PostScript: Leave religion out of it

And do we really need Palestinian recognition of a Jewish state that does not formally recognize the Jewishness of many of its own citizens?

Mahmoud Abbas with Muammar Gaddafi 311 (R) (photo credit: Reuters)
Mahmoud Abbas with Muammar Gaddafi 311 (R)
(photo credit: Reuters)
I was at a seminar in Tel Aviv a while back when one the speakers, Dr. Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian negotiator, was giving his view of how to resolve the Israel- Palestinian conflict: a two-state solution along the 1967 borders, appropriate land swaps, even the suggestion that Jewish individuals who wanted to continue living on the West Bank could do so as law-abiding citizens.
Then, like a bolt of unexpected lightning out of the largely academic and mature audience, came a shout from a man, who also happens to be a senior government official: “What about recognition of Israel as a Jewish state?” he demanded to know.
The demand, that the Palestinians give Israel a hechsher as a Jewish state, is obviously intended as another spoke in the wheels of any peace process, as if there were one, and indeed has become the mantra of those who want to ensure that a peace agreement that involves a Palestinian state on the West Bank never takes place. The goal is politically kosher, but the means is not. At present, Muslims, Christians, Baha’is and Mormons have more freedom of religion in Israel than non- Orthodox Jews do. At least they can marry and bury their own.
What type of Jewish state exactly are we asking the Palestinians to recognize? The one envisioned by Eli Yishai, the perennial cabinet minister from Shas, who told a prime-time radio interviewer that Reform Jews, because they are “guilty of taking God’s name in vain,” were theoretically liable of being stoned to death.
Why get the Palestinians involved in Israeli internal affairs? Surely the Jewishness of Israel is up to the Jews to decide, or certainly those who live within it and who, astoundingly, do still not recognize the Jewishness of the progressive Jews outside Israel, though they constitute the majority of the Diaspora Jewish community.
And do we really need Palestinian recognition of a Jewish state that does not formally recognize the Jewishness of many of its own citizens, including tens of thousands who came as immigrants years ago from the former Soviet Union and have since become productive members of Israeli society?
I have heard the demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state from the prime minister himself. I wondered then, and wonder now, what he meant. Recognition in the context of a peace agreement between two countries is an issue of sovereignty, not religion; Jewish is a religion, not a country or national entity. By recognizing Israel as Israel, the Palestinians we are demanding this from would be recognizing Israel as the de facto homeland of the Jewish people.
Imagine if, and perhaps when, Hamas takes over as part of a peace treaty that they demand “verbal parity” with Israel as a “Jewish state” and demand, in return, that we recognize them as the “Islamic State of Palestine.” That’s all we need.
Muammar Gaddafi demanded that he be recognized, among other things, as “King of Kings of Africa,” and look where that got him.
With the demand that Israel be recognized as a Jewish state” precedents are created and a Pandora’s Box opened that would better be left closed. And if we want to get down to brass tacks, it would be far better if Israel were to recognize the legitimate rights of progressive Jewry both in Israel and abroad, and deal with the issues confronting those Israelis to whom religious affiliation continues to be denied.
Israel has done enough on the treadmill of peace and its officials do not have to spend time looking for more excuses to go nowhere. Instead, when demanding that Israel be recognized as a Jewish state they may want to first ingest the story I read in this newspaper’s local edition two weeks ago. An article in In Jerusalem lauded that there had been an increase of 200 pupils in the secular and national religious school systems in Jerusalem, this in the face of all predictions to the contrary due to a secular exodus from the city. Then I read the following three times to make sure it was not a mistake. By the same count, the number of children in the haredi school system in Israel’s capital went up by 9,000 students – a ratio of 45 to one in a school system where some of the subjects essential for a better and self-sufficient future are not taught.
It seems very unfortunate at this time, when Israel is fighting for its international legitimacy, that its leaders would take the apparently self-defeating anachronistic step of wanting it to be recognized as what some would see as a theocracy, and not the shining beacon of rational democracy in the Middle East it can so proudly claim to be.

The writer is a senior research associate at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. His most recent book, The Anatomy of Israel’s Survival, was published by PublicAffairs, New York, this fall.