Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Editorial: A Jewish, Democratic State

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Colin Rubenstein


A furore has erupted in Israeli and foreign media over Israel’s self-description as a Jewish and democratic state, its demand that Palestinians recognise this as part of a final peace and a proposed amendment to an existing oath of loyalty for naturalised Israeli citizens to include the phrase ‘Jewish and democratic state.’

Some astute analysts and other people of goodwill question whether Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state per se is absolutely necessary for peace. It is also very understandable that there has been intense disagreement over the timing and necessity of the amendment to the oath. What is not at all understandable is the denunciation by some of Israel’s self-identification as a Jewish and democratic state.

Let’s go back to basics. UN General Assembly Resolution 181 – widely known as the UN Partition Plan – called explicitly for the creation of a “Jewish state”, as well as an Arab state, more than 30 times, urging both to be democratic. The 1922 League of Nations Mandate for Palestine also explicitly endorsed a Jewish state. Israel’s 1948 Declaration of Independence not only labelled Israel as both Jewish and democratic but, importantly, insisted all minorities in Israel must have full and equal rights.

At heart, the whole point of Zionism was – and is – to create a Jewish nation-state, fulfilling the right of the Jews to self-determination in the Jewish homeland, and be accepted as such by the international community. The guiding principle of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, now almost two decades old, is to create two states for two peoples so both can achieve self-determination. Which ‘two peoples’ do those who object to a Jewish state think peace processors had in mind?

Of course, Israel defining itself by its ethnic majority doesn’t in any way give it the right to discriminate against non-Jewish minorities – and, in general, it doesn’t, despite some past and ongoing problems not dissimilar to those in many other democratic countries with ethnic minorities. It is worth pointing out again that, despite undoubted room for improvement, Arabs in Israel have more rights than they do in any other Middle Eastern country.

Israel is hardly the only democracy that identifies itself by its ethnic majority. Poland is the nation-state of the Polish people, Japan of the Japanese people, Turkey of the Turks, just as Israel is for the Jewish people.

Every country in the Middle East identifies itself ethnically or religiously or both. Islam is the official religion of at least two dozens states across the globe, from Afghanistan to Yemen. The Palestinians are among those giving Islam official status in their constitution.

Meanwhile, democracies around the world have immigration laws that, like in Israel, make it easier for people belonging to that country’s ethnicity to immigrate. Examples include Ireland, Bulgaria, Italy, Germany, Greece and Spain, among many others.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has asserted that recognition by the Palestinian Authority of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people is necessary for a final peace. There are at least two related – and justifiable – reasons why Israel seeks such recognition.

The first concerns the so-called Palestinian “right of return.” This is a demand that the descendents of Palestinians who fled or were pushed out of what became Israel in the 1948 war be allowed to immigrate to Israel. Implementation of this demand (which is in no way a right under international law) would swallow Israel’s Jewish majority, thus destroying the Jewish state, as some advocates for it are candid enough to admit. Recognising Israel as a Jewish state would negate the “right of return” demand, as Palestinian negotiators have pointed out repeatedly in rejecting this Israeli requirement for peace.

In addition, Israel wants to be sure that any final status Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement will mean both sides agree the conflict has ended, and that there can be no re-opening of old demands. Accepting Israel as a Jewish state – thus ruling out the right of return or making demands to change the status of Israel’s Arab minority – would delegitimise any Palestinian irredentism that arose after the signing of a final Israeli-Palestinian agreement.

The principal counter-argument to this request is that it may place a barrier in the way of an otherwise workable and necessary peace, and, regardless of actual Palestinian attitudes toward Israel, future violent irredentism can be prevented with the proper security arrangements and assurances. But the logic of the underlying argument – that for a lasting peace based on the principle of two states for two peoples both sides should recognise the right to self-determination of the other – seems pretty hard to dispute.

With respect to the proposed changes to the existing loyalty oath, it is worth correcting some misperceptions. For a start, this is only about adding a few symbolic words referring to Israel as “a Jewish and democratic state” to an oath that is already mandatory for many new citizens. Secondly, thanks to a sensible change to the cabinet’s proposal made by Netanyahu on Oct. 18, the oath, if passed, will apply in a non-discriminatory way to all new citizens of Israel, regardless of background. Finally, it is not at all clear that the proposed change will ever occur – it still must pass Israel’s Knesset amid considerable opposition, and, as of late October, reports indicated the numbers appeared stacked against it.

Nonetheless, it remains difficult to understand the timing and necessity of what can only be seen as a counter-productive change, particularly given that it is likely to engender feelings of discrimination and inferiority among Israel’s Arab minority. However, the argument that there is something inherently wrong with Israel defining itself as a Jewish and democratic state is evidence of ignorance, sloppy-thinking or discriminatory malice.

This is the reality at the heart of the ongoing conflict. Until Israel’s enemies – and peace partners – accept the Jewish state as a permanent and indigenous feature of the Middle East, true peace will be hard to come by.

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