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How the Palestinians Should Respond To Israel's Demand To Recognize It As A Jewish State

Submitted by Robin Messing on Tue, 09/17/2013 - 7:14pm

Bibi Netanyahu has repeatedly demanded that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a "Jewish State" for peace talks to go anywhere.  It is not enough for the Palestinians to recognize Israel's right to exist peacefully as a normal state.  No, according to Netanyahu the Palestinians have to go beyond that and recognize Israel's right to exist as a Jewish State.  Israel hasn't always demanded this.  It did not require that either Egypt or Jordan recognize it as a Jewish State before making peace with them.  Nor did it require the PLO to recognize it as a Jewish State when the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993.

Why is Israel now insisting upon recognition as a Jewish State?  Most analysts think this is a tactic to get Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to give up the Palestinian right of return. Recognition of Israel as a Jewish state implies that millions of Palestinians could not return to Israel, for giving them the right of return would dilute Israel's Jewish population to the point where Israel would no longer be a Jewish state.  However, Israeli officials deny that this is the reason.  Well, if this isn't the reason, then what is?  Peter Beinart speculates that this demand is more about internal Israeli politics than about Israel's relationship with a future Palestinian state.  Israel's population is roughly 20% Arab Muslim.  Though they may identify themselves as Palestinian citizens of Israel, most will not want to leave Israel after a Palestinian state is created. They will want to stay in Israel and have a continuing say in its future.  This frightens Netanyahu because he knows that they will continue to oppose Israel's official status as a Jewish state, a state where they will continue to feel like second class citizens.  Beinart speculates that Netanyahu's main goal is to get Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to send Israel's internal Palestinian population a message by officially recognizing Israel as a Jewish state.  Perhaps Netanyahu thinks that this message will cause Palestinian Israelis to give up hope of making Israel abandon its status as a Jewish state.  But as Beinart correctly points out, this message won't actually do Israel much good.  It won't make Israeli Palestinians feel more at home in a Jewish state.  It is unlikely to prevent them from challenging Israel's Jewish nature.  And it is unlikely to get them to appreciate Israel's national anthem which praises Zionist aspirations or its flag which bears the Star of David. Israel will still have to deal with its internal Palestinian challenge whether Abbas recognizes Israel as a Jewish state or not.

Well, whatever Israel's reason is for demanding to be recognized as a Jewish State, Abbas isn't going to buy it.  But how can he get around this demand? How can he overcome this obstacle to the peace process?  Is there a way for him to reassure the Israelis while simultaneously cutting those who would make such a demand off at the knees?  I believe there is, but  only  if Abbas gives the following speech.  It will require him to recognize Jewish ties to the land that goes back thousands of years.  And it will require him to pledge that the Palestinian educational system will acknowledge those ties, as well as the all-too-frequent persecution of the Jews throughout history.  Abbas may be reluctant to do this, but it will be a relatively small price to pay to take the "Jewish State" issue off the table.


The Speech Mahmoud Abbas Needs To Make

We have no problem recognizing Israel's right to exist in peace as a normal state, but that is not good enough for you.  You want us to recognize your right to exist as a Jewish state.  How can we recognize Israel as a Jewish state when you can't even agree amongst yourselves what that means?  Who is a Jew, and who gets to define who is a Jew? 

What exactly is it,  that makes,  Israel a Jewish state?  Is this definition of Israel based on religion?  If so, then what will guarantee that the rights of non-Jews will be protected in the future?  For that matter, what will guarantee the rights of Jews if they are not religious enough, or if they follow the "wrong" branch of Judaism?

 Who decides what marriages are recognized by the state, and who determines the criteria of how one can convert into being a Jew?  Will that be up to the rabbis, and if so which ones?  Or will this be decided by a secular civil government?  Can anyone become a Jew simply by adopting the Jewish religion?  Would a Palestinian living outside of Israel who converts to Judaism be welcome to live in Israel like any other Diaspora Jew?  And if so, would the religious authorities make it harder for a Palestinian to convert to Judaism than they would make it for anyone else who wants to be a Jew?  In other words, would religious authorities place more obstacles before a Palestinian because they assume that all Palestinians are liars, and any Palestinian who wants to convert to Judaism is just doing so to get a free pass into Israel?  Even if you Israelis think you have answers to these questions today, how do we know that you won't change your mind in the future as Orthodox Jews become a greater percentage of your population.?

