An Inherently Humiliating Definition

How can the Arabs agree that their inferior existence is not only a de facto reality they are forced to accept, but a matter of principle as well?

Israel, in my opinion, must express the Jewish people's right to self-determination. I agree with Ruth Gavison on that subject ("A troubling parade of opponents," Haaretz in Hebrew, October 1 ) and disagree with Shlomo Sand ("A Jewish state or an Israeli democracy?" Haaretz, September 26 ). And for various reasons related to the possibility of realizing this right, Israel does not have to allow a mass return of Palestinian refugees.

But given the way Israel interprets its Jewishness, the demand that the Palestinians recognize this Jewishness is one they cannot accept.

Israel explains the Jewish political presence in the Land of Israel, both within the State of Israel and in the occupied territories, as deriving from the Jews' sovereign right to the entire land. This interpretation is reflected both in the government's settlement policy in the territories and in its discrimination against Arabs inside Israel.

This interpretation is deeply rooted in the Israeli Jewish consciousness, and is even expressed in the reasons given by those who are willing to concede parts of the Land of Israel, both rightists and leftists, for this willingness: They are pragmatic reasons rather than principled ones. Even according to the "national left" of Eldad Yaniv and Shmuel Hasfari, who hate the settlers, we must agree to divide the country not because justice requires sharing it with the Arabs, but because the circumstances demand it.

This consciousness, the consciousness of Jewish ownership of the entire Land of Israel, will continue to push Israel's policies to the edge of lunacy, and there is a genuine danger that it will lead to the loss of Israel as an embodiment of the Jewish people's right to self-determination. But that's our problem, that of the Jews; it's not the Arabs' problem.

The Arabs' problem is that for them to recognize Israel's Jewishness under this interpretation means acceptance of their inferior status in the Land of Israel, to the point that they could even be expelled from it. This is so because Jewish ownership of the Land of Israel has been interpreted as leading to conclusions that range from the "leftist" right-wing views of former Likud politician Moshe Arens to the rightist right-wing views of extremist Meir Kahane.

Arens, judging by articles he has published here recently, holds that Israel must annex the territories and become a rather self-contradictory entity: a binational state that does not allow one of its two nations a political-collective expression. And Kahane, as we know, holds that Greater Israel also has to expel the individual members of that nation from the Land of Israel.

Nor should we forget people like Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya'alon (Likud ), Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beiteinu ) and Science and Technology Minister Daniel Hershkowitz (Habayit Hayehudi ), each of whom, in the space between Arens and Kahane, conducts his own band, playing his own variations on the theme of Jewish ownership of the Land of Israel.

How can the Arabs accept a demand to recognize Israel's Jewishness according to this interpretation of the demand's justice? How can they agree to a demand that assumes that their inferior existence, both within the State of Israel and throughout the Land of Israel, is not only a de facto reality they are forced to accept, but a matter of principle as well?

One of the arguments that leading American philosopher John Rawls used in support of his capitalist-moderating theory of justice over pure-capitalist theories is that requiring people to accept the latter means demanding that they accept, in advance, the possibility of leading miserable lives not just as a matter of bad luck, but out of a principled choice. Nobody would agree to that, thought Rawls, and rightly so.

In order for Israel to be able to demand that the Arabs recognize its Jewishness, both its leaders and a majority of its population must become accustomed to justifying its Jewishness not by means of a proprietary Judaism, but by means of an egalitarian Judaism.

A long time will pass before that happens, if it ever does. In the meantime, we must agree to divide the Land of Israel between a state that is primarily Jewish and a Palestinian state, without further humiliating the Palestinians by demanding that they acknowledge their humiliation as just.