Jewish State and Egalitarian Zionism

The demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state adds yet another humiliation to all those they experience on a daily basis.

Chaim Gans
Chaim Gans
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Palestinians walk past an Israeli border police officer.
Palestinians walk past an Israeli border police officer.Credit: Reuters
Chaim Gans
Chaim Gans

Zionism has three families of interpretation: Property-related interpretations, which see the Jews as having a special status in the Land of Israel because it is Jewish property; hierarchical interpretations, where the Jews have a special status in Israel based on a reading of the universal right to national self-determination as a right to hegemony; and egalitarian interpretations, which see the Jews as having a special status in Israel based on considerations stemming from equality itself – such as the fact that they are a majority in Israel.

If the Palestinians must recognize Israel as a Jewish state, they should do so based only on the third interpretation of Zionism. And they must do so only if the egalitarian interpretation is actually fulfilled in the context of the constitutional concept of Israel and the domestic/foreign policy of its governments. Not before.

Most Israelis interpret Zionism mainly in the property-related or hierarchical sense. Even worse: Since the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel’s political leadership has been implementing property-related Zionism de facto. The governments of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – especially the previous one and even more so the present one – do so in the most blatant way imaginable. Housing and Construction Minister Uri Ariel does it on the ground; Economy Minister Naftali Bennett does it in spokesmanship; and Netanyahu himself does it in the diplomatic arena.

In light of that, the demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state adds yet another humiliation to the humiliations they experience on a daily basis, as a result of the implementation of property-related Zionism by the Israeli government. Because if Israel is Jewish according to that interpretation, if it is Jewish because the Land of Israel is Jewish property, then removing the Palestinians from their land in the territories and forcing them into a status of oppressed subtenants in Israel are matters of political principle rather than a whim of the settlers. And they are not only the story of the Palestinians’ past and present – they are also the story of their future.

Now they are being asked to participate in their self-debasement and declare that, as far as they are concerned, all the humiliations that have been their lot until now are justified, or at least acceptable, and will continue to be so in the future. After all, in what sense of Jewishness can the Israeli government demand of them to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, if not according to the Jewishness that it implements daily and considers its duty to implement? According to the Jewishness of Achad Ha’am? Of Chaim Weizmann? Or that in which I believe?

So, the Palestinians will have to recognize Israel’s Jewishness if it is interpreted based on egalitarian Zionism, and only if this interpretation of Zionism becomes the official and accepted interpretation for the Israeli leadership. According to egalitarian Zionism, the Arabs’ right to self-determination in historical Palestine is equal to the Jews’ right to self-determination in the Land of Israel. These are rights based on the universal right to self-determination, as interpreted in international law and by leading political philosophers.

This interpretation can lead to either one binational state or two states. If the two-state interpretation is chosen, on the demographic and political level one of them will be mainly Palestinian – if settlers remain in it – or entirely Palestinian (if settlers do not remain). The other state will be mainly Jewish – not entirely Jewish – because even if Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s ugly plan for a population transfer is implemented, a large Arab minority will remain in it.

The Palestinians will have to recognize a state that is mainly, but not entirely, Jewish; one based on egalitarian Zionism – if the Jews recognize it as such. The Arabs have no obligation to recognize such a state as long as the Jews don’t recognize it. On the other hand, Arabs will never be obligated to recognize the Jewish state recognized by the Jews – the one based on property-related Zionism – because it is exclusively Jewish and ignores the fact that they are a minority with national rights.

The writer is a professor in the Tel Aviv University law school and a fellow in Princeton University Center for Human Values. His books “A Just Zionism: On the Morality of the Jewish State” and “A Political Theory for the Jewish People” were published in Israel this year.

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