By Shimon Z. KleinÂ
At the beginning of the past week, Saeb Erekat, chief negotiator for the Palestine Liberation Organization, rejected on Monday 14th November 2007, the government’s demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
In an interview with Israel Radio, Erekat said that “no state in the world connects its national identity to a religious identity.” This caused a storm in a tea cup and of course grist to the mill to the right wing in Israel. Surely, the reaction to this is rather exaggerated!
Erekatâ€™s statement may be true about western world countries. The nationality of citizens of these countries is determined by their country of birth or naturalization not by their religious affiliation. It is not true when referring to Arab countries. In many of these countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, UAE and a host of other Arab countries, there are no Jewish citizens as many have been expelled in the past. In most Arab countries national identity is linked to religious identity which is Islam. Some other examples of countries that are referred to as Islamic republics are: Islamic Republic of Pakistan (since 1956), Islamic Republic of Iran, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, and Islamic Republic of Mauritania.
However, be this as it may, while Israel has a Jewish majority; there is a sizeable non Jewish minority (approximately 20%). This being the case, the government of Israel should represent all Israeli citizens irrespective of race, colour or creed.
Shulamit Aloni, who was Minister of Education in late PM Rabinâ€™s cabinet, wrote a thought provoking article â€œStill a Democracy?â€ on this issue:
â€œThe government of Israel, with all due respect, does not represent the Jewish people but rather the citizens of the State of Israel who elected it. Israel is a sovereign state, which is still considered a democracy. In other words, it is a state for all of its citizens. Therefore it must not demand of the Palestinians to recognize it as a Jewish state, because in that way it would be declaring that any citizen whose mother is not Jewish or who did not convert with our strict Orthodox rabbis is a second-rate citizen, and his rights as a human being and a citizen are not ensured.
The Jews are a people but not a nation, they are a religious ethnic group or as respected a tribe as may be. The Jewish citizens of Britain, including the Orthodox among them, are British, and that is what is written in their passports and in the British population registry.
The same is true of France; the Jews there are French. In Canada, they are Canadians, and in Holland they are Dutch. They uphold their Jewish lives in their communities, since in democratic nations there is freedom of religion and freedom from religion. If they were to register the Jewish citizens in these countries as “Jewish” in the nationality category, we would accuse them of being anti-Semitic.
There is a difference between a people and a religion and a nationality, since nationality is decided by citizenship – a people as opposed to a nation – and therefore citizenship is nationality. The affinity of a citizen to the state is based on citizenship and not on religion; it is not based on the tribe or on the heritage of the genes of the mother.
If among the cabinet ministers there are those who feel that they are more Jewish than Israeli, that is their right, and they can uphold all the religious precepts and pray all the prayers. But that is not relevant to the ties between the State of Israel and its neighbors.
There are people among us who like to repeat that this is a Jewish state and not a state of all its citizens. It is strange that the demand has been raised of the Palestinians, as a condition for ending the occupation, to recognize a state where some 20 percent of its citizens have inferior status.
In the past it was a great joy to be an Israeli. Israel was father to the nations. The word “Jewish” does not exist in any of the prayers. There is: “And I will restore the captivity of my people Israel.” And there is the people of Israel, the land of Israel, the Torah of Israel, the God of Israel and the daughter of Israel, who with the Jews is also a second-rate person.
The state of Israel was established as a civilian state, as a state of law, and not as a state of Halakha (Jewish religious law), by the “representatives of the Jewish yishuv and the Zionist movement.” Not by the ultra-Orthodox to whom the cabinet ministers enslave themselves, and whose masses they release from military service, from working, and from tuition fees, and even pay them a monthly wage.
In the document establishing the state, it was promised that there would be “complete equality of rights for all its citizens regardless of origin, race or gender.” And another reminder: On the Day of Independence, we light 12 beacons, the number of the tribes of Israel.
Let the cabinet ministers feel at home as Jews as much as they want, let them raise their voices in prayer and let them lay tefillin (phylacteries) – but they must remember that they serve the government of Israel, which still represents itself as being democratic. In other words, they are the representatives of all its citizens and are responsible for them.