Just recently, Rabbi Shalom Cohen, one of the more influential Rabbis in Shas, said that those who wear knitted yarmulkes weren't real Jews.  Actually, he went far beyond that.  He accused those who wore yarmulkes, or at the very least, those who wanted to cut the state budget for yeshivas and draft  yeshiva students into the IDF of being Amalekites.  This is the probably the worst possible insult against a Jew.  As I'm sure you're aware, the Amalekites were so wicked that the Bible says that God ordered the Jews to kill every Amalekite man, woman, child and infant.  Cohen was widely condemned for his statement, and the spiritual leader of Shas, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, clarified Cohen's statement by saying that Cohen was using wild hyperbole when he really just meant to condemn those politicians who wanted to cut yeshiva subsidies and force Orthodox Jews into the military.  But still, should hot-headed extremists like Cohen ever take control of the Rabbinate, what will safeguard the rights of Palestinians living within Israel if Israel is defined as a Jewish State?  For that matter, what will protect the rights of non-religious Jews or Jews who don't belong to the right branch of Judaism?

And Rabbi Cohen is hardly the only extremist rabbi in Israel.  Less than three years ago, fifty, then hundreds, of rabbis signed a manifesto demanding that Jews should stop renting apartments to non-Jews.  To their credit, some Israeli politicians and  490 rabbis from the U.S. have condemned this extremist interpretation of Jewish law.  And Rabbi Michael Abraham who teaches at Bar-Ilan University wrote a stinging criticism in which he said:

They enlisted for their cause halachaic sources via distorted interpretation, and precisely for that reason their declaration is highly damaging and highly flawed.. . . Those who wrote the document should go back to school rather than teach Jewish law in Israel.

Today Israel is a secular society, but what is to prevent that from changing over time?  You Israelis are constantly worrying about the "Arab demographic threat".  I find this term insulting and demeaning, but since you like to speak about demographic threats, you might want to focus on the demographic threat Israel's secular society faces from the Orthodox religious population.  William Gibson, a reporter for the International Middle East Media Center, has calculated that unless social, economic, or military forces change current demographic trends, 23% of Israel's population will be ultra-Orthodox in twenty-five years, and 48% will be ultra-Orthodox in fifty years.   Maybe this is why a recent poll conducted by Ynet and the Hiddush association's Religion and State Index indicates that 61% of Israelis want to separate religion from the state and "51% of the public believe the tension between haredim and seculars is the most difficult conflict in the Israeli society."

This is one of the reasons why we refuse to recognize Israel as a Jewish State.  You are asking us to write you a blank check when you demand that we recognize Israel as a Jewish State without having a fixed definition of what that means.  You really need to get around to writing a Constitution with an unamendable prologue defining who a Jew is and what it means to be a Jewish state.  This is necessary to protect the inalienable rights of  the secular Jewish community as well as the rights of the Arab community within Israel.

And if you decide that being a Jew is based upon the Jewishness of one's parents, that is, if being Jewish is an inherited trait, then we must reject that definition as well.  That is a racist definition, and a mathematical thought experiment proves it.  As of September 2013, there were 1,670,000 Arabs within Israel and their population is increasing by 2.4% a year.  Israel's Jewish population is increasing at a rate of only 1.8% a year.  There are roughly 13,800,000 Jews in the world today.  For our thought experiment, let's imagine every Jew in the Diaspora were to move to Israel today.  Let's assume that the Jewish population, once it moves to Israel, will continue to grow at 1.8% per year and that the Israeli Arab population will continue to grow at the rate of 2.4% per year.  Let's further assume that these growth rates will continue into the indefinite future.  If that happens, then the Arab population will be greater than the Jewish population in 360 years, with the Jews having a population of 8.49 billion and the Arabs having a population at 8.53 billion as can be seen in the following graphs.


Projected growth of Arab and Jewish Populations revised



Projected Log Growth of Arab and Jewish Populations


Now, I can hear many people objecting to this thought experiment, even before I have had a chance to explain its purpose.  Some will object that it is ridiculous to assume that these growth rates will continue for the next 360 years.  Others will laugh at the thought that Israel could accommodate over 16 billion people.  That's roughly twice the size of the current population of the world!  And still others will note that the growth rate for the Jewish population will increase as the Orthodox, with their higher growth rate, becomes a larger and larger proportion of the population.  All these objections are valid, but they miss the point of this thought experiment.

