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March 24, 2014 7:03 am

Israel’s Identity as Jewish State at Heart of Mideast Conflict

avatar by Ben Cohen / JNS.org

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A view of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Photo: Berthold Werner.

JNS.orgAh, 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 indigents, 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.

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  • zadimel

    A major obstacle to any form of peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis is the former’s refusal to recognize and acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state. The Israeli PM’s demand that the Jewish State be accepted by the Palestinians as one-half of the two state solution,the other being,of course,the Palestinian, is rejected by, seemingly, all the Palestinian leaders and their supporters. The Palestinians are attempting to re-write recent history of that region,which feeds their hatred of the Jew. As early as 1917, the Balfour Declaration expressed the establishment of “a national home for the Jewish people.” In 1922, the League of Nations approved of the British Mandate to establish a ” Jewish national home,” and UN resolution 181 recommended the establishment of “a Jewish state.” Yet Abbas declared, as reported by PA TV this past January, that Jewish history in Jerusalem is a ‘delusional myth’ and held that Israel was inventing history ‘by brute force.’

  • Yoel Nitzarim

    Interestingly, Prime Minister’s predecessor averred much the same as Mr.Netanyahu:”We support the establishment of a modern, democratic Palestinian state. The existence of two nations, one Jewish and one Palestinian, is the full solution to the national aspirations and problems of each of the peoples.”—Ehud Olmert, Prime Minister of Israel

  • Jeannette

    “the true indigents, the Palestinian Arabs”

    I agree, they are indigents – poverty-stricken beggars.

    They are not, however, indigenes – autochthons, persons who are natives or aboriginals.

    • Steve Butman


  • Arabs deny Jewish Israel and conflict continues.

  • walt kovacs

    palestine is a myth

    ibish is a fraud

    nuff said

    • Steve Butman

      Right on!

  • Autoemancipation must be eternal for the Jewish People in ” The Jewish State of Israel ”
    As for the Palestinians, something must be done for their own emancipation. What?

    • Bart A. Charta

      Resettle them in Norway. Norwegians love ’em, and the Fakestinians will learn to love reindeer. Heck, they already love sheep well enough….

      • Steve Butman

        Yes…or they could move to the Muslim countries of England and/or France.

  • Jeffrey Cheah

    My thoughts are same as Clint hale, Israel has now been established as a Nation since 1948!The God of Israel has formed it and no man shall be able to ‘destroy’. I believe the Jewish Israelis truly believe what Isaiah has prophesied “Who has heard such a thing? Who has seen such things? Shall the earth be made to give birth in one day? Or shall a nation be born at once?
    This Nation is now called Israel and thus those who live in Israel will become Israelis citizen whether they be the ethnic race the descendants of Jacob who embraced the Jewish religion or are Christians or atheists, the Arabs, all have a place under the sun! Israel should be allowed to be like any country like America where all races from around the world who have emigrated there and lived there eventually become US citizens, the same applies to Canada, France and many, many countries. Take for example, France which was predominantly Roman Catholics and they have over the many decades or more than half a century allowed the Muslims from Africa to settle there and now they have to pay for their price, the Muslims will soon outnumber the Catholics in France in 25 years time! The French love that, let them enjoy their fruits of “liberalism” and carelessness.
    How Israel Government sets its policy today will determine its final destiny in the next 25 years!
    The Israelis should ask themselves one “self soul-searching” question would Saudi Arabia allow other minority group of other faith to determine its present policy? If anyone of you, Israelis can answer this question truthfully, you support or follow your conviction.
    My view would be those who are living and given permanent stay in Israel should be treated as Israel citizen or Israel Permanent Residents!

  • M.A. Kinamohn

    ALL of Israel belongs to the Jewish people!

  • Why is Israel the most hated nation on earth? Because the whole world has always recognized it as a Jewish state. Anti-Zionism is the child of antisemitism, the most powerful and persistent hatred the world has known.
    For the world, the problem is not that Israel is a Jewish state, but rather that the idea of a Jewish state is illegitimate.

    • Bart A. Charta

      The reason Israel is the most hated nation on earth is because our very existence reminds the rest of the world what scoundrels and bastards they are, have been and are capable of being. And that’s a very bitter pill to swallow.

      • Vicki TS

        I love this comment and it is so true
        Jews wake up and do what you need to do to survive
        Look what the Muslims do to one another imagine what they will do to us.
        Even moderate Turkey is filled with a craving for extreme Islamic lifestyles and fighting Erdogan.

    • Steve Butman



    Far more importantly than Netanyahu calling for Abbas to recognise Israel as a Jewish State or a homeland for the Jews, is for Israel to publicly define and then announce to the world it’s physical borders without the west bank and it’s Palestinian population.
    As hand squeezed as the old new border may appear geographically, an Israel without it’s Vassal post ’67 Palestinians does more to characterise Israel as a Jewish State than any call to Abbas to adopt Zionism will.
    Disconnecting from the boulders of the bible may be heart wrenching for some and categorically will not bring about a change in heart from the Palestinians. It is a correct step in the long and difficult road that lies ahead if it is maintain it’s uniquely Jewish democratic characteristic.

    • Bart A. Charta

      Au contraire, Simple Simon. Getting rid of all its vassal Palestinian population, as you so condescendingly refer to them. Show them the seashore, show them the rubber boats, give them the oars, say “goodbye and good riddance”. As long as a single one remains in Israel, he will think that he will someday take back Palestine. It is unfortunate that Meir Kanaha and Rechavam Ze’evi HY”D were right on this one. C’est la vie. Let them live with the consequences of their failed ideas and leadership. No tears falling from these eyes….

      • Steve Butman

        I could not have stated it any better or more concisely, Mr. Charta…kudos to you, sir.


  • Robert Spitalnick

    Peter Beinart is a charlatan.

  • Clint hale

    There should really just be a one state of Israel. Annex Judea and Sumaria and offer the Palestenians to become Israeli-Arab citizens. Those Palestenians who refuse can seek to move across the Jordan river and create their side by side state with the State of Israel. Annex yes; can you say Putin and Crimea. The weak emperor Obama will do nothing.

    • Steve Butman


    • Jerry

      That’s where you err. Obama’s only tough on Israel.

    • Bart A. Charta

      HELL NO ! Why in the world would you offer your enemy the chance to become a voting 5th column in the country your fathers and sons fought and died to establish and hold on to? They have already shown how they will vote with their leaders and their intifadas. Get rid of them all in rubber boats – better Med than dead – and let them paddle and skedaddle. If you think Abdullah of Jordan wants to take them in, then you don’t understand what’s going on in the region. Maybe it’s best to resettle them in Norway…they seem to love Arabs and France, Belgium, Holland and the UK seem like they’ve got their bellies full of ’em…..

      • Steve Butman

        Mr. Charta, are you on Twitter? If so, look me up under Butthead23.

  • esther noodelman

    I guess they don’t get it and don’t want to get it.