The impossible forfeit
To ask a Muslim or Christian who is an Israeli citizen to regard himself as a citizen of a Jewish state is to expect him to declare himself a perennial outsider within his own country.
If the peace process has any goal, it is to create here, between the Mediterranean and the Jordan, two national entities. It is to forego any fantasy of a single binational state and to make room for two independent nations - each with its own aspirations - that covet the same land yet represent distinct legitimate national identities. The process of peace negotiations requires that each side relinquish its claims to the whole land and be willing to live with only part of the geographical space which it claims as its own. Once a territorial compromise is in place, each of these two peoples must recognize the other as a legitimate sovereign national entity; anything less fails to fulfill the essential aspiration of the peace process.
The Israeli demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state seems therefore, at first glance, not only reasonable but also an essential part of the peace process. This demand, however, is a mistake based on a superficial understanding of the complexity of the modern State of Israel. While most Jews - but not all - clearly define Israel as a Jewish state, not every Israeli does. To ask a Muslim or Christian who is an Israeli citizen to regard himself as a citizen of a Jewish state is to expect him to declare himself a perennial outsider within his own country.
It is perfectly legitimate, and even crucial, that Israeli Jews define Israel as a Jewish state. In the Jewish understanding of the rebirth of the State of Israel, we have returned to the Land of Israel to create a sovereign Jewish state; in our understanding, the Jewish national narrative is of necessity the majority narrative here. But to assume non-Jews - equal citizens of the State of Israel by virtue of the democratic principles at the basis of Israel's self-understanding - feel the same way as Jews is not only unreasonable, it is nonsensical.
To expect that a non-Jew will accept a Jewish national identity is to fail to recognize the complexity of the multicultural reality that is the modern State of Israel. We have made this mistake since 1948; while witnesses to the growth of the Palestinian minority in our midst, we have failed to come up with a category to accommodate their distinct Israeli identity. In relegating them to the status of perennial strangers in a Jewish state, we make it supremely difficult for this people to feel a duty of loyalty to Israel or any sense of equality living in it.
We Israeli Jews have to understand that Israel, as a Jewish and democratic state with both Jewish and non-Jewish citizens, must have multiple narratives that inform its national identity. There must be a Jewish narrative and a broader Israeli narrative that creates a collective space with bonds of loyalty toward citizens of the State of Israel who are either non-Jews or for whom the state's Jewishness is not the central feature of their national self-understanding.
The impoverished condition of the current political discussion on this issue assumes that anyone who relinquishes an exclusive claim to a Jewish narrative is a post or anti-Zionist. Many Jews fear that by surrendering the exclusivity of the Jewish claim to Israel they facilitate the destruction of the Jewish state. This, I believe, is a mistake. Multicultural states, of which Israel is but one example, require multiple national narratives to enable their different populations to participate. It does not require particular cultures to forfeit their own national self-understanding, but to give up the claim to define others' collective identity. Only when Israel has such parallel narratives will a non-Jewish Israeli feel fully at home in this country.
With respect to the peace negotiations now underway, it is both unnecessary and unreasonable to require the Palestinian people to accept Israel as a Jewish state. It is critical that they recognize Israel as an independent state against which they have no territorial demands or aspirations. Palestinians - both those living inside and outside Israel - must recognize that their national aspirations are fulfilled exclusively in the confines of the new state of Palestine, while Israel is the national home for Jews - and Palestinians - who want to live in the State of Israel.
Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman is the co-director of the Shalom Hartman Institute.