On the Difficulty of Recognizing the Jewish State of Israel

From the simple recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, peace and a Palestinian state follow. The chief geopolitical excruciation of our time, the Palestinian obsession of the United Nations, the rancor of millions who thrive on demonizing either Israel or Palestinians — all of it shrivels if Palestinians and surrounding Arab states simply recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.

But that single, simple step to peace remains elusive. Why?

Note that I am urging Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, not merely Israel’s right to exist. The extremists who cannot even acknowledge Israel’s rudimentary right to exist are part of the permanent insurgency against peace and human decency. They will never entirely disappear, but they can be marginalized.

The question of recognizing Israel as a Jewish state is more complicated. It would mean, for example, giving up any Palestinian “right of return” to Israel. Asking Israel to absorb potentially millions, or even hundreds of thousands, of Palestinian refugees in Israel would be an invitation to geopolitical suicide. Eventually, Israel’s Jews would be a minority population. Israel’s Jews cannot become a minority population, for there would then be no defensible homeland for the Jews. Jews would again become beholden to a fickle majority, as they were in Europe and Russia — and to every Jew who vows to remember, this cannot happen. Never again.

We melting-pot Americans are not accustomed to thinking of states as ethnic enclaves — even though they often are. We would chafe at the notion of Guatemala as a Mayan state or Kenya as Kikuyu state. But the viability of Israel as a Jewish state is a special case, rooted in excruciating history.

Think of the Middle East as a football field. Think of Israel and Palestine as two wee postage stamps on this football field. The scale is important for the history that follows.

On October 4, 1946, President Truman issued a statement declaring United States support for creation of a “viable Jewish state.” On November 29, 1947, the United Nations General Assembly approved a partition plan that divided the tiny area into three entities: a Jewish state, an Arab state, and an international zone around Jerusalem.

Jews accepted this internationally-sanctioned partition. Arabs did not. At this crucial inception of Israel, there was never any international question that the tiny nation of Israel would be a Jewish state.

There was a sound reason for this tiny new state, and a sound reason that it be Jewish. In 1946, there were still tens of thousands of displaced Jews in Europe, survivors of the Holocaust. The thriving Jewish communities of Europe were all but wiped out. The Nazi machine killed six million Jews and produced a new word: genocide. But the defeat of the Nazis did not defeat homicidal anti-Semitism. Jewish refugees attempting to return to their European homes met murderous bigotry.

The middle 20th-century put to rest forever the notion that Jews, as a minority, could rely on the good will of their host nations. Good and patriotic German Jews, good and patriotic Polish Jews, good and patriotic Hungarian Jews — all died in the gas chambers, or were killed by locals when they tried to return.

Jews needed their own place to live. Their original homeland, the place that gave rise to the Bible, the place where they had a continuous presence for thousands of years, the place where Jews had been going for decades and transforming the land, made sense.

The world understood this in 1947. The world understood that Jews needed one place that they controlled, one place where pogroms were impossible, one place where Jews could be Jews without apology and obsequiousness. The world understood that the people who had suffered the most horrific slaughtering in human history had earned a place of their own.

Arabs also lived in this land. Indeed, Arabs, Jews and Christians had been living side-by-side for quite some time in what was then the British Mandate. And so the world did not give it all to the Jews. The world split it between Arabs and Jews. It was the solution to which everyone now aspires: a Jewish state and an Arab state. Yes, 64 years ago, the world solved the Middle East problem.

The Jews said yes, but the Arabs balked. On May 14, 1948, David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, proclaimed the existence of a Jewish state called Israel. President Truman’s administration immediately issued the following statement: “This Government has been informed that a Jewish state has been proclaimed in Palestine, and recognition has been requested by the provisional government thereof. The United States recognizes the provisional government as the de facto authority of the State of Israel.”

On May 15th, Arab states issued their response statement, and Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq attacked the new state of Israel, aided by volunteers from Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Libya. It could have been over for Israel then. It very nearly was. The football field attacked the postage stamp with determination to wipe it out.

