Friday, 16 May 2014

Israel is a Jewish State. Okay, Now Tell Us Something We Don't Know.

Anyone who knows anything about Israel surely knows that it was intended to be a Jewish state; the national homeland of the Jewish people.  Its Declaration of Independence proclaims it to be a Jewish state.  Its flag is a Jewish flag, its coat of arms is a Jewish coat of arms, and its national anthem is a Jewish anthem.  Furthermore, whenever the media refers to Israel, they frequently refer to it as the Jewish state.  Yes, I know that Israel is the only Jewish state in the entire world.  Then again, Estonia is the only Estonian state in the entire world, so why doesn't the press ever refer to it as "the Estonian state".  Okay, maybe Estonia doesn't get a lot of press time, but Japan certainly does since it's the world third biggest economy and it's the only Japanese state in the world.  But of course, no one in today's media call it "the Japanese state".  I honestly wish the press would stop referring to Israel as "the Jewish state" because it's just another way of singling us out, and usually when Jews are singled out (by other people, rather than by G-d), it doesn't bode well for them.  I can't really blame the media for this, however, because it's Jewish leaders, both inside and outside Israel, that encourage the use of the term "Jewish state" by the media and everyone else that talks about Israel, instead of just using the country's name as they would do if they were talking about any other nation-state.  You would think that with everyone always referring to Israel as "the Jewish state" and with all of Israel's state symbols being Jewish, Israel would be secure in its Jewish identity.  But you would be wrong.


In fact, the Israeli government has recently put forward a new bill that would define Israel as a Jewish state.  And for those of you who follow what seems like the never-ending saga that is the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, you know that Israel's government has demanded that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state.  Clearly, Israel has a real complex about its Jewish identity.  I'm not surprised, however, because anyone who knows Jewish history knows that Jews have always been under threat.  Indeed, being paranoid about keeping one's national identity is a characteristic associated with all nations or members of those nations who feel under threat.  Just take a look at Quebec.  Ever since the fall of New France, the Quebecois have always made a fuss about protecting their French identity, no more so than in the latter half of the 20th century up until today.  They have endured a history of oppression at the hands of English-speakers and continue to feel threatened by the fact that they are an island of French language and culture in a sea of anglophones.  These are the facts that drive all forms of Quebec nationalism, from the independence movement to the province's strict language laws.  There is one major difference, however, between the Quebecois' struggle to keep their identity and that of the Jewish people.  No one today talks openly of wiping Quebec and its people off the map.  In contrast, some world leaders to this day talk of wiping Israel from the face of the Earth and slaughtering its people.  In other words, Israel faces an existential threat while Quebec does not.  In fact, the Jewish people are the only people in the world today whose nation-state faces an existential threat.  And with the Holocaust still fresh in the psyche of the Jewish people, it's no wonder that Jews do not feel secure about their identity.  That being said, Jews both inside and outside of Israel have failed to make any distinction between the physical threat to Israel and the threat to Jewish identity, and this is something that I think has to change.

Perhaps right now you're thinking, "how can you separate the physical threat to Israel and the threat to its Jewish identity?  You can't have one without the other!"  That's absolutely correct.  Obviously, Israel cannot maintain its Jewish identity if it is destroyed.  Hence, Israel must do everything necessary to ensure the security of its borders and the safety of its people.  But what Israel does to ensure the physical security for herself and her people has to be distinguished from what measures are taken within Israeli society to preserve the country's Jewish identity.  I believe that Israel should take measures to protect its Jewish identity within its own society, but I also believe that for the most part, these measures have already been taken.  As I already mentioned, we have Jewish national symbols that the vast majority of Israelis are proud of.  We have also managed to revive Hebrew, the Jews' national language, as a modern vernacular, and finally, Israel's cultural and religious institutions have succeeded in reviving the Jewish existence that was nearly lost in the Holocaust.  But most recent attempts to reinforce the country's Jewish identity have crossed the line between what is rational and what is overkill.  These attempts include the current government's decision to put forward a bill strictly defining Israel as a Jewish state.  Such a law, I believe, is not only redundant, but a waste of time and energy.  As I said before, I think we and the rest of the world know who we are by now.

What is worse is when the cause of preserving Israel's Jewish identity serves a pretext to exclude Israel's non-Jews.  Some politicians on the far-right, for example, have proposed that Arabic be eliminated as an official language in Israel.  Contrary to what these fascists believe, eliminating rights and privileges for minorities does not make Israel any more Jewish.  Quite the contrary, it drives us further away from Jewish values.  Our Talmud, for example, states: "What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellow man. That is the whole Torah; the rest is just commentary. Go and study it." (Talmud Shabbat 31a).  Indeed, the premise of treating others as you would want them to treat you is a value beholden not only to Judaism, but to other religions and philosophies as well.  Based on this premise, I would contend that to make Israel more Jewish is to do our best to provide reasonable accommodation to our non-Jewish citizens and to do our best to include them in Israeli society and its national narrative rather than taking measures to exclude them.

On the subject of the Palestinians recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, I believe that this is also a useless requirement designed to exclude the Palestinian people from any right to the land that is as sacred to them as it is to us.  What I do think should be required of the Palestinians is not a concrete declaration by them that Israel is a Jewish state, but rather a promise by them that they accept the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in the State of Israel and that they will not attempt to compromise Jewish independence in any way.  Such a declaration would enable the Palestinians to claim certain rights in the State of Israel, but not the right to flood Israel with Palestinian refugees so as to change the demographic make-up of the country and compromise Jewish independence.

Indeed, preserving Jewish independence is what I think should be the goal of any measure to promote Israel's Jewishness.  In other words, Israeli leaders need to ask themselves, "is what I'm trying to do necessary to preserve the independence of the Jewish people?"  And unless they can answer this question in the affirmative, chances are that whatever measure they are thinking of taking to preserve Israel's Jewish identity, it is probably overkill and not necessary. 

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