I could point out that I started by assuming that all the Jews in the world would migrate to Israel immediately.  If I had assumed that no Jews would migrate into Israel then it would have taken only 221 years for the Arab population to exceed the Jewish population, with both populations being a bit over 300 million.  But even that would miss the point.

The point is that at some future time, the non-Jewish population could exceed the Jewish population even if we gave up the right of return and not a single Palestinian returns to Israel.  If being a Jewish state requires maintaining a Jewish majority population, then Israel will, at some point, HAVE to take one or more of the following steps.

  1. Increase Jewish birth rate.
  2. Encourage Palestinian Israelis to convert to Judaism
  3. Encourage Palestinian Israelis to reduce their birth rate voluntarily
  4. Encourage Palestinian Israelis to emigrate from Israel voluntarily
  5. Coercively force Palestinian Israelis to reduce their birth rate through sterilization.
  6. Coercively abort Palestinian Israelis fetuses before they are born.
  7. Forcibly expel Palestinian Israelis from Israel
  8. Conduct a campaign of genocide to kill excess Palestinian Israelis, possibly by ovens or gas chambers.


In practice, increasing Jewish birth rate would be the most probable scenario.  As I mentioned above, Jewish birth rate is likely to go up as Orthodox Jews become a greater proportion of the population.

But this is a thought experiment designed to show that insisting that Israel maintain a Jewish majority population is inherently racist.  So for the purpose of this experiment, let's assume that the Orthodox birth rate falls to that of the rest of the Jewish population.  Let's also assume that voluntary measures (options 2 - 4) fail.  What happens if Palestinian Israelis refuse to voluntarily lower their birth rate, convert to Judaism, or emigrate from Israel?  This leaves options 5 - 8.  Each of these options increasingly illustrates the brutal and racist nature of basing Israel's status of being a Jewish state on maintaining a majority Jewish population.


A Solution To The Dilemma--

Recognizing Israel As A State Designed For The Protection Of Jews


This is why we cannot and we will not, recognize Israel as a Jewish State.  You may claim that Israel is a Jewish and a Democratic state, but basic math proves that a Jewish Democratic state is an oxymoron.  We will, however, recognize Israel as a state that follows the ideals enunciated in its Declaration of Establishment --ideals that state that Israel


will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.


Even though we will never recognize Israel as a Jewish state, we are more than willing to recognize Israel as a state designed for the safety and the protection of the Jewish people.  There is an important distinction between these two.  The former requires that Israel maintain a Jewish majority, whereas the latter does not.  It is understandable why you might think Israel needs a Jewish majority to ensure the safety of your people.  The Jews have a long and painful history of being persecuted when they were in the minority.  Jews were slaughtered along with Muslims during the Crusades.  Thousands of Jews were murdered in 1348 after being blamed for the Black death.  Over 300,000 Jews were exiled from Spain in 1492 because they refused to convert to Christianity.  Fortunately, they were given refuge in the Islamic Ottoman Empire.  Scholars vary in their estimates, but between 6,000 and 100,000 Jews were massacred in the Ukraine in the mid 1650s.  Thousands of Jews were massacred in hundreds of cities and towns during the Russian pograms of 1903 - 1905.  And there are still a few alive whose memories are seared by the Holocaust that killed six million Jews.

Jews could not avoid persecution even when they tried to blend into the rest of population around them.  Let me read you a few excerpts from Theodor Herzl's seminal essay, The Jewish State.

The Jewish question exists wherever Jews live in perceptible numbers.  Where it does not exist, it is carried by Jews in the course of their migrations.  We naturally move to those places where we are not persecuted, and there our presence produces persecution. . . .

We have honestly endeavored everywhere to merge ourselves in the social life of surrounding communities and to preserve the faith of our fathers. We are not permitted to do so.  In vain we are loyal patriots, our loyalty in some places running to extremes; in vain do we make the same sacrifices of life and property as our fellow-citizens; in vain do we strive to increase the fame of our native land in science and art, or her wealth by trade and commerce.  In countries where we  have lived for centuries we are still cried down as strangers, and often by those whose ancestors were not yet domiciled in the land where Jews had already had experience of suffering.  The majority may decide which are the strangers, for this . .  . is a question of might. . . .  In the world as it now is and for an indefinite period will probably remain, might precedes right.  It is useless, therefore, for us to be loyal patriots... If we could only be left in peace. . . .

