Uri Avnery
Arab News (Opinion)
June 19, 2011 - 12:00am

I am fed up with all this nonsense about recognizing Israel as the “Jewish State.” It serves many different purposes, almost all of them malign. Benjamin Netanyahu uses it as a trick to obstruct the establishment of the Palestinian state. This week he declared that the conflict just has no solution. Why? Because the Palestinians do not agree to recognize etc. etc.

Four rightist Members of the Knesset have just submitted a bill empowering the government to refuse to register new NGOs and to dissolve existing ones if they “deny the Jewish character of the state.” This new bill is only one of a series designed to curtail the civil rights of Arab citizens, as well as those of leftists.

In Israeli parlance, denying the “Jewish Character” of the state is tantamount to the worst of all political felonies: To claim that Israel is a “State of all its Citizens.” As a matter of fact, Israel is indeed a state of all its citizens. All adult Israeli citizens — and only they — have the right to vote for the Knesset. The Knesset appoints the government and determines the laws. It has enacted many laws declaring that Israel is a “Jewish and democratic state”. In ten or in a hundred years, the Knesset could hoist the flag of Catholicism, Buddhism or Islam. In a democracy, it is the citizens who are sovereign, not a verbal formula.

What formula? — one may well ask. The courts favor the words “Jewish and democratic state”. But that is far from being the only definition around. The most widely used is just “Jewish State.” But Netanyahu and Co. speak about “the nation-state of the Jewish people.” The one thing that all these brand-names have in common is that they are perfectly imprecise. What does “Jewish” mean? A nationality, a religion, a tribe? Who are the “Jewish people”? Or, even more vague, the “Jewish nation”? Does this include the Congressmen who enact the laws of the United States? Or the cohorts of Jews who are in charge of US Middle East policy? Which country does the Jewish ambassador of the UK in Tel Aviv represent?

The courts have been wrestling with the question: where is the border between “Jewish” and “democratic”? What does “democratic” mean in this context? Can a “Jewish” state really be “democratic”, or, for that matter, can a “democratic” state really be “Jewish”? All the answers given by learned judges and renowned professors are contrived.

Let's go back to the beginning: the book written in German by Theodor Herzl, the founding father of Zionism, and published in 1896. He called it “Der Judenstaat.” Unfortunately, this is a typical German word that is untranslatable. It is generally rendered in English as “The Jewish State” or “The State of the Jews”. Both are quite false. The nearest approximation would be “The Jewstate”.

If this sounds slightly anti-Semitic, this is not by accident. It may come as a shock to many, but the word was not invented by Herzl. It was first used by a Prussian nobleman with an impressive name — Friedrich August Ludwig von der Marwitz, — who died 23 years before Herzl was even born. He was a dedicated anti-Semite long before another German invented the term “anti-Semitism” as an expression of the healthy German spirit.

Marwitz, an ultra-conservative general, objected to the liberal reforms proposed at the time. In 1811 he warned that these reforms would turn Prussia into a “Judenstaat,” a Jew state. He did not mean that Jews were about to become a majority in Prussia, God forbid, but that moneylenders and other shady Jewish dealers would corrupt the character of the country and wipe out the good old Prussian virtues.

Herzl himself did not dream of a state that belongs to all the Jews in the world. Quite the contrary — his vision was that all real Jews would go to the Judenstaat (whether in Argentina or Palestine, he had not yet decided). They — and only they — would thenceforth remain “Jews.” All the others would become assimilated in their host nations and cease altogether to be Jews.

Far, far indeed from the notion of a “nation-state of the Jewish people” as envisioned by many of today's Zionists, including those millions who do not dream of immigrating to Israel.

Zionism wanted to create an old-new nation in Eretz Israel (as Palestine is called in Hebrew), and this nation was of course quite distinct from the Jews elsewhere. It was only the Holocaust, with its huge emotional impact, which changed the verbal rules.So how did the formula “Jewish State” creep in? In 1917, in the middle of World War I, the British government issued the so-called Balfour Declaration, which proclaimed that “His Majesty's Government views with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people...”

Every word was carefully chosen, after months of negotiations with Zionist leaders.

In 1947 the UN did decide to partition Palestine between its Arab and Jewish populations. The advocates of the “Jewish state” make much of the sentence in the “Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel” which indeed includes the words “Jewish State”. After quoting the UN resolution which called for a Jewish and an Arab state, the declaration continues: “Accordingly we ... on the strength of the resolution of the United Nations General Assembly, hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz Israel, to be known as the State of Israel.”

This sentence says nothing at all about the character of the new state, and the context is purely formal.

Any talk about the Jewish State leads inevitably to the question: What are the Jews — a nation or a religion?

Official Israeli doctrine says that “Jewish” is both a national and a religious definition. The Jewish collective, unlike any other, is both national and religious. With us, nation and religion are one and the same.

The only door of entry to this collective is religious. There is no national door.

Under Israeli law, a Jew is a person “born to a Jewish mother or converted, who has not adopted another religion”. This is a purely religious definition. Jewish religious law says that for this purpose, only the mother, not the father, counts.

Some of us want Israel to be an Israeli state, belonging to the Israeli people, indeed a “State of all its Citizens.” Some want to impose on us the religious law and abolish all contrary laws of the democratically elected Knesset. Many don't want any change at all. But how, in God's name (sorry), does this concern the Palestinians? Or the Icelanders, for that matter?

The demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as “the Jewish State” or as “the Nation-State of the Jewish people” is preposterous. As the British would put it, it's none of their bloody business. It would be tantamount to an intervention in the internal affairs of another country.

But a friend of mine has suggested a simple way out: The Knesset can simply resolve to change the name of the state into something like “The Jewish Republic of Israel,” so that any peace agreement between Israel and the Arab State of Palestine will automatically include the demanded recognition. This would also bring Israel into line with the state it most resembles: “The Islamic Republic of Pakistan,” which came into being almost at the same time, after the partition of India.

Many Israelis would be shocked by the comparison. What, us? Similar to a theocratic state? Are we getting closer to the Pakistani model and further from the American one? What the hell, let's simply deny it!


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