September 18, 2019

Sari Nusseibeh’s Critique of Israel as a “Jewish State”

My friend, Rabbi Stanley Davids, writes from Jerusalem in response to my review of Sari Nusseibeh’s autobiography Once Upon A Country – A Palestinian Life and referred me to a recent article in the English language Al Jazeera in which Dr. Nusseibeh critiques the Israeli government’s demand that the Palestinians accept Israel as a “Jewish state.”

In my review of Once Upon A Country I quoted Dr. Nusseibeh: “Palestinians need to know that to get their state requires acknowledging the moral right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state.” (p. 446)

In his Al Jazeera piece, however, Dr. Nusseibeh argues that Israel’s own stated claim to be a democracy that is inclusive with equal rights for all its citizens (e.g. Israeli Jews, Israeli Palestinians, Muslims, Christians, secular, etc.) demands that Israel not be defined as a “Jewish state.”

The current debate about the nature of Israel as a Jewish state and democracy, in fairness, was initiated by the current Israeli government when it demanded that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a “Jewish state.” Dr. Nusseibeh’s article shines a light on the inherent problems in this demand not only for Palestinians and other non-Jewish citizens but for Israeli democracy. It is one thing, he says, to call Israel the “homeland of the Jewish people” (which he supports) and quite another to call it a “Jewish state” (which he does not support). One points to a people at home in its land and the other to a modern political entity.

In Al Jazeera Dr. Nusseibeh wrote:

“In short, recognition of Israel as a ‘Jewish State’ in Israel is not the same as, say, recognition of Greece today as a ‘Christian State.’ It entails, in the Old Testament itself, a Covenant between God and a Chosen People regarding a Promised Land that should be taken by force at the expense of the other inhabitants of the land and of non-Jews. This idea is not present as such in other religions that we know of. Moreover, even secular and progressive voices in Israel, such as former president of the Supreme Court of Israel, Aharon Barak, understand the concept of a ‘Jewish State’ as follows:

‘[The] Jewish State is the state of the Jewish people … it is a state in which every Jew has the right to return … a Jewish state derives its values from its religious heritage, the Bible is the basic of its books and Israel’s prophets are the basis of its morality … a Jewish state is a state in which the values of Israel, Torah, Jewish heritage and the values of the Jewish halacha [religious law] are the bases of its values.’ (‘A State in Emergency’, Ha’aretz, 19 June, 2005.)

So, rather than demand that Palestinians recognise Israel as a ‘Jewish State’ as such – adding ‘beyond chutzpah’ to insult and injury – we offer the suggestion that Israeli leaders ask instead that Palestinians recognise Israel (proper) as a civil, democratic, and pluralistic state whose official religion is Judaism, and whose majority is Jewish. Many states (including Israel’s neighbours Jordan and Egypt, and countries such as Greece) have their official religion as Christianity or Islam (but grant equal civil rights to all citizens) and there is no reason why Israeli Jews should not want the religion of their state to be officially Jewish. This is a reasonable demand, and it may allay the fears of Jewish Israelis about becoming a minority in Israel, and at the same time not arouse fears among Palestinians and Arabs about being ethnically cleansed in Palestine. Demanding the recognition of Israel’s official religion as Judaism, rather than the recognition of Israel as a ‘Jewish State’, would also mean Israel continuing to be a democracy.”

Should Israel do as Dr. Nusseibeh suggests raises important issues that would need to be clarified including the Jewish right of return, the right of return for Palestinian refugees, who is obligated to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces, taxation and equal distribution of tax revenues, etc. Some of these problems can be accommodated in a two states for two peoples resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, such as the right of return.

Dr. Ahmad Tibi, a Palestinian member of the Israeli Knesset who leads his party, the Arab Movement for Change, put it poignantly and painfully this way: “Israel is Jewish and democratic – Jewish for the Arabs and democratic for the Jews.”