Posted on: September 14, 2010 Posted by: Mitchell Plitnick Comments: 9

In my recent piece on the Israeli demand to be recognized “as a Jewish state,” I made the point that there is no clear definition of what it means t be a Jewish state. There is no consensus in Israel as to what this means; indeed, this has been a question that has vexed Jews both in Israel and the Diaspora since the birth of the Zionist movement.

That put me in mind of a question a good friend asked me some time ago. Knowing that I am a strong believer in a two-state solution, he asked me whether I believed it was possible for Israel to be both Jewish and democratic.

Whatever its character, Israel will always be home to both Jews and Arabs

My answer was yes, but not until the term “Jewish state” is defined more clearly and very differently than I perceive it to be used in common parlance today.

The issue of Israel’s identity is one that can only be resolved by Israelis, of course (I note: Israelis, which means all citizens of the state, Jewish or not). But what kind of state we in the Diaspora, as well as non-Jews not connected to Israelis or Palestinians, will choose to support is a question that we can answer. It is one that is being asked more and more these days as Israeli policies generate growing discontent around the world.

The first, crucial element is ending the occupation. A country can be democratic and hold territory under military occupation, but not when it has transferred its own citizens to that territory, in contravention of international law. That creates a situation where the state controls a territory wherein the residents live under different laws – citizens, with all the rights of citizens, in the settlements and the occupied populace, which has no rights of citizenship whatsoever.

But ending the occupation is only the beginning. Discrimination against non-Jews is a serious problem in Israel. It goes well beyond personal bigotry, and seeps into government programs and other institutions, where the allocation of resources is severely skewed. It is also manifest in the structural partnerships the Israeli government has with such bodies as the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish National Fund, as well as the position of the rabbinate in personal matters. It is fine for groups like the JNF and WZO to exist to promote the interests of Jews as they them, but they should be working independently, not in hand in hand with the government. Such a partnership cannot but create institutionalized discrimination.

The key, in my view, is a change in the way we think about Israel’s “Jewishness.” Perhaps one might say that I am proposing a shift from thinking of a Jewish state to thinking of a Jewish homeland.

In some discussions, what comes up are various actions Israel takes against some of its most vulnerable citizens and residents. These are often most evident in East Jerusalem and in the Negev, where the village of al-Araqib recently made headlines as Israeli authorities used quite a bit of force (and some involved seemed to take quite a bit of pleasure in it) to repeatedly destroy the village. It has just happened for the fifth time.

But the question for me is whether a Jewish state, unlike other ethnic nation-states, must perforce do these things. I see no reason why that this need be the case.

I wrote to my friend the following:

“I do not believe the state needs to be structured as it currently is for it to be a Jewish homeland. There can be a constitution which guarantees equality and existing state structures can be reformed to fit that structure, remove rabbinical authority and separate the state from such bodies as the JNF and WZO. Similar transformations have occurred in many places, though there were always distinct and numerous structural differences between all of them.

It requires the same thing they all did: a commitment to democracy over ethnic chauvinism. That can happen in Israel as it has elsewhere. I contend that such a process was well underway in the 1990s before the so-called “generous offer” and the second intifada derailed it.”

Then there is the question of the Law of Return. In any formulation, I believe it is absolutely crucial that Israel guarantee, in its constitution, that any Jew and all Jews who are facing discrimination as Jews should be guaranteed asylum and the right to immigrate to Israel. And there should be immigration processes and standards for everyone else, as in any country, as well as special consideration for the families of any Israeli citizen, regardless of ethnicity.

But there is no reason that any Jew should be able to automatically claim a pre-existing citizenship. This undermines Israel’s existence as a state of its citizens, and while Jews should feel Israel is their homeland and Diaspora Jews will inevitably feel a connection to the state, Israel needs to be, at this point, a state of its citizens.

By the same token, while I think any resolution to the Israel-Palestine conflict has to acknowledge Israel’s major role in creating the Palestinian refugee problem, the argument that the Jewish Law of Return implies that Palestinian refugees should return behind the Green Line doesn’t fit, and, in any case, would make a peace deal impossible.

On this matter, I told my friend:

“The Law of Return’s nucleus is a response to the world shutting its doors to Jewish refugees during the Holocaust. That is a very different issue than the question of Palestinian refugees, which is why the two need to not be put into one pot to boil. I resolve it as follows:

Jews are automatically granted citizenship in Israel IF they are fleeing persecution due to their Jewish identity in their homelands which threatens their lives. Palestinians then can return to the Palestinian state with whatever conditions the Palestinians set. Obviously, this presumes a 2-state solution.

But while there is a surface logic to putting the two together, the protection against persecution of Jews is not, actually, comparable to the restitution of dispossessed Palestinians. If the latter issue is ever to be reasonably resolved, whatever that resolution may eventually be, these two questions must not be put together.”