Meanwhile, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, declared a new genocide against the Jews: “kill the Jews wherever you find them — this serves God.” He really meant it. He had passed the world war with fascists, and while a guest of fascist Italy in 1941, he submitted to the German government a draft declaration of German-Arab cooperation, stating:

Germany and Italy recognize the right of the Arab countries to solve the question of the Jewish elements, which exist in Palestine and in the other Arab countries, as required by the national and ethnic (völkisch) interests of the Arabs, and as the Jewish question was solved in Germany and Italy.

Had the Nazis prevailed in North Africa (they didn’t), they had a plan to exterminate Palestinian Jews and prevent the establishment of a Jewish state, and “the most important collaborator with the Nazis and an absolute Arab anti-Semite was Haj Amin al-Husseini, the mufti of Jerusalem.” Many honorable Palestinians refused to take up arms against the Jews because of their disgust with Haj Amin al-Husseini.

The fledgling state of Israel survived, barely, the attack of every surrounding Arab country. Israel survived again in 1967 and 1973, when Arab regimes attacked Israel with intent to destroy it. The violations of international law, never mind human decency, in these attacks are legion.

Meanwhile, Arab states set about dealing with their Jewish populations, and it wasn’t pretty. Most of Yemeni and Adeni Jews, some 50,000, were evacuated between 1949-1950 in fear of their security. 150,000 Iraqi and Kurdish Jews were encouraged to leave in 1950 by the Iraqi Government, which ordered in 1951 “the expulsion of Jews who refused to sign a statement of anti-Zionism.” The Jews of Egypt began fleeing the country in 1948, and most of the remaining, some 25,000, were expelled in 1956. The Jews of Algeria were deprived of their citizenship in 1962.

So Jews were being systematically kicked out of Arab countries, typically without their property. There could have been a “Jewish refugee” problem exceeding the “Palestinian refugee” problem. But there wasn’t because Israel of course accepted the 800,000-1,000,000 Jews kicked out of Arab countries. Palestinian refugees, meanwhile, suffered horrible deprivations of basic rights by their host countries.

Over 400,000 Palestinian refugees live in Lebanon, and they are barred from 73 job categories including professions such as medicine, law and engineering. They are not allowed to own property, and even need a special permit to leave their refugee camps. Unlike other foreigners in Lebanon, they are denied access to the Lebanese health care system. The Lebanese government refused to grant them work permits or permission to own land.

The Arab League has instructed its members to deny citizenship to Palestinian Arab refugees (or their descendants) “to avoid dissolution of their identity and protect their right to return to their homeland.” In other words, Palestinian refugees are pure politics for Arab League members. And that is why the most free Palestinians live in America and Israel.

If I were Palestinian — and sometimes I wish I were just for the test of my character in the teeth of oppression and suffering — I believe I would be skeptical of my Arab brothers and their cynical anti-Semitism, and I believe I would say yes, let there be a Jewish state and a Palestinian state so that I could at least begin to control my own destiny, and I would cease to be a pawn in the games of nations that have done nothing for me except exploit my victim status.

Israel must be a Jewish state. There must be a homeland for Jews. And there must be a homeland for Palestinians. We have not evolved beyond ethnic thinking and ethnic hatred. That will take a while. Meanwhile, there can be peace, accounting for ethnic hatreds — but it must begin with recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.

And acceptance of a Jewish state begins with understanding of what happened to Jews. The Holocaust must become real to Palestinians. In the New York Times, Palestinian social scientist Mohammed S. Dajani Doudi and Jewish-American historian Robert Satloff write:

But Palestinians, and Arabs more generally, know little about the Holocaust and what they do know is often skewed by the perverted prism of Arab popular culture, from the ranting of religious extremists to the distortions of certain satellite television channels to the many ill-informed authors. What happened to the Jews during World War II is not taught in Arab schools or universities, either as part of world history or as a lesson in genocide awareness or as an atrocity that ought not to be repeated.

* * *

Almost two years ago millions of Muslim Arabs listened carefully when President Barack Obama, speaking in Cairo, respectfully recited sentences from the Koran and proclaimed America’s endorsement of a two-state solution to achieve a durable Israeli-Palestinian peace. Few, however, remember that he also condemned Holocaust denial. Now that the Arab masses are applying the universal lessons of democracy, human rights and the rule of law in taking down their authoritarian governments, it is time they take back the learning of history, too. That includes teaching their children the universal lessons of the Holocaust.

