On the renewed demand for recognition of Israel as "Jewish State" or "State of the Jewish people"

In his latest weekly article, distributed by email and to a number of media outlets, veteran Israeli peace campaigner Uri Avnery takes on Benyamin Netanyahu’s lack of bustle and vigor during his first 100 days in office. Avnery wrote there are “No plans, no assistants, no team, no nothing. To this very minute, Netanyahu has not succeeded in putting together his personal team – a fundamental precondition for any effective action. He does not have a chief of staff, a most important position. In his office, chaos reigns supreme”.

On Netanyahu’s choice of ministers, Avnery wrote that “All these appointments look like the desperate efforts of a cynical politician who does not care about anything other than returning to power, and then quickly putting together a cabinet, whatever its composition, paying any price to any party prepared to join him, sacrificing even the most vital interests of the state”.

The worst problem, Avnery stated, is in the political field, “Because there the unpreparedness of Netanyahu meets the overpreparedness of Obama. Obama has a plan for the restructuring of the Middle East, and one of its elements is an Israeli-Palestinian peace based on ‘Two States for Two Peoples’. Netanyahu argues that he is not in a position to respond, because he has no plan of his own yet. After all, he is quite new in office. Now he is working on such a plan. Very soon, in a week, or a month, or a year, he will have a plan, a real plan, and he will present it to Obama. Or course, Netanyahu has a plan. It consists of one word, which he learned from his mentor, Yitzhak Shamir: ‘NO’. Or, more precisely, NO NO NO – the three no’s of the Israeli Khartoum: No peace, No withdrawal, No negotiations. (It will be remembered that the 1967 Arab summit conference in Khartoum, right after the Six-day War, adopted a similar resolution.) The ‘plan’ which he is working on does not really concern the essence of this policy, but only the packaging. How to present to Obama something that will not sound like ‘no’, but rather like ‘yes, but’ … As a taster for the ‘plan’, Netanyahu has already presented one of its ingredients: the demand that the Palestinians and other Arabs must recognize Israel as ‘the State of the Jewish People’.”

Now, here, Avnery makes a distinction: “Most of the media in Israel and abroad have distorted this demand and reported that Netanyahu requires the recognition of Israel as a ‘Jewish State’. Either from ignorance or laziness, they obliterated the important difference between the two formulas. This difference is immense. A ‘Jewish State’ is one thing, a ‘State of the Jewish People’ is something radically different“.

Avnery explains what he sees as the distinction — though not everybody will agree with him: “A ‘Jewish State’ can mean a state with a majority of citizens who define themselves as Jews and/or a state whose main language is Hebrew, whose main culture is Jewish, whose weekly rest day is Saturday, which serves only Kosher food in the Knesset cafeteria etc. A ‘State of the Jewish People’ is a completely different story. It means that the state belongs not only to its citizens, but to something that is called ‘the Jewish People’ – something that exists both inside and outside of the country. That can have wide-ranging implications. For instance: the abrogation of the citizenship of non-Jews, as proposed by Lieberman. Or the conferring of Israeli citizenship on all the Jews in the world, whether they want it or not. The first question that arises is: what does ‘the Jewish People’ mean? The term ‘people’ – ‘am‘ in Hebrew … – has no accepted precise definition. Generally it is taken to mean a group of human beings who live in a specific territory and speak a specific language. The ‘Jewish People’ is not like that. Two hundred years ago it was clear that the Jews were a religious community dispersed throughout the world and united by religious beliefs and myths (including the belief in a common ancestry). The Zionists were determined to change this self-perception. ‘We are a people, one people’, Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, wrote … The idea of ‘the State of the Jewish People’ is decidedly anti-Zionist. Herzl did not dream of a situation in which a Jewish State and a Jewish Diaspora would coexist. According to his plan, all the Jews who wish to remain Jews would immigrate to their state. The Jews who prefer to live outside the state would stop being Jews and be absorbed into their host nations, finally becoming real Germans, Britons and Frenchmen. The vision of the ‘Visionary of the State’ (as he is officially designated in Israel) was supposed, when put into practice, to bring about the disappearance of the Jewish Diaspora … David Ben-Gurion was a partner to this vision. He stated that a Jew who does not immigrate to Israel is not a Zionist and should not enjoy any rights in Israel, except the right to immigrate there. He demanded the dismantling of the Zionist organization, seeing in it only the ‘scaffolding’ for building the state. Once the state has been set up, he thought quite rightly, the scaffolding should be discarded”.

OK, for what that’s worth. Now, Avnery turns back to Netanyahu, and writes that: “Netanyahu’s demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as ‘the State of the Jewish People’ is ridiculous, even as a tactic for preventing peace. A state recognizes a state, not its ideology or political regime. Nobody recognizes Saudi Arabia, the homeland of the Hajj, as ‘the State of the Muslim Umma’ (the community of believers.) Moreover, the demand puts the Jews all over the world in an impossible position. If the Palestinians have to recognize Israel as ‘the State of the Jewish People’, then all the governments in the world must do the same. The United States, for example. That means that the Jewish US citizens Rahm Emmanuel and David Axelrod, Obama’s closest advisors, are officially represented by the government of Israel. The same goes for the Jews in Russia, the UK and France. Even if Mahmoud Abbas were persuaded to accept this demand – and thereby indirectly put in doubt the citizenship of a million and a half Arabs in Israel – I would oppose this strenuously. More than that, I would consider it an unfriendly act”.

Now, it’s important to note that the Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel are prime movers behind the Palestinian Authority’s refusal to make a calm, rational consideration of this demand, which has been made by the last two Israeli governments — once before the start of the Annapolis process, in November 2007, and now again recently.

