Defining a Nation

Published November 16, 2007, issue of November 16, 2007.
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Every time Middle East peace negotiations loom, leaders on both sides begin to strut and posture, loudly proclaiming how little they intend to give away. It’s intended partly to placate the domestic opposition before the tough decisions arrive, and partly to soften up the other side. The latest example is Palestinian spokesman Saeb Erekat, a second-tier Fatah politician and head of the Palestinian negotiating team. In a series of interviews this week, Erekat declared that the Palestinians “will not agree to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.”

Tough talk is part of the game of negotiating, but this time Erekat went too far. When you’re trying to end a bitter conflict and make peace, it’s a bad idea to offend the other side’s deepest sense of self, and that’s what Erekat did.

Ostensibly, Erekat was responding to statements earlier that day by the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert. Speaking to the Knesset on November 12 about his bargaining position on refugees, Olmert said that Israel’s identity as a Jewish state is “a launching point for all negotiations.” He added that “whoever does not accept this cannot hold any negotiations with me.”

Erekat’s reply was that the Palestinians recognized Israel’s right to exist, but not its “Jewish” identity. “No state in the world connects its national identity to a religious identity,” he told Israel Radio.

That would come as a surprise to the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, not to mention the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. As a matter of fact, there are 56 member-states in the Organization of the Islamic Conference, and most of them link their national identity quite closely to their religious identity. Some govern themselves under their religion’s canon law, Sharia, which is something Israel doesn’t do. Some, beginning with Saudi Arabia, don’t even give the most rudimentary civil rights to religious dissenters.

Islamic states aren’t the only ones that link nation and religion. Ireland, Italy and Spain all put Catholicism front and center in their national cultures and legal systems. England still reserves a privileged place for the Church of England. Ditto Orthodox Russia, Lutheran Sweden and Shinto Japan. The Jewish state is in good company.

More important, Israel’s Jewishness is meant to be primarily a secular fact. Israel was created to serve as the national home of the Jewish people, with a limited religious character in deference to that people’s traditions and sensibilities.

Except in recent generations in the West, Jews have defined themselves for centuries as a nation — one with a religious mission, but a nation first of all. The right of a nation to define itself is the essence of national self-determination. That’s a concept the Palestinians ought to be familiar with.

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