This op-ed first appeared in The Forward June 3, 2009
By Eric Yoffie
his recent visit to the United States, Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanhyahu repeated his demand that Palestinian recognition of Israel
as a Jewish state should be a precondition for talks aimed at achieving
a peace settlement. While such a request might seem reasonable -- after
all, Israel is a Jewish state -- it is actually a serious mistake.
of all, what does the term "Jewish state" mean? Does it refer, for
example, to a state governed completely or in part by Halacha, by
traditional Jewish law? Does it refer to a particular set of
linguistic, cultural and educational policies that the state will
adopt? In my experience, if you put a half-dozen Jewish Israelis in a
room and ask them what it means for Israel to be a Jewish state, you
will receive four or five different answers, along with at least one
indignant insistence that the phrase has no meaning whatsoever. Debates
among American Jews on the topic are no less heated.
ongoing debates about the meaning of a Jewish state are good for
Israel, as are the serious and intense discussions taking place about
the proper relationship of a Jewish state to its non-Jewish minority.
These are highly charged issues that will not be resolved easily or
soon. But making the debate a part of the diplomatic landscape is a
decidedly bad idea.
that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state could backfire
from a public relations perspective. The United States is a
multi-religious, multicultural democracy in which church-state
separation is a sacred principle. The phrase "Jewish state," absent
more precise definition and context, is likely to grate on American
more, the term raises questions about the status of Muslim and
Christian citizens in the State of Israel. Even though Israel's
Declaration of Independence guarantees all citizens full political and
civil rights, Israel's enemies might seize upon demands for recognition
of Israel as a Jewish state to unfairly impugn its democratic bona
this matter now also has created suspicion in America that Israel is
engaged in a rhetorical dodge meant to delay negotiations. (The same
can be said of the current Israeli government's refusal to recognize
the long-established principle of a two-state solution.) Such tactics
have allowed others to depict Israel as the holdout and to shift
attention away from Palestinian intransigence, which remains the major
obstacle to Palestinian independence.
there is a more profound reason why this demand is ultimately bad for
Israel: It flies in the face of the very principles that animated the
movement to create and sustain a Jewish state.
is about the Jewish people taking control of its destiny and
determining for itself what kind of nation Israel should be. As a
matter of principle and national honor, Israel has never ceded this
right to Palestinian or other Arab leaders. Indeed, no previous Israeli
government has demanded that its Arab neighbors affirm the Jewish
character of the state. Israel has made peace with two Arab countries --
Egypt and Jordan -- without including such a demand in the terms of the
task of Israel's government is not to gain "recognition" of its Jewish
character from anyone, friend or foe. Its job is to guarantee a stable
Jewish majority that will enable the Jewish state to continue to
develop and evolve in a democratic fashion as well as to ensure
Israel's Jewish character for the future.
this front, Israel has much more important diplomatic battles to fight.
For instance, the demand that Arab refugees be settled in Israel under
the "right of return" would undermine Israel's Jewish majority. Israel
should oppose such a right for even a single refugee as part of an
agreement with the Palestinians.
matters such as this should be the focus of Israel's diplomatic
efforts. That is the best way of protecting Israel's future as a Jewish
Rabbi Eric Yoffie is president of the Union for Reform Judaism