Israel's Unresolved Democracy Problem: How Can the Palestinians Recognize a Jewish State If Israelis Don't Know What That Means?

By Breger, Marshall | Moment, March-April 2014 | Go to article overview

Israel's Unresolved Democracy Problem: How Can the Palestinians Recognize a Jewish State If Israelis Don't Know What That Means?


Breger, Marshall, Moment


MARSHALL BREGER

In 1958, David Ben-Gurion wrote to 47 leading Jewish intellectuals--or, as he phrased it, "Sages of Israel"--asking for their understanding of the relationship between Jewish and national identity. The respondents included Abraham Joshua He-schel, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Felix Frankfurter and Isaiah Berlin; their answers reflected the rich pluralism of Jewish life throughout the world. But this wasn't merely an intellectual exercise. Ten years after the founding of the State of Israel, even its prime minister was unsure how to define the country's Jewish character.

That question has recently taken on geopolitical relevance as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demands that the Pal-estinians not only recognize the State of Israel hut accept it as a "Jewish state." Even U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry adopted that locution in his latest peace process framework. For some, this demand is a ploy to throw a spanner into any peace negotiations by forcing the Palestinian Authority to--in its view--abandon the Arabs living in Israel. But for most it meets a psychological rather than a legal or strategic need. It is a way of saving that Israel will never allow itself to become a bi-national state--that is to say, a single "state of all its citizens" in which both Arabs and Jews have full voting rights. For many, the demand for the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state is designed to lock in the status quo in case of increasing Zionist fatigue among Jews or a rising demographic tide among Arabs.

The canonical texts do not fully resolve the question. The Balfour Declaration, of course, spoke of "a national home for the Jewish people." (Earlier drafts were more forceful, asserting that "Palestine would be reconstituted as the National Home of the Jewish People.") The Israeli Declaration of Independence in 1948 declared "the Jewish State in Palestine." But does this mean a state of Jews or a state for Jews?

Marshall Breger is a professor of law at Catholic University.

The plain meaning would suggest a state based on some understanding of Jewish character or belief. For many religious Jews, that means a state based on halacha, or Jewish law. This was the goal of rabbis such as Kopel Kahana, a World War II refugee and professor at Cambridge and at Jews' College in London, who argued, "that a civilized people should administer its own laws in its own country is a proposition ... which should not call for discussion." This is also the view today of most haredim and many religious Zionists.

But the idea that Israel's laws should be controlled by halacha is anything but mainstream, even among the religious. Religious Zionism traditionally sees the Jewish state as a sign of the fulfillment of the biblical promise to Abraham and indeed as a sign that the Messianic promise will ultimately be fulfilled. Even Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935), the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Palestine under the British Mandate, viewed the irreligious kibbutzniks as part of God's plan for the people of Israel whether they knew it or not. …

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