Saturday, May 9

Israel - the Jewish State

Israel is now 61 years old. Its establishment was almost miraculous considering the odds. The murder of 6 million Jews by the Nazis had created a world of sympathy for the establishment of a Jewish state. Jews were a persecuted minority for centuries in their adopted countries.

The holocaust and destruction of many Jewish communities in Europe by the Nazi armies was an impetus for support at the UN for Israel's establishment.

Despite all the odds and the hostility of Israel's Arab neighbors, Israel had achieved much during its 61 years existence.

Israel's main problem is the lack of meaningful progress to make peace with its Arab neighbors. The reasons were many. Many Jewish immigrants (many of whom were Nazi concentration survivors) arrived in Israel after World War II, were forced to defend themselves against hostile Arab armies who were opposed to Jewish immigration. These immigrants were ill-equipped to fight. They succeeded because they were enlisted into the Hagana- the fledgling Israeli Army on their arrival. They were trained in basic warfare, and were forced to fight for their survival. The determination not to fall victim to persecution once again was very high.

An unfortunate result of Israel's establishment was the displacement of many Arab people living there. Many ran away because of the War of Independence which was fought against the opposing Arab Armies. A severe refugee problem was created because of the hostilities which has not been resolved even to this day.

Since Israel's establishment many wars had been fought between Israel and her Arab neighbors.

Recently, moderate Arab states have declared their desire to end the state of war and recognize Israel's right to exist provided certain conditions are met. This became known as the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 which seems reasonable. The problem is that Israel rejected it outright because of the emphasis on total withdrawal from territories captured in the June 1967 War including return of settlers within the Green Line and the right of return of Palestinian refugees who ran away during the War of Independence of 1948.

An added obstacle to peace is the precondition set by PM Benjamin Netanyahu of recognizing Israel as a Jewish state.

This precondition is problematic. After all, it is understood that the majority of Israeli citizens are Jews or are of Jewish descent. About 20% of Israel's citizens are not Jewish. They are mostly Arabs who are Moslem, including a sizeable Druze and Christian community. The nature of a state is determined by the inhabitants who live in it. This means that ethnically the nature of Israel is Jewish because they form 80% of the population. This being the case, is it necessary to emphasize Israel as a Jewish state?

If we were to examine other countries in the world, we notice that no country is seen as being exclusively Christian or even Moslem (with the exception of the Arab states whose population is mostly Moslem). If we were to take the United Kingdom as an example, we notice that it is not viewed as a Christian state and its ethnicity is not a factor even though most of the population follows the Christian faith.

In Israel’s case, it is obvious that the majority of Israelis are Jews and this determines the character of the state. Why must the Jewishness of the state be made such an issue for acceptance by the Palestinians for peace negotiations? Surely it is sufficient if Israel is recognized as a state of all its peoples without any emphasis on the dominant ethnic group which determines its character.

The emphasis on the exclusiveness of the ethnic majority of the population could be interpreted as an insult to the minority groups that are an integral part of the population. After all, Jews are a minority in every country of the world where they live and they enjoy equal rights in most countries as citizens. It is sufficient that Israel be recognized as a state of all its peoples. Viewing it any other way does have racist and ethnic undertones. It creates an obstacle for the minority non-Jewish citizens to share a common patriotism for the welfare of their common native land.

The ramifications of this are many. An example of this is seen in the celebration of Independence Day. Most Arab citizens of Israel do not feel any sense of belonging and do not celebrate, nor do they identify with Hatikva - the national anthem. The Arab communities of Israel identify with their Palestinian brethren and Independence Day to them is "Al Naqba" - the catastrophe! It is as if Israel is divided into two ethnic groups - Jewish and non-Jewish. The latter does not identify with Israel and in practice does feel discrimination. Even in education there is discrimination between the Arab and Jewish educational systems and this can be seen in the rates of academic achievements in both communities.

Emphasis of Israel as a Jewish state, even though this is axiomatic, alienates a sizeable minority of its population apart from being problematic for negotiations with the Palestinians.

Netanyahu emphasizes the danger of Iran to the entire Middle East. He uses it as a digression from the problems of the occupation. He places obstacles on any meaningful discussions with the US on a two-state solution which he opposes. This does not mean that one should overlook or underestimate the Iranian nuclear threat. However discussions on this threat should not take the place of meaningful discussions on solving the conflict.

Surely the main priority for Israel is peace with the Palestinians and its Arab neighbors even if this means forfeiting the adjective "Jewish" to describe Israel. In this case it is not relevant for peace. This does not mean that Israel needs to give up its identity and cease to exist as many Zionists claim would be the situation if Israel were not recognized as a Jewish state.

The dominant nature of the state is determined by the ethnicity of the majority of its citizens which should not affect the civil rights of the minority.

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