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Owning Our Identity

Posted: 10/14/10 11:12 AM ET

As the future of the newest round of peace talks hangs in the balance, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has reiterated what seemed to some to be a logical demand. Recognize Israel as the Jewish state, he said to the Palestinians, as a condition for extending the moratorium on settlement expansion and thus keeping the Palestinians at the table. The notion that the legitimacy of Israel's Jewish character somehow hinges on others' recognition has become a convenient and often used political billy club for the Prime Minister. Just last week, he announced his support for what amounts to a loyalty oath, an amendment to the Citizenship Act, which would require new Israeli citizens to pledge loyalty to a "Jewish, democratic state." The proposal was passed by his cabinet on Sunday.

The Prime Minister's demands, simple and straightforward as they may seem, are the long fuse to a tinderbox of complex issues involving our identity as Israelis and as Jews, the nature of Israel's democracy, and the rights of minorities not just in Israel but in an eventual Palestinian state. Instituting a loyalty oath and demanding external recognition of a "Jewish state" is the next dangerous step in allowing the ruling coalition of ultra-nationalists and ultra-Orthodox to define who is Jewish, who is Israeli, and who is "loyal."

As a political scientist by training and as the president of the New Israel Fund, I am all too aware that a word or phrase can touch off a new set of controversies on issues where many seem willfully determined to misunderstand each other. Careful analysis and historical sensitivity, on the other hand, can defuse seemingly intransigent demands and irreconcilable narratives, and provide the insight we so badly need in order to go forward.

Let's start with that simple phrase, "the Jewish state." It is a phrase no longer used by most progressive Israelis, and for good reason: Using "Jewish" as modifier for a state means defining "Jewish" to at least the satisfaction of a majority of Jews. And as any Jew in Israel or abroad knows, that's a centuries'-old conundrum.

Define Jews as a people -- which we are -- and you are immediately entangled in the extra-national definition of people related by blood and heritage, across national boundaries. Is Israel the state of American or Australian Jews, for example? Clearly not, although they have a continued stake in its well-being. Define Jews as a religion -- which we are -- and you relinquish self-definition to theocracy and, in Israel's case, to the harshest and most exclusionary ultra-Orthodox strictures on who is a Jew. Define Jews as a nation and you have a tautology, whereby Israel is the national expression of a nation - explaining and defining nothing.

Past the intricacies of Jewish self-definition is the problematic concept of a state that uses its majority population as the defining element of its political system. Although Jewish self-determination is the raison d'etre for Israel, in a democracy the state itself must be the neutral arbiter of its people's interests. And in Israel, more than twenty percent of the population are not Jewish; they are Palestinian Muslims and Christians, Bedouins, Armenians, Druze and others who, often for centuries, have inhabited the land. Additionally, more than 300,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union are not considered legally Jewish by the state because of their exclusion by the rabbinical establishment. The fact that Israel has no straightforward route to citizenship for non-Jews and no viable immigration policy mirrors the contradictions and inequities of a "Jewish state," in which the machinery of government is geared to the well-being primarily of the majority population.

The internal contradictions of the identity of "the Jewish state" are, of course, rooted in its tangled history. The land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan river is the homeland for two peoples, Jewish and Palestinian. The United Nations Partition Plan of 1947 acknowledged that reality, and is the legal foundation for Israel's existence and for the demand for Palestinian statehood. Indeed, war, occupation and the wrongheaded policies of two sets of leaders for too many years have prevented Israel's natural neighbor and geopolitical partner, Palestine, from attaining its own national self-determination.

Peoples, in the universal language of human rights, deserve the right to self-determination, and in most cases insist on sovereign control over their own destiny. In Israel and in what will someday be the independent state of Palestine, the correct description for these democracies should be the sovereign expression of the right of self-determination of the Jewish -- or Palestinian -- people. This definition diminishes the danger inherent in an ethnocentric definition of the state, and mandates an Israel that is responsible for the equality of all its citizens, as promised by its Declaration of Independence.

A sovereign expression of the right of self-determination is also the description that is consistent with a multicultural and diverse democracy, which is the real nature of Israeli society. Within that framework is the possibility -- and I would argue the necessity -- of recognizing the collective rights of national minorities. An Israel with a substantial indigenous minority can and should acknowledge the freedom of its Palestinian citizens to determine their education, culture and other aspects of their communal life. In a parallel manner, a Palestinian state could and should reserve collective rights and protections for a Jewish minority, if some of the settlers now living on the West Bank choose to remain in what will become an independent Palestine. These reciprocal sets of rights and responsibilities can provide self-determination for two peoples within geographically segmented homelands, while mutually guaranteeing the rights of each other's minority cohort.

But there are other requirements as well. Most Israelis, and I am one, accept that a negotiated version of the 1967 borders should represent the boundary between Israel and Palestine. But that does not absolve us of the responsibility to confront an earlier outcome -- that of 1948. This does not mean questioning the legitimacy of Israel, as some on the right fear. It simply means acknowledging that our independence came at the price of what Palestinians call the nakba (catastrophe). Understanding two narratives, even when they appear to be mutually exclusive, means that the victors acknowledge some responsibility for the refugee issue that has been a major impediment to peace for many years.

Seventeen years ago, the PLO acknowledged Israel's right to exist in peace and security, without even exacting Israel's recognition of its natural concomitant, a Palestinian state. Now, Prime Minister Netanyahu asks Palestinians, as well as all those who would become Israeli, to recognize a Jewish state as if that would somehow confer legitimacy or provide an answer to the conflict, ignoring the complexities that make such recognition both useless and impossible. Even if the Palestinian Authority were willing to make this absurd concession, it has no right to deny the rights of Israel's Palestinian and other non-Jewish citizens, and it has no responsibility to define what Israel is.

That responsibility belongs to us, to Israelis. We must bring the right of self-determination of Jews to a balancing point with Israel's absolute obligation to remain an open, egalitarian and just democracy. Asking others to define us by our Jewishness will not make us more Jewish or more secure. It will not give us more legitimacy. Only we can decide who we are as a people. Only we can determine the nature of our multicultural and diverse society. Only we can mold our state, and our democracy.

Naomi Chazan is the former Deputy Speaker of the Israeli Knesset, and currently the Dean of the School of Government and Society at the Academic College of Tel-Aviv-Yaffo and the President of the New Israel Fund.