Advice, like Avnery’s, from the Israeli “left” (which has a scattered and varied criticism of the demand, and multiple positions of their own), has most probably only bolstered and reinforced this rigid PA position. But it is far from clear that the interests of the Israeli Arabs coincide with the interests of those Palestinians who will only have the choice of being citizens of some future Palestinian state.

The PA has chosen to support the Israeli Arab position, as a purely political calculation — whether as payback, or as a deposit on some future reciprocal support (or both). However, this political calculation has only let Palestinians (in the West Bank and Gaza at least) off the hook. They haven’t needed to take the time to reflect on what this really might imply for them.

And, if they really were afraid that recognition of Israel’s “Jewishness” in one or another forms would result in either immediate ethnic cleansing (expulsion en masse of Israel’s Arab citizens as well as Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem), as well as of total barring of the return of any or all Palestinian refugees, they could have asked for guarantees from the international community that it would not happen. And they would have gotten such guarantees, which would be worth a lot more than the puffed-up pride they have now in being stubborn and resisting a critical examination of the demand

In any case, Avnery wrote that “The character of the State of Israel must be decided by the citizens of Israel (who hold a wide range of opinions about this matter). Pending before the Israeli courts is an application by dozens of Israeli patriots, including myself, who demand that the state recognize the ‘Israeli nation’. We request the court to instruct the government to register us in the official Population Registration, under the heading ‘nation’, as Israelis. The government refuses adamantly and insists that our nation is Jewish. I ask Mahmoud Abbas, Obama and everyone else who is not an Israeli citizen not to interfere in this domestic debate. Netanyahu knows, of course, that nobody will take his demand seriously. It is quite obviously just another device to avoid serious peace negotiations. If he is compelled to drop it, it will not be long before he comes up with another” …

Along the lines of Avnery’s argument, the Palestinian editor and co-Chairman of IPCRI (the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information) Hanna Siniora proposed the following formula, and asked for reaction: “What about this: Israel is for the Israelis — and in this way we do not disenfranchise miniorities. How do you receive that formula?”

Siniora was speaking in answer to a question from an Israeli (in the audience at IPCRI’s 27 April discussion of the marked expansion in Israeli settlements in the West Bank since the start of the Annapolis process in November 2007) about PA President Mahmoud Abbas’ statement that he would refuse to recognize Israel as a Jewish State. The Israeli questioner did not respond.

Earlier on the same day, 27 April, the Foreign Press Association (FPA) in Israel held its annual General Membership meeting at the King David Hotel in West Jerusalem, and invited Palestinian negotiator Sa’eb Erekat to address the group after the business of hearing the treasurer’s report and the election of a new committee was over. One of the journalists asked Erekat, “What is the problem in accepting Israel as a Jewish State”.

Erekat was, in fact, prepared for the question. “Israel can call itself anything it wants … but when you signed the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, you did not put this as a precondition”.

Then, Erekat pulled out one (1) copy of a letter which he said was a reply from U.S. President Truman to a group of American Jewish leaders who had written, Erekat said, on 14 May 1948 (the eve of — or with the time difference, perhaps even after the proclamation of the State of Israel which happened at midnight) asking that the U.S. should accept Israel, Erekat said, apparently correcting himself as he spoke, as “the state of the Jewish people, or as the Jewish state”.

According to Erekat, the American Jewish leaders proposed this formula: “The U.S. recognizes the provisional government as the de facto government of the new Jewish State.”

But what happened, again according to Erekat, was that President Truman crossed out the words,
“the new Jewish State”, and replaced them with the words, “the State of Israel”.

That’s it, Erekat said, proof that even the United States did not recognize Israel as a “Jewish State”. To conclude his argument, Erekat, said: “Check the UN Charter, and see if the Vatican is recognized as a Catholic State”.

Well, first of all, the Vatican is represented by an observer delegation in the United Nations, and it has not been admitted to membership, so it’s identity has not been subject to any agreement or approval, as happens when states are admitted as full UN members.

And, second of all, it seemed to me that all Harry Truman was doing when he crossed out one phrase and replaced it with another, “the State of Israel”, was correcting the identification of the new entity as it was announced.

A couple of years ago, Uri Avnery, writing on this subject, said that what the name of the State of Israel would be, was not known in advance. In fact, it was not known until right up to the actual announcement.

The New York Times’ Isabelle Kershner, who was present at the FPA meeting, managed to get a look at the actual letter that Erekat gave to the outgoing chairman (Steve Gutkin of AP), and she later also took issue with Erekat’s argument [despite the very chummy “Hi Isabelle” that Erekat said when she asked a question on another subject at the FPA briefing ].

In a piece that had a few non-sequitors in its editing, Isabelle wrote that “Palestinian negotiators have refused to recognize Israel’s Jewish character in the past, contending that it would negate the Palestinian refugees’ demand for the right to return to their former homes and would be detrimental to the status of Israel’s Arab citizens, who make up a fifth of the population. In an attempt to bolster the Palestinian argument, Mr. Erekat on Monday produced a copy of a letter signed by President Harry Truman on May 14, 1948. In its original form, it recognizes the provisional government of the new Jewish state, but the typed words ‘Jewish state’ in the second paragraph have been crossed out and replaced with the handwritten words ‘State of Israel’.
Shlomo Avineri, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said Mr. Erekat was misinterpreting the American president’s intention. According to Mr. Avineri, the Truman letter had been prepared hours before Israel declared its independence, before the new country had chosen its name. It was later corrected by a Truman adviser, Clark Clifford, after the declaration of independence to call the country by its name, not to refute its Jewish character, Mr. Avineri said”. This article can be read in full here.

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