A Jewish Nation-state Is for Israelis With Identity Anxiety

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Benjamin Netanyahu at the Western Wall, giving free rein to his anxiety. Credit: Mark Israel Salem

“They’ve forgotten what it is to be Jewish,” Benjamin Netanyahu whispered into the not particularly attentive ear of Rabbi Yitzhak Kadouri back in 1997. “They” referred to pork-eating, leftist, holier-than-thou Israelis, at least half the population (minus the Arabs, who are not yet required to be Jewish). Real Jews, a la Netanyahu, are those whose Israeli identity is an outgrowth of their Judaism, so no Israeli identity can be anything but Jewish.

It’s therefore only natural that real Jews must fight the concept of “a state for all its citizens,” because that phrase embodies a terrible threat. It negates the existence of the state as a state for Jews only and voids the pretext for its existence as a refuge for Jews alone.

It’s an ambitious, essentialist-to-the-point-of-racist form of nationalism, neither less nor more than Palestinian nationalism. Palestine, similarly, is meant to become the state of the Palestinian people alone and a refuge for its millions of refugees, no other.

Ostensibly, like the Palestinians, Israel should have the right to demand recognition of its religious nationalism. But a vast chasm separates the Palestinian demand and the Jewish one. While the nationality and identity of the “Jewish state” (as distinct from the State of Israel) stem from Judaism, a divine promise and a tragic history of anti-Semitism, the Palestinian narrative and identity rest heavily on the dual history of the Palestinian people and the Zionist movement.

Unlike the Jewish demand for recognition of the Jewish Republic of Israel – to borrow from Pakistan’s and Iran’s official names – the Palestinians are demanding recognition of the Nakba, the tragedy that gave birth to the refugee problem, the historical narrative that describes the loss of Palestinian territory. Israel has never recognized any of these and apparently doesn't intend to do so anytime soon.

The Jewish fear is that recognition of Zionism’s responsibility for its part in the Palestinian narrative will entail not only demands for compensation and perpetuate the Palestinian dream of returning to the Jewish country. It will also prevent the end of the conflict.

This claim has no basis in reality. Israel never forgave or forgot Germany, which accepted full responsibility for its crimes, yet there is no conflict between the two countries. Vietnam never forgave or forgot the horrors of the war waged on it, but its conflict with the United States waned over time, as did the national struggle between Algeria and France, and between many African nations and their colonial rulers.

Israel cannot erase the collective Palestinian memory, nor can it wipe out the anger and lust for vengeance felt by many Palestinians, some of whom still live in refugee camps outside Palestine, and some of whom visit their beloved at cemeteries in the West Bank or Israeli jails. But unlike people, states don’t seek vengeance. They resolve their conflicts through treaties.

Thus, the Jewish refusal to recognize a Palestinian state and the demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel’s exclusively Jewish nature mustn’t be seen only as a political ruse meant to derail the negotiations. The demand to recognize the Jewish Republic of Israel stems from anxiety about the country’s identity. It’s meant to define for Israelis – via the Palestinians, ironically – the Jewish nature of their state. It’s a fundamental part of the heritage that Netanyahu wants to instill in the Jewish people.

Netanyahu’s demand for recognition of Israel as a Jewish state is of a piece with inculcating Jewish heritage in all the various ways: visits to West Bank settlements and the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, a tendentious civics curriculum, laws that favor Jews over minorities, and especially the systematic cleansing of the Palestinian narrative from the Jewish school system.

Even more dangerous is that his demand for recognition of Israel as a Jewish state threatens Israeli identity, for it’s becoming more and more constricted within the confines of a Jewish nationalist identity, one that won’t let any Israeli forget what it is to be Jewish.