U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has apparently bought into Jerusalem’s demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state — not as a precondition to peace negotiations, which are well under way again, but as a necessary outcome of them. A senior Palestinian official reportedly dismissed this position cavalierly, comparing it to recognition of America as a state of white Christians. Usually, one hears a more sophisticated and nuanced response from Palestinian leaders, namely, that it is not up to them, but rather up to the Israeli people to define the nature of their state.
What lies behind Benjamin Netanyahu’s insistence on this point? Is it simply a ploy by a reluctant prime minister to prevent negotiations from succeeding, as some on the political left assert? After all, it is argued, Israel reached peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan without such a demand. Why add this complicating element now to the negotiations with the Palestinians?
Palestinian leaders are right that Israeli citizens are empowered to define the nature of their state. That is the meaning of self-determination. But this is not the point. Fulfillment of this demand for recognition of Israel as a Jewish state — which is really about mutuality since Israel already recognized the legitimate right of the Palestinian people to self-determination — is a prerequisite for genuine reconciliation, and it should enjoy full support from peace supporters across the political spectrum.
I like to use the metaphor of two families living together in one house, representing the Jewish and Palestinian national movements occupying the small tract of land between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea. Yes, it is true that there will be no peace unless and until a permanent border can be drawn separating these two peoples. The border is necessary, but not sufficient. If, after a border is drawn, current and future generations are taught that members of the other family sharing the house are not there by right, have no legitimate claim, are essentially thieves, interlopers — simply there because eviction was impossible or impractical — the seeds of future conflict will continue to be sown. The Egyptians and Jordanians were not residents in this metaphoric house. That is why recognition of the legitimacy of Jewish nationalism by them was ultimately unnecessary, thought it may have been desirable,
It is critically important that we in the Jewish community fully embrace this recognition in the peacemaking process and integrate it into our advocacy with decision makers, opinion molders and members of the public. And it is not enough simply to assert the fact of the Jewish state. We have to be able to persuasively articulate why Jews are a national people, with shared culture, language and history, more akin to the Italians or Irish than to Christians or Muslims. It is important to communicate that modern Zionism and the creation of Israel are the culmination of an unbroken multi-millennial connection between Jews and the land of Israel; to stress that the Jewish people’s right of national self-determination has received overwhelming international approval legitimacy at the United Nations, and formal recognition by the majority of nations; and to explain why the existence of a sizable minority of mostly Arab non-Jews in Israel creates tensions and ambiguities, but does not detract from Israel’s identity as the nation state of the Jewish people.
This issue’s relevance is not limited to the negotiations in the Middle East. There is a direct line to the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement’s global campaign to delegitimize Israel. The movement’s leader, Omar Barghouti, co-authored the 2007 One State Declaration that defines Israel as an inherently racist state. It is not referring to settlements, or the separation barrier, or alleged human rights abuses. No, Israel’s sin is its basic Zionist identity. This rejection of Jewish national self-determination is the engine driving resolutions calling for boycotts against Israel, whether in the American Public Health Association, where a boycott initiative was defeated, or in the much smaller American Studies Association, where a boycott vote was successful.
There also is a direct line to the situation at Swarthmore’s Hillel. First Amendment protection of free speech requires that anti-Zionist speakers and programs, however odious, be allowed into the community and campus public squares. At the same time, Hillel’s new president, Eric Fingerhut, rightly insisted that any affiliate bearing his institution’s name should not be used as a vehicle to advance the BDS movement’s agenda to delegitimize Israel. At the same time we do not want to chill unfettered and open discussions about difficult Israel-related issues within the Jewish community, especially on college campuses. Differences of opinion should be respected, and the younger generation needs to have an environment that promotes inquiry. Our diversity is our strength, not our weakness. However, on the fundamental question of Israel’s identity as the one and only nation-state of the Jewish people, we must stand united.
Martin Raffel is senior vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.