The “Jewish” question has become “the” question. Not so long ago – last month, to be precise – most writers and editors around the world felt free to use the words “the Jewish state” interchangeably with “Israel” whenever they needed a synonym. Those who really couldn’t bring themselves to write either “the Jewish state” or “Israel” used the term “the Zionist entity” – and never realized that Israelis did not take that as an insult. Now, all of a sudden, as the peace process stumbles on its bumpy way, whether Israel can legitimately call itself the Jewish state has become a matter of international debate. And that is among friends.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley a week ago had much publicized
difficulty answering with a simple yes or no regarding whether the US
recognizes Israel as a Jewish state. And as Jerusalem Post
diplomatic correspondent Herb Keinon reported on October 20, Matthew
Gould, the new British ambassador in Tel Aviv, was noncommittal
regarding London’s position on whether the Palestinians should recognize
Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, saying: “There are
certain issues that I think are best dealt with in the negotiations,
rather than trying to set up as an extra issue outside the
negotiations.” These issues, incidentally, do not include settlement
construction. On that he was unequivocal: It must stop now.
Gould did, however, note that the UN resolution that created Israel
referred to the establishment of two states, a Jewish and an Arab one,
and that “a democracy can call itself whatever it wants.”
Phew. I take that to mean that Gould accepts – at least for now – that
Israel is a democracy despite the massive fire we’ve drawn on this count
How we are known is not just a matter of semantics. It goes to the heart
of our very existence and, within the framework of the diplomatic
process, also reflects on whether the world thinks Israel should be
flooded with Palestinian “refugees” or whether an eventual Palestinian
state – whatever it calls itself – should absorb them just as the Jewish
state has taken in the Jews.
On the scale of things, though, I prefer discussion on the wording of
our national masthead to what usually happens when Israel tries to reach
a peace agreement. Past experience has shown that peace talks are
accompanied by a campaign of Palestinian terror. Delegitimization is
serious. It can really hurt, but it’s much easier to live with than
buses, restaurants and shopping malls blowing up.
Personally, I blame Bibi and Lieberman – and not just because that is
the fashionable thing to do. The insistence by the prime minister on
raising the matter of the precise nature of how we are known has had,
unfortunately, exactly the opposite effect to what he intended. Instead
of strengthening our status as a Jewish state – Der Judenstaat
or Medinat Hayehudim
that Theodor Herzl wrote about – it has brought it into question – “a subject for negotiation.”
At the same time, Israel Beiteinu leader and extraordinarily
undiplomatic Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman literally put Israel’s
standing as a Jewish and democratic state on the agenda with his demand
for a loyalty oath.
Binyamin Netanyahu has, at least, backtracked on Lieberman’s bill
following the vote in the cabinet. Perhaps he realizes its inherent
faults. More likely he was swayed by the powerful backlash.
To both of them, I would say: Pick your battles. Especially if you’re genuinely trying to reach peace.
To the world’s diplomats, officials and leaders caught up in this
suddenly critical struggle I say: Of course this is a Jewish state.
If Israel wasn’t a Jewish state – nay, the
Jewish state – nobody would care what we called ourselves. Does anyone
query France calling itself the French Republic? When was the last time
you read an article questioning Britain’s choice to refer to itself as
the United Kingdom, despite the aspirations of Scottish and Welsh
nationalists? And has the world community shown outrage about the queen
being defined as head of the Church of England? Or the Vatican as Roman
Catholic, for that matter.
Israel is the ultimate Jewish state – that’s what makes it both so
admired and reviled. We do chutzpah like no one else, not only surviving
but thriving against the odds.
Even the Arab MKs are “Jewish”: argumentative, inventive and more than a
little obsessed with being the victims. That’s what comes of living in a
true democracy. Parliamentarians are free to speak their minds and take
that freedom seriously. Ditto the press.
No wonder Israeli Arabs – even those who call themselves Palestinians –
aren’t jumping at Lieberman’s suggestion that some of the big cities in
which they live – Umm el-Fahm, for example – would ultimately pass to
Palestinian control while the Jewish blocs over the Green Line (Ariel,
Gush Etzion and Ma’aleh Adumim, for instance) would be recognized as an
integral part of Israel.
Because, yes, when it comes down to it, life in Israel – however much we
all complain – is good. Even complaining is part of who we are. We have
been described as Medinat Hakuterim
– the State of Whiners – and so far that title has not been contested, but you never know.
I’m concerned that at this rate Herzliya’s Rehov Medinat Hayehudim – The
Jewish State Street – might be forced by international pressure to
change its address. “Subject to Negotiation Boulevard” doesn’t have the
same ring to it; however, I expect the wider world could settle for
We might also have to excise all references to the Jewish state from the
Declaration of Independence, although how we can do that and remain a
free people in a free land is difficult to work out.
Several years ago, Israel Television broadcast a series called Medinat Hayehudim
depicting the development of the country’s comedy and satire industry.
There were many “only-in- Israel” moments created when Jewish history
met a Jewish sense of humor in a Jewish state – the iconic Zehu Zeh!
which we watched in semisealed rooms between missile attacks during the
Gulf War, for instance. Indeed, research has shown that the worse
things are, the better the work for Israeli satirists. “The greatest
periods of the country’s satire have been before, during or following
wars,” said one researcher, although I’m not sure what period is left.
Without any satirical intent, I’m not giving up on calling Israel “the Jewish state.”
And I’m not sure the world’s diplomatic community would accept my alternative – referring to Israel as “the Jewish homeland.”
It is, however, very Jewish. And it’s very much my home.The writer is editor of the
International Jerusalem Post. firstname.lastname@example.org