But I think we shall not be left in peace. . . . Whenever our political well-being has lasted for any length of time we have assimilated with our surroundings.  I think this is not discreditable.  Hence the statesman who would wish to see a Jewish strain in his nation would have to provide for the duration of our political wellbeing; and even a Bismarck could not do that.


Herzl did a magnificent job of explaining why a Jewish majority state was needed for the protection of the Jews.  But there are two very important reasons to believe that this is no longer the case.

First, the United States provides an example where Jews can thrive as a minority.  Scattered incidents of anti-Semitism may exist, but they are few and mild.  Though Jews are not all-powerful in America, their representation amongst the American elite is far greater than their proportion of the population.

And second, but most importantly, if Jews become a minority in Israel, the circumstances under which they become a minority will be vastly different from the circumstances in which they were minorities throughout history.  Jews scattered throughout the Diaspora have ALWAYS been minorities within the larger communities.  And it is the fact that they were always a small minority that made them vulnerable to the ignorant majority.  They may have been ignored when their numbers were very small and when they were powerless.  But as they grew in power and numbers they attracted attention and became easy targets of know-nothings who trafficked in slander and blood-libel.

That will not be the case as Israel transitions from  a state where Jews are a majority to a state where Jews are a minority.  The big difference is that Jews will start out as a majority, and the transition--whether it be from Palestinian immigration into Israel or from demographic growth of the Palestinian Israeli population--can be a controlled process that occurs over time.  The key to ensuring the safety of the Jewish community, even after the transition, is education.

Palestinian Israelis and Jews must learn to understand and to appreciate each other in order to coexist.  Every Palestinian Israeli student needs to be taught that Jews have ancient ties to the land of Israel.  They need to understand why the Jews believe God promised them the land of Israel and they need to learn the religious importance that the Temple Mount has for the Jews.  They need to understand why Jews celebrate the creation of the Jewish state and the significance they attach to their victory against the Arab states that attacked them in the aftermath of their Declaration of Independence. 

But education goes both ways.  Every Jewish student needs to realize that though some historians may dispute it, we believe that we have ancient historical ties to the land as well.  Jewish students don't necessarily have to be taught that our ties are as strong as theirs, but they do need to know that we believe that we have roots going back to the ancient Canaanites and the Philistines.  After all, the word "Palestine" is derived from the word "Philistine."  They need to know the importance we attach to the Haram al-Sharif, or the Temple Mount as they call it.  They need to understand the bitter disappointment we felt after the British enticed us to join them in fighting the Turks in World War I by promising us an Arab Kingdom that includes Palestine, only to double cross us by promising at least some of this same land to Jewish Zionists.  They need to understand why we consider 1948 to be a catastrophe in which over 700,000 of us fled our homes in fear for our lives and the monumental nature of the crime that was committed against us when Israel refused to allow us to return to them after the war.  And just as Palestinian students need to learn about the anger and the terror that Jews felt when our freedom fighters blew up their buses and their cafes, the Jewish students need to understand why Palestinians are enraged by the brutal occupation that deprives us of our rights every day.

I propose that all children in both Israel and in the state of Palestine be required to learn about each other's historical, religious, and cultural perspectives.  That doesn't mean they have to agree with each other's interpretation of history, but they must understand and respect each other's historical narrative and learn how these narratives have motivated the behavior of the other side.  We must establish a joint Israeli-Palestinian committee of historians and educators to provide a curriculum that tells the parallel narratives of both sides.  That committee should spend several years with each side researching and distilling its own narrative into a single coherent whole that can be taught in classrooms to students of the other side.  Then these narratives need to be field tested in classrooms and assembled side by side in one book.

Actually, this was already done between 2002 and 2009, resulting in a book called Side By Side, edited by Sami Adwan, Dan Bar-On, and Eyal Naveh and published by  Peace Research Institute in the Middle East.  This book may not be all things to all people, and I'm sure many will object to the spin on events that have been included or object to facts and events that have been excluded from this book.  But this book provides a good start for high school students trying to understand both sides of a very complicated issue.  It is this type of approach that can result in understanding and respect--if not agreement with the narrative of the other side.  And it is this type of approach that can ensure that Israeli Jews will always be secure, even if they become a minority.  More efforts like this are needed and materials need to be developed to teach even younger students about the viewpoints of the opposing sides.

