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Opinion

Recognising the Jewish state

For the current Israeli government, what makes a Israel a Jewish state, is if the Palestinian leadership agree it is.

Last Modified: 10 Oct 2013 14:47
Charlotte Silver

Charlotte Silver is an independent journalist currently based in San Francisco. She has written for Inter Press Service, Truthout, The Electronic Intifada, Al Ahkbar and many other publications. She is a graduate of Stanford University.
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"Shlomo Sand maintains that Israel has chiefly defined its Jewish character by identifying what it is not...He states, 'being a Jew in Israel means first and foremost not being an Arab,'" writes Silver [Reuters]

Summary: For the current Israeli regime, what makes a state a Jewish one, is if Palestinians say so. 

 Israeli historian, Shlomo Sand, is wont to point out that Israel has yet to define what makes a state a Jewish one. For David Ben-Gurion, founding prime minister of Israel, it was not sufficient that a majority of its citizens were Jewish, but that the state be home to Jewish people around the world. For the Daily Beast's Micah Stein (and many others) it's an existential fact that Israel is a Jewish state as evidenced by its national anthem, Declaration of Independence, flag, and, of course, name. 

Excluded from Stein’s list of Jewish-state-signifiers are others that extend beyond symbols. These include the state's Basic Laws; ban on all political parties that don't recognise the Jewish character of Israel; that the Palestinian community within the state is allotted only six percent of the annual budget; and the Nakba law that defunds organisations that commemorate the 1948 mass expulsion of Palestinians from their homes. In the Middle East Monitor, author and journalist Ben White writes about the recent Israeli Supreme Court ruling that Israeli citizens may not list their nationality as Israeli--but either Jewish or Arab--re-affirming that "there is no Israeli nation separate from the Jewish nation."

Shlomo Sand maintains that Israel has chiefly defined its Jewish character by identifying what it is not. In an interview with Haaretz, he states, "being a Jew in Israel means first and foremost not being an Arab."

But, for the current Israeli regime, apparently what makes a state a Jewish one is if Palestinians say so. 

The so-called "peace talks" resume today, 10 October, and will proceed like the post-mortem twitches of a corpse that they are. 

Less than a week ago, Netanyahu once again asserted his sine qua non for going forward with the "negotiations" in his speech at Bar Ilan University:

"A necessary condition to getting a true solution [to the Israeli-Palestinian] conflict was and remains clear as the sun: ending the refusal to recognise the right of the Jews to a homeland of their own in the land of their fathers."

While Netanyahu invokes some pretty misty past when he insists Israel be recognised as the eternal Jewish homeland—because "King David reigned over Jerusalem"—this precondition is of fairly recent vintage. Israeli officials introduced it in late 2007, although the Bush Administration integrated the "Jewish State" rhetoric in 2001. 

In 2011, Netanyahu stated, "It is time for President Abbas to stand before his people and say... 'I will accept a Jewish state.' Those six words will change history."

Securing his role as Israel's staunchest ally in the White House yet, Obama reinforced that order for Palestinians in March 2013. 

Subscribers to Biblical myth and defenders of the Zionist state alike insist that ancient history entitles Israel to be recognised as a Jewish state. Recently, Elie Wiesel, high-profile survivor of the Holocaust who is also chairman of ELAD—an avid pro-settler group committed to the Judaisation of East Jerusalem—spoke in New York:  

"Israel is part of our life. What does it mean, does it mean that we become overly nationalist? Not at all. It simply means that we claim the right over our history. It is because we study history, it is because we live history, that we cannot allow anything to happen to Israel."

The etymology of to recognise diverges slightly--but significantly--from the word's modern meaning, which is "to acknowledge formally". To recognise stems from the Latin, recognoscere, which translates as "to know again," or to "recall or recover the knowledge of; perceive an identity with something formerly known or felt".

It is this definition that more aptly describes what is being demanded of Palestinians. For the Palestinian leadership to recognise Israel as a Jewish state would not merely be an acknowledgement of "a basic fact"--as Stein argues--but a reformulating of the history of the land that considers one episode of its past at the expense of all others. Most important, this selective construction of history justifies the current and frightening reality experienced by the one-fifth of Israel's population who are Palestinian (and are denied equality with their Jewish counterparts) and the millions of Palestinian refugees seeking to return to their homes.

To be sure, the agenda behind demanding those “six words” drives policies outside the parameters of the peace talks. Netanyahu's avowed precondition is merely an attempt to recruit the Palestinian Authority in this enterprise.

Consider that busily underway is a very intentional, state-led project to eradicate the history of Palestinians and the massacres and expulsions Israel committed against them during the time of December 1947 to January 1949the Nakba. As Jonathan Cook delineates in his recent article for Al Jazeera, the Israeli government has been diligently working to remove Palestinian history from school textbooks. 

As Cook writes, Netanyahu asserted his opposition to Israelis learning about the Nakba in 2008-- before stepping into office as Prime Minister. In 2009, the Education Ministry began a review of Israeli textbooks that had a “liberal bias” or included references to the Nakba.

The government has employed the Institute for Zionist Strategies to revise textbooks in Israeli civics classes after complaints that one textbook was “too critical of the country”.

This project was deemed necessary despite the already glaring absence of Palestinians in Israeli textbooks. In her exhaustive review of the dozens of textbooks used in Israeli schools, Nurit Peled-Elhanan found that "You cannot find one photograph of a human being that is a Palestinian. If you think that we have 20 percent of Israeli citizens who are Palestinians, it's a bit odd... They are only represented as the problem."

Clearly, for Israel, the recognition—or recovery—of its Jewish identity necessitates the erasure of Palestinians'.

Charlotte Silver is an independent journalist currently based in San Francisco. She has written for Inter Press Service, Truthout, The Electronic Intifada, Al Ahkbar and many other publications. 

You can follow Charlotte on Twitter @CharESilver

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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