. It looks like we will continue doing so for some time yet. And still they ask why there is no peace!
Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for JNS.org. His writings on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, Jewish Ideas Daily and many other publications.