This approach should be extended beyond just students.  Palestinians returning to Israel must swear allegiance to follow Israeli law and they should be given an introduction to Jewish history as part of the process of becoming acclimated to Israeli society.  And they should be told how Jews are being encouraged to learn their historical narrative as well.  Knowing that their side of the historical conflict is being taught along with the Jewish side is far more likely to foster good will than knowing that their view of history is being censored out of existence.

The exchange of histories should start while the Jews are still a dominant majority and be a continuously ongoing process into the future.  This will enable Israel to be a nation designed for the protection of the Jewish people while forgoing the necessity of being defined as a Jewish State.  This will enable Israel to protect the rights of secular Jews and Palestinian Israelis whether Jews are in the majority or whether they become a minority.


Update 2/26/2014: 1) Gershom Gorenberg wrote an important article explaining that Bibi Netanyahu's demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a "Jewish State" is really a demand that they unquestioningly accept the Jewish historical narrative.  This demand is both unnecessary for peace and, in fact, is an obstacle to the peace process.  No self-respecting Palestinian is going to accept the Jewish narrative without reciprocal acknowledgement by Israel of its role in the Nakba tragedy that resulted in 750,00 homeless Palestinians.  Read Gorenberg's article.

2) An editorial written by the Haaretz staff illustrates the dangers that await the Palestinians should they agree to Israel's demand to be recognized as a "Jewish State" without precisely defining what that encompasses.  Israel's economy minister, Naftali Bennett, calls for the passage of legislation that would "[strengthen] the value of Israel as the Jewish nation-state.”  The editorial states

He made it clear that the goal of the proposed law’s supporters is to turn Israel’s Arabs not just into de facto second-class citizens as a result of discrimination, but into de jure second-class citizens - as a matter of law. . . .

Bennett said, “The High Court of Justice, since [former Court President] Aharon Barak, has been working consistently to alter the balance and deplete the country of all its Jewish significance. There has been a civil revolution at the expense of Judaism, as in the Ka’adan case.”

His reference to the High Court of Justice and the Ka’adan case – in which the court ruled that an Arab can buy a home in a Jewish community – demonstrates Bennett’s true intentions. In 1995, Adel and Iman Ka’adan petitioned the High Court of Justice after their application to join the community of Katzir was rejected because they were Arabs. In their important ruling in 2000, the justices stated that it is actually the State of Israel’s Jewishness that makes it crucial to uphold the value of equality.

Barak wrote: “From the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state we do not in any way derive that the state should discriminate among its citizens; … the opposite is true: Equality of rights between all human beings in Israel - whatever their religion or national affiliation - derived from the State of Israel’s values as a Jewish and democratic state.”

But Barak’s words, which are meant to serve as the moral underpinnings of the Jewish and democratic state, are in Bennett’s eyes an example of “depleting the state of Jewish significance.” The chairman of the “Jewish Home” party interprets “Jewish” in a limited and racist fashion, and wants to discriminate against anyone who doesn’t have the right type of blood flowing through his veins. When Bennett says, “We must mark the state as Jewish,” what he really wants is to mark all those who are not Jewish with a mark of Cain.


Imagine what would happen in the U.S. if the Janet Yellen, the Chair of the Federal Reserve, said that housing associations should be able to prevent Blacks, or gays from buying a house in the their neighborhood.  The uproar would be deafening.  There would be a lot of yellin' about Yellen and she would be fired within days.  Her name would be radioactive and she would be justifiably ostracized.  But Bennett's views reflect that of many on Israel's right and he is an honored member of Netanyahu's government.  You'd have to be crazy to be a Palestinian and sign a blank check to recognize Israel as a Jewish State, without some guarantee that the check won't be used to buy a doghouse where you will be forced to reside.                                               

Update 6/25/17: Israel's government just killed plans that would have allowed Reform and Conservative men and women to pray together in an easily accessible space at the Western Wall. This signals that as far as the current government is concerned, Israel is a state where Orthodox Jews get preference and Reform and Conservative Jews are second class citizens. Thus, as I wrote earlier, Jews can't even agree among themselves what constitutes a Jewish State.

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How the Palestinians Should Respond To Israel's Demand To Recognize It As A Jewish State by Robin Messing is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
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