Not Buying Into Netanyahu's 'Jewish State'

Netanyahu’s insistence on recognition of Israel as the 'Jewish state’ reflects his imperious version of Zionism - which he is trying to force down Palestinian throats.

Amos Ben Gershom

In Israeli political conversation one often encounters a much-used maxim: "He [an Arab leader who has offered a concession] is not a member of the Zionist executive, you know. And he's not planning to become one"

In other words, the concession, if it is indeed real, flows out of the Arab country's interests, not out of its leader's conversion to Zionist belief, a scenario that is evoked as a sort of joke. The Arab leaders have their own narrative and they aren't suddenly buying into Israel's.

This maxim is didactic as well as amusing. It has helped generations of Israelis to understand where they are in the world, in relation to regional rivals.

Not anymore. Not since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has actually begun demanding from the Palestinians – and presumably from the Jews, too - that they accept and endorse his version of Zionist belief regarding the identity and historical role of the modern-day state of Israel.

"Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, where the civil rights of all citizens, Jews and non-Jews alike, are guaranteed," is how Netanyahu detailed his demand in his speech to AIPAC last week. "The land of Israel is the place where the identity of the Jewish people was forged. It was in Hebron that Abraham blocked the cave of the Patriarchs and the Matriarchs. It was in Beit El that Jacob dreamed his dreams. It was in Jerusalem that David ruled his kingdom. We never forget that, but it’s time the Palestinians stopped denying history."

The Palestinians, of course, flatly deny that the Bible stories are history or that they give Israel a claim over the Holy Land. They deny that modern-day Israel is the real-estate successor of Biblical Israel.

But so do some Jews. They love Israel and are loyal and devoted to it not because its present leader or previous Zionist leaders declared it to be "the nation-state of the Jewish people," but rather as the strongly and determinedly defended haven for all Jews everywhere in the wake of the Holocaust, and as the one state where the Jewish religion and Jewish culture are central components of the national ethos.

That makes them Zionist, but with no allegiance to Netanyahu's imperious version of Zionism, nor to his effort to force it down Palestinian throats.

This article is not directed personally against Netanyahu. We have yet to grow a prime minister, and are unlikely to, whom anyone could seriously compare with the prophesies and prescriptions of leadership spelled out in the Bible. That goes for our rabbis too. It prevents serious believers in the Bible from equating the divinely restored state prophesied there with the state of Ben-Gurion and Begin – and Netanyahu. 

Regarding the present Israeli-Palestinian impasse, many Israelis and Palestinians believe that Netanyahu's broaching of the “Jewish state” issue was intended deliberately to slow the negotiations or thwart an agreement. He must surely have known that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would spurn his demand on the grounds that the definition “Jewish state” could imply an abandonment of the rights and claims of Israeli Arabs and of the Palestinian refugees.

So is today's Israel "the nation-state of the Jewish people?" A lot of Jewish people, the center of whose lives is abroad, clearly do not think so. Many Israelis, too, have problems with Netanyahu's domineering view of Israel's past and present – but most especially with his insistence on the Palestinians, hopefully our partners in peace and pragmatism, becoming members of the Zionist executive.