Open Zion

08.31.12

What is a Jewish State?

In "How Bill Kristol and JVP are Both Israel-Agnostic," Peter Beinart criticizes Jewish Voice for Peace for this position: "Our mission statement endorses neither a one-state solution, nor a two-state solution. Instead it promotes support for human rights and international law." His litmus test—support for "Israel as a Jewish state," and the accompanying premise that this is the same thing as supporting Israel's "existence"—is a common one, and yet the people who apply it rarely define what they mean.

We can endlessly debate, and perhaps never resolve, what might be the Jewish "people" or "culture" or even "nation". But a state is a very concrete entity—a set of laws and policies, along with the structures to carry them out. What are the laws and policies that Beinart considers the defining aspects of Jewish statehood? How can he apply a litmus test without answering that question.

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An Israeli girl holds the Israeli national flag as she prays, reading from the Torah (Jewish bible) at the Western Wall. (Paula Bronstein / Getty Images)

In a 2010 Atlantic interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, Beinart said, "I'm not even asking it [Israel] to allow full, equal citizenship to Arab Israelis, since that would require Israel no longer being a Jewish state." But in his recent piece, Beinart contends that liberal democracy, along with Jewish statehood, is intrinsic to Israel, citing the promise in Israel's Declaration of Independence to "uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of race, creed or sex.”

So, what does it mean to talk about a Jewish democratic state? Is it one that grants all of its citizens equal rights, or not? Jewish Voice for Peace's position is that a democratic state should grant equal rights to all of its citizens, regardless of religion or ethnicity. Israel may or may not find a way to call itself a Jewish state and also meet that standard; thus far, it has failed.

Some argue that by engineering a Jewish majority, a state can have both democracy and Jewish control. But if such a state is not truly based in democratic principles, it will only resemble a democracy, not be one. You can take a snapshot of a frozen moment in time, ignoring the past and the future, carefully framing the shot with respect to what it includes and what it excludes, and say, "See? It's a democracy." But what will happen over time?

If we value the fundamental principles of equality and human rights, we must be willing to live them. The desire for a safe refuge for Jews and a hub of Jewish culture and life is real and valid; addressing it must start from these values, not from the premise that we can only be safe by subjugating another people.  That means regarding Palestinians as part of Israeli society, not as some dehumanized "demographic threat."

We invite all those who care about human rights and about the Jewish people to engage in a direct, honest conversation about the possible meanings of the term "Jewish state," and how it relates to principles of equality and democracy.  Such a conversation is long overdue.