During his recent visit to the United States, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu 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.
First 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.
These 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.
Demanding 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 ears.
What’s 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 fides.
Raising 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.
But 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.
Zionism 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 agreements.
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.
On 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.
Practical 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 state.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie is president of the Union for Reform Judaism.