Since taking office more than two years ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly pressed the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a “Jewish state.” In his speech before the U.S. Congress in May, Netanyahu even made this demand the linchpin of any future peace deal, promising “a far-reaching compromise” if only the Palestinian leader were to publicly declare “I will accept a Jewish state.”
Regrettably, the Obama administration has bought into Netanyahu’s idea and is currently working behind the scenes to press key allies to adopt a formula that would call on Israel and the Palestinians to resume negotiations on the basis of the 1967 lines and — for the first time in Mideast peacemaking — spell out international expectations that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
Much has been said about why the Palestinians refuse to extend Israel such recognition — certainly at this stage of the negotiations. But ironically, Israelis may well be the first to demur at such a definition of their state, or at least to be confused by it. For it is far from clear to anyone, not least Israel’s own Jewish citizens, what Netanyahu’s demand actually means.
Historically, the modern Zionist movement has sought to transform the term “Jewish” into a distinctly national category. But it has not fully succeeded. If it had, “Jewish” might have signified today a member of a national community — in the manner, say, that “French” refers to a national of France or “Polish” that of Poland.
And yet in much of the world “Jewish” today remains a fuzzy term whose precise meaning depends on context. “Jewish” can stand for a religious attribute, an ethical or spiritual one. It can mean an ethnic group or cultural tradition. For some Jews, especially in pre-emancipation Europe, Jewishness was felt to be a destiny. In certain milieus in the U.S. today, “Jewish” primarily defines a genre of humor.
In fact, only in Israel does the term “Jewish” refer to one’s nationality, although the source of authority lies outside the exclusive purview of the state. Indeed, even as Israel proclaims to be the nation-state of the Jewish people, it has no legal definition for the term “Jewish” other than a religious one: It is rabbis who determine for the Israeli state who is a Jew.
This failure to forge a coherently national definition of the term “Jewish” dates back to the inception of the Zionist movement. Since in order to forge the Jewish people into a nation it was necessary to bind them to a single territory and decide upon a collective language — territory and language being understood as two key features of nationality in the 19th century — Zionism grappled with various choices for both. These included Uganda and Argentina as possible territories, while German was the language of preference of Theodor Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement.
And yet, despite the secularist impulses of mainstream Zionism, the territory ultimately chosen was the biblical Land of Israel and the language that of the Bible. And while the choice of territory may have made pragmatic sense at the time (that of language less so), the emergence of the Zionist movement could not help heightening rather than attenuating the religious underpinnings of the Jewish nation.
These are among the fundamental reasons why the character of the Israeli state remains a highly contested issue within Israel itself. What makes Israel “Jewish”? Is sovereignty over biblical lands essential to Israel’s Jewish self-identity (as the settler movement argues)? Is Israel the state of the Jews living in Israel or also of those living elsewhere in the world? (Netanyahu concluded his speech to Congress by stating “I speak on behalf of the Jewish people and the Jewish state.”) Does Israel’s “Jewishness” preclude it from being the state of all its citizens, even the non-Jewish ones?
The debate inside Israel over these issues is passionate and ongoing. It prevents Israel from articulating a coherent definition of its own identity, let alone one that is accepted and recognized by the majority of its citizens, most of whom are secular and liberal by any Western standard.
Rather than asking the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, therefore, Israel has its own job cut out for itself. And while it is tempting to pass on the burden to others, it remains Israel’s duty — first and foremost to itself — to discover what it means when it says it is Jewish, and to make sure that such a definition be accepted, and recognized, by its own citizens.
Once it does so, Israel might be able to make a more coherent request to its neighbors — or more likely, feel secure enough in its own identity to move on.
Yonatan Touval, a foreign policy analyst based in Tel Aviv.