I summed up my view of Israel’s Jewish character thus:

“I don’t think of this question primarily in terms of safety, at least in terms of persecution.
To me, the American experience demonstrates that a distinctive Jewish identity would not survive without Israel, other than in the form of orthodoxy. And yes, that does matter to me.

I think a state, if it is a free and open society, must evolve as it does, free of demographic manipulation and of discriminatory laws and systems. But most states do have a character–exceedingly few are the melting pots the USA is.

In fact, Israel is already a cultural, ideological and religious center for a large percentage of those Jews who feel themselves a part of a global Jewish community. In my view, it has fomented in that global community many things, a lot of them (perhaps most, though certainly not all) very bad. These include intense xenophobia, militancy, and religious reactionism.

But it also is a center for that global Jewish community that I think is needed if Jews, as a people, are not to dissipate so that only the echoes of the shtetl are left. And I think we can see, in Israel’s peace and human rights communities what that center could be leading us to instead of what it is doing now.

I believe that too must be preserved and that it can be done in a secular and democratic state, even if that state is no longer discriminating in favor of Jews or even that Jews are the majority of the population. Those are not necessary conditions for Israel to be a Jewish homeland. Zionism has built something there, and there is a lot of good in it. That can be preserved through means other than ethnic chauvinism and discrimination. Indeed, that was precisely the goal of Zionism, and it needs to be rescued from those who have so badly distorted so much of the thinking of early left-wing, liberal, centrist and yes, even right-wing Zionists.

If it is merely the term “Jewish state” we find so troubling, I’m happy to do away with it. But a Jewish homeland is more than a refuge of last resort–indeed, that is a very minor component of it. And I do believe such a homeland, if it is run by democratic principles rather than tribalistic ones, can be not only good for the Jews but for the world.”

9 People reacted on this

  1. First off, this was a wonderful and insightful blog post.

    Second off, I wouldn’t be commenting if I didn’t have a bone to pick, in this case about your comments on the Law of Return. In the context of modern Jewish diasporic and Israeli politics, it is usually framed as a measure for Jews seeking asylum and refuge in Israel. However, it is also essential to the role of Israeli Jewish society as a cultural center for Jews worldwide.

    As an example, take the Los Angeles Jewish community (the one I am most familiar with). The connection with Israel among families I’ve met is not just one of emotion and identity, but includes family ties – a sister or an uncle who immigrated to Israel under the Law of Return and whose existence renews the connection not only with the Israeli state and society, but also with a Jewish identity outside of (or, often, beside) religion. Young people can keep a future in Israel in their life plans, and sometimes act on the possibility – a small group, but one whose experiences strengthen Jewish identity in the whole community. Without such a constant renewal of personal ties (and perhaps even with them) I fear that the two societies will simply grow further and further apart, and Israel will cease to serve its anchoring role for extra-religious Jewish identity in the diaspora.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Asa.
      You raise an important point. I agree that the Law of Return plays a much larger role than mere protection. Indeed, i think that is precisely the point I am addressing in my discussion of it here.

      Now, I’ll clarify that I am by no means suggesting that Jewish immigration be stopped. There will still be ways for Jews too emigrate to Israel, but it wouldn’t simply be something one can just do by fiat. Most countries give some sort of preferential treatment for those who have relatives in their country. So, I’d say that Jews who really want to move to Israel would still be able to do so.

      And, of course, Jews would be able to visit, probably even more easily than we do today, as I suspect Ben-Gurion Airport would be somewhat less of a torture tunnel.

      But, yes, I think the very point I am making is that Israel should be a state of its citizens, which reflects its own population, history and roots. Is that going to cause some issues of identity in the Diaspora? Boy howdy, it is. That’s for us to deal with, and it’s a poser, for sure. But if Israel is ever to have a normal existence, it’s a task we need to take on.

      Having said that, i think it’s an overstatement to say that the separation would mean that Israel is no longer an “anchor for extra-religious Jewish identity in the Diaspora.” I believe, as with many homelands’ relationships with their Diasporas throughout Africa, Asia and Europe, the nature f that connection will change, but will also endure.

  2. After World War II, and the aftermath of the Holocaust, the physical and emotional need for Zionism was overwhelmingly apparent. While I cannot know how the relationship between overseas Jews and Israeli Jews will develop, the absolute need for aliyah is now less than it was. In any case the impetus has been weakened by many historical events, and the likelihood of massive immigration is also less apparent.
    Post Zionism, as a historical reality need not be proved; there is obvious proof on the ground, (unfortunately, part of that ground is on the wrong side of the green line).
    We do not any longer have to look under every rock from Jerusalem to Eilat to Kiryat Shmona, to show that our mother’s mother’s mother’s inhabited the land. It is in fact irrelevant; we are here, the Palestinians are here. Our efforts should be devoted to finding a modus-vivendi which will allow us to live together without bloodshed. Since Israel is by far so much stronger, the onus is on us to make a solution easier to find.

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