Therefore it would be better to demand of the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a sovereign state, and not to coerce them with what the citizens coerce us – religion and its rabbis.
The existing arrangement was suitable for the Catholic Spain of Isabella and Ferdinand at the end of the 15th century. This was the year of expulsion of non-Catholics from Spain, since Spanish nationality was granted only to the Catholics or to those who converted to Catholicism.
If it is more important to be a Jew than it is to be an Israeli, why do we demand of the Jews of the world to come here at a time when they are having it good in the democratic countries in which they live as Jews?â€
Shulamit Aloni is correct in her article. This has nothing to do with whether Saudi Arabia and the Arab countries are considered Moslem or not. This is irrelevant. Does one refer to England as the Christian state of England? Israel is a country that belongs to all the people living in it.
Yoel Marcus of Haaretz has put it concisely in his article of 16th November 2007, â€œA Stupid Demandâ€ where he wrote: â€œThe whole world has recognized Israel as a Jewish state. The Arab countries that attacked after Israel’s Declaration of Independence did so because it was a Jewish state. Israel made peace with Egypt and Jordan in spite of being a Jewish state. If there is anyone who needs recognition, it’s the Palestinians. Their leaders over the generations have goaded them into hating Jews and killing Jews, which has gone on without stopping, but left them without a state of their own.â€
Â The upcoming Annapolis Conference will probably not reach the desired result in any case. Is the idea of putting emphasis on recognizing the Jewishness of Israel so important? The nature of Israelâ€™s identity is well known and there is no reason to re-emphasize that in peace negotiations.
According to an editorial in Haaretz on 15th November 2007, â€œit is easy to speak about a Jewish state, but difficult to find the political courage required doing what it takes: Settlements scattered in the heart of the Palestinian population make it impossible to separate between Israel and Palestine along a plausible and viable border. With each passing day and each passing year, every settlement expansion, every outpost and every road built to reach it disrupt the chance to separate the two nations.
Therefore suspending construction in the settlements is not a prize for the Palestinians ahead of one agreement or another, but a life-saving medicine for Israel. It is already difficult to delineate a border between the Etzion, Ariel and Ma’aleh Adumim settlement blocs as the building boundaries within them keep expanding, with a wink at Washington.
Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are demanding that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, but they should direct this demand at the Israelis. Another conference, more negotiations, more trips and another draft agreement, another escape from addressing the core issues, as though there is anything else to negotiate. The Israelis, not Palestinians, are making the vision of the Jewish state impossible. A law tying the government’s hands vis-a-vis concessions in Jerusalem passed the Knesset in a preliminary reading, as though Israel’s interest is to annex East Jerusalem with its hundreds of thousands of Palestinians.
For religious fanatics on both sides, the existing solution is charmingly simple. Islamists want a Muslim state on all the area they consider sacred. Right-wing religious Israelis want a halakhic Jewish state on all the area they regard as sacred. The only problem is, both mean the same “holy ground.” So the longer partition is postponed, the nearer draws the possibility of bloody messianic chaos.
Avoiding a debate on the core issues in Annapolis is not an Israeli achievement. It is an escape from the main issues, stemming from political cowardice. Every additional round of futile talks is pushing Israel farther away from determining its borders and fate.â€
Apart from this, the moment one attaches a religious label on a state, that state cannot be a truly democratic state. The laws that are passed automatically favor the dominating religious group over the minorities. There can never be true equality between all the religious groups.
There are a number of apartheid-like decisions in Israel. An outstanding example is the land laws concerning purchase of land by Arabs show a remarkable similarity to the notorious Group Areas Act of apartheid South Africa. Israelâ€™s rule of law in many respects is governed by Halacha which has become part of the state machinery. Another example is state interference in marriage partners when the one partner is not Jewish. There is no civil marriage in Israel while in progressive democratic countries provisions are made for civil marriage. The whole idea is to prevent assimilation of the Jewish People by preventing intermarriage. There are other examples but it is not the purpose of this article.
Israeli society is composed of all its citizens and this includes Arab Israelis. Peace is to be made with the State of Israel and its people.