History, true history, is almost always painful. Understanding why Israel must be a Jewish state is painful. Jews in Israel cannot ever again submit to the tolerance of a host culture. That is absolute.

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4 Responses to On the Difficulty of Recognizing the Jewish State of Israel

  1. Noam W. says:

    Kendrick,

    Interesting post. My fiancee (Laura A.) drew my attention to it.

    I appreciate your call for the two state solution, a resolution for the conflict that I too am very much in favor of.

    I too agree that to have the Palestinian refugees return to Israel would be the end of Israel as it now exists. But I have a hard time with the definition of a Jewish state. For more than one reason.

    First, as an Israeli who has been dealing with this issue for many years, I have to say I am not 100% sure what a Jewish state really is. For many Israelis, a Jewish state means a Halkhaic state in which the laws of god rather than the laws of men reign supreme. As a result of the particular situation of judaism, which is a religion, a nationality, and an ethnic identity – Jewish is a potentially dangerous determination for a nationality.

    I don’t know how aware you are of this, but as it already stands now, some aspects of our lives are controlled, because of political compromises made in the past, by religious law. For example, it is not possible for me to marry Laura in Israel because we are not of the same faith. There is no civil marriage or union of any sort, and only the strictest of orthodox conversion is considered legitimate.

    Second, approximately 20% of the population of Israel is not Jewish. They are Israeli, many of them serve in the army, they all pay taxes (well – at least to the extent that all the Jewish population pays taxes) and they ought to be able to feel part of Israel just like everybody else. Stating that Israel is a Jewish state excludes them from being a part of the nation. As always, exclusions of this sort start with hurt feelings, but very quickly devolve into a sad sort of separate but equal.

    Third, there is something inherently unhealthy about claiming that Israel must act to maintain a Jewish majority. What are we, what are you, willing to do in order to maintain this majority? Do you really want to control population growth?

    Bottom line, let’s not spill the democratic water with the Jewish baby. Israel has a right to exist as a safe haven for Jewish people, and maintain its Israeli character without being a “Jewish” state. The Jewishness of Israel is such a contentious issue inside the country, that it would probably be better to let it alone.

    Noam W.

    • Thanks Noam. I appreciate your insights, especially as an Israeli. Several thoughts. First, I am of course speaking of “Jewish” as an ethnicity, not a religion. Many Jews in Israel are agnostic or atheist. Second, having married an Israeli woman (we’re now divorced) after converting to Judaism through a reform rabbi and having a reform rabbi conduct our wedding ceremony, I’m painfully aware of the issues you raise about excessive religious control as a consequence of past compromises. I would never promote even more religious control of Israeli lifestyles or politics.

      Third, your point about what we would be willing to do to maintain a Jewish majority is profound. I’m obliged to clarify that I am not proposing population control — other than making it easier for Jews to immigrate to Israel through the right of return. I am proposing, precisely as you do, that “Israel has a right to exist as a safe haven for Jewish people.” And I am suggesting that that right effectively disappears if Jews become a minority in Israel. My shorthand for that proposition is recognizing Israel as a Jewish state. You are correct to note the ambiguities and controversies of that phrase, and I appreciate the opportunity to clarify what I mean and do not mean. Perhaps “majority Jewish state” would have solved certain of the controversies, but it might have created new ones. And finally, I am suggesting that the tension with democracy is real, but necessary, given the unique historical imperative of a safe haven for Jews.

  2. lbwoodgate says:

    I’ve gained a bit more insight into this issue Kendrick thanks to your post, Noam’s comments and your response to those comments. Thanks

  3. amsocialist says:

    There is no need for Israel to be a jewish state. Why do the jews have any right to that land over the Palestinians? I am against all nationalisms, jewish nationalism as it exists anywhere else, in every cases nationalism causes another group to be oppressed, in this case the Israelis oppress the Palestinians.

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