Before Abbas Recognizes the Jewish State, Israel Must Define It

Is it Netanyahu and Lieberman’s Jewish state that alienates its Arab citizens, or Yitzhak Rabin’s inclusive Jewish state that dedicated itself, briefly, to true equality?

Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart
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Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart

I have a suggestion for Mahmoud Abbas. The next time Benjamin Netanyahu demands that you recognize Israel as a “Jewish state,” tell him that you’ll agree on one condition. The Israeli cabinet must first agree on what “Jewish state” means. That should get you off the hook for a good long while.

Israel has never been able to define the term “Jewish state.” That’s part of the reason it lacks a constitution. Nor, I suspect, can the leaders of Hillel, even though they urge local chapters to make supporting “a Jewish state” a litmus test for potential speakers.

In truth, there are as many definitions of “Jewish state” as there are definitions of “Jew.” For simplicity’s sake, let’s describe two, and imagine how Abbas might respond were Netanyahu to actually define the concept he’s asking the Palestinian leader to endorse.

Jewish State Number One rests on the conviction that given Jewish history, Jews need a state that safeguards Jewish life. To ensure that the state upholds this mission, Jews must maintain political power. And maintaining Jewish political power trumps pretty much everything else.

Such a state works aggressively to keep its non-Jewish population low and politically weak. It denies citizenship even to non-Jewish refugees fleeing extreme persecution. To prevent its Palestinian population from growing, it denies citizenship to West Bank Palestinians married to Israeli citizens. It delights in policies that reduce the birthrate among Palestinian citizens of Israel, as Netanyahu did in 2007, when as finance minister he noted that cuts in child welfare payments had had the “positive” effect of sparking “a dramatic drop in the birth rate” of the “non-Jewish public.” Such a state seriously considers redrawing Israel’s border so as to deposit Israel’s Palestinian citizens outside the state without their consent, as Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman famously proposed. It, of course, denies any Palestinians who left Israel during its war of independence the ability to return.

In addition to numerically limiting Israel’s non-Jewish population, Jewish State Number One limits their political influence. On ideological grounds, it seeks to ban Palestinian Israeli parties from running for the Knesset, as Lieberman’s associates have done. It insists that to be legitimate, governing coalitions must enjoy a Jewish parliamentary majority.

Given his actions, and the actions of his political allies, it’s pretty clear that this is the kind of Jewish state Netanyahu wants. It is a state from which Israel’s Palestinian citizens feel understandably alienated. And it’s a state that mocks the promise in Israel’s Declaration of Independence of “complete equality of social and political rights…irrespective of religion, race or sex.”

Were I Mahmoud Abbas, I’d say again and again that Jews have a profound historical connection to the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea and the right to live safely in any part of it. But if Netanyahu asked me to endorse Jewish State Number One, I’d tell him to stick it where the sun don’t shine.

Then there’s Jewish State Number Two. It starts with the same conviction: that given Jewish history, Jews need a state that safeguards Jewish life. It too acknowledges the value of Jewish political power, and even endorses non-coercive measures, like the promotion of aliyah, which boost Jewish numbers. But because it considers the state’s democratic character as important as its Jewish character, it rejects any measures that undermine the rights and dignity of Israel’s non-Jewish citizens.

When faced with brutalized asylum seekers, or West Bank Palestinians who seek to live inside Israel with their Israeli spouses, it prioritizes not Jewish demography but human decency. It takes pride in the birth of any new Israeli, whether he’s named Yosef or Yusuf, and seeks to give him an equal shot in life. It categorically rejects schemes to divest Palestinian Israelis of their citizenship. And it possesses the self-confidence to publicly acknowledge that the creation of the State of Israel—like the creation of the United States and many other countries—was a profound blessing for some and a historic tragedy for others.

Jewish State Number One does a better job of preserving Israel’s large Jewish majority. But Jewish State Number Two does a better job of creating a national identity inclusive enough to survive a declining Jewish majority. Jewish State Number One is the handiwork for Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman. The Israeli Prime Minister most supportive of Jewish State Number Two was Yitzhak Rabin, who between 1992 and 1995 doubled education spending for Palestinian citizens of Israel, ended the discrepancy between the amount Israel paid Jewish and Palestinian families per child, introduced affirmative action to boost the number of Palestinian citizens in Israel’s civil service and gave Palestinian Israeli parties an unofficial role in his government. Rabin’s death, explained Palestinian Israeli Knesset member Abdul Wahad Darawashe, “was the first time when Arabs mourned a Zionist leader” because Rabin “was the first and only [Zionist] leader who recognized the injustices of the past and actually worked to amend them…There was no [other] prime minister who looked at Arab politicians the way he did - face to face. That had an effect on the entire Arab street.”

What would happen were Abbas asked to recognize Jewish State Number Two? I don’t know. But I’d like to believe that if Israel’s leaders, following in Rabin’s path, made clear not only in words but in deeds that a Jewish state can safeguard the Jewish people while also dedicating itself to the full equality and dignity of all its people, Abbas’ opposition might soften.

Either way, the important thing isn’t whether non-Israelis endorse the idea of a Jewish state. It’s whether Israelis create a Jewish state worth endorsing. Wouldn’t it be nice if Benjamin Netanyahu devoted some energy to that?

Israeli flag on a hill near the West Bank settlement of Elazar, near Bethlehem.Credit: Reuters
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas Credit: AP

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