A boy peering from under an Israeli flag
A boy peering out from under an Israeli flag in April, 2010. Photo by Reuters
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Like many readers, I enjoyed the delicate irony, sharp wit and clever Arab tales featured in Salman Masalha's op-ed ("A Jewish and Democratic Restaurant," August 9 ). But these virtues cannot compensate for the fundamental misunderstanding that underlies his concluding declaration: "There is no such thing as a Jewish democratic state, just as there is no Muslim democratic state." That is where the dog is buried, to continue the animal metaphors.

At the root of this sentence lies a deep, tragic misunderstanding that characterizes many Arab positions on Israel's identity. In the standard Arab view, "Jews" are comparable to "Christians" or "Muslims." In other words, they are a religious group, not a nation. And it is not only Arabs who think this way: There is no doubt that for hundreds of years, Jewish identity was perceived by Jews and non-Jews alike primarily as a religious identity, and some still think so.

But the essence of the Zionist revolution is the view that the Jews are a nation, and as such, they have the right to national self-determination in a political framework. This principle was accepted by the United Nations on November 29, 1947, in its decision to partition British Mandatory Palestine into two states - Jewish and Arab (not Jewish and Muslim-Christian ).

Israel views itself as a Jewish nation-state, exactly as Poland views itself as a Polish nation-state and Greece as a Greek nation-state, or as the Palestinian state, when it arises, will view itself as a Palestinian nation-state.

To be sure, Jewish identity has a religious component, both historically and in our contemporary reality - just as there is a religious dimension to Polish national identity and a Muslim dimension to Arab national identity (Mohammed is not perceived exclusively as the prophet of Islam; Christian Arabs too view him as a hero of the Arab nation ).

One of the problems that complicates attempts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is this very issue - the fact that the Arab side has difficulty recognizing that Jews in the state of Israel view themselves as a nation. Identity is a matter of self-definition, not external definition. Just as Jews are not the ones who will determine whether the Palestinians are a people or not (there are more than a few of us who have yet to be reconciled with the existence of the Palestinian people ), Salman Masalha cannot determine whether the Jews are a people or not. It is a question of self-determination.

Anyone who rejects the Jews' right to define themselves as a nation denies them a fundamental human right, to which Jews, just like the Palestinians, are entitled. Arab refusal to accept Israel as a Jewish state attests to something very deep and troubling: unwillingness to accept the Jewish people's right to self-determination.

Because what is at issue is national identity, not religious identity, there can indeed be a Jewish democratic state, just as there can be an Arab democratic state. That, incidentally, is what is written in the constitution of Lebanon, an Arab state that, for all its problems, maintains a political system based on elections and democratic principles.

Clause B of the Preamble to the Lebanese Constitution declares: "Lebanon is Arab in its identity and in its associations." Clause D stipulates: "The people are the source of authority and sovereignty." In other words, Lebanon views itself as an Arab, democratic state.

The constitutions of Syria and Egypt also define their countries' identities as Arab and their systems of government as democratic. While there are, to say the least, problems with the democratic aspect of these countries' regimes, it is nonetheless clear that the drafters of the Syrian and Egyptian constitutions believed that, in principle, there is no contradiction in a state being both Arab and democratic.

And so Arab and democratic is fine, but Jewish and democratic is not? In my dictionary, there is a whiff of racism in this distinction.