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Howard Morry

Recognition of Israel as a Jewish State: The Key to Unlocking Peace in the Arab-Israeli Conflict?

This article is based on a presentation given by Howard Morry, Co-chair of the Arab Jewish Dialogue, a Canadian group devoted to improving relations between Arabs and Jews through dialogue, in November, 2011.

by Howard Morry


                Just over two years ago in a speech at Bar Ilan University in Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu became the first Israeli Prime Minister since 1948 to publicly say that Israel was prepared to recognize a Palestinian state as part of a settlement to end the Arab-Israeli conflict.
But he didn’t stop there. He went on to say that “a fundamental prerequisite for ending the conflict is a public, binding and unequivocal Palestinian recognition of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people.”
The reaction of the Arab world was dismissive. This was just another obstacle to peace. What do you expect from an intransigent right wing prime minister, they said? The response from the Palestinian leadership was even more direct. Palestinians would never accept Israel as a Jewish state, even if the price was never having a Palestinian state.
While Israel had always insisted that the Arab world recognize its right to “exist”, it had never said that recognition of Israel as a Jewish state was “a fundamental prerequisite for ending the conflict”. The Israelis, they said, were moving the goalposts for peace.
The reaction in Israel was very different. Jewish Israelis didn’t see Netanyahu’s speech as a right-wing plot to derail the peace process. Surveys showed that the vast majority of Israelis desperately want to hear the Palestinian people say they can live with a Jewish state.
In fact, since Prime Minister Netanyahu gave his speech in June, 2009, the demand that the Arab world recognize Israel as a Jewish state has gone mainstream in Israel. All major Israeli politicians now require acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state as a condition for peace.
Even President Obama, who will never be mistaken for Benjamin Netanyahu’s spokesman, has publicly said that “a lasting peace will involve two states for two peoples: Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people, and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people."
The question is why did Israel make this demand, and why now? Just as important why did the Arab world react the way it did? After all doesn’t a two-state solution mean “two states for two peoples”, one of which is Jewish?
These questions lie at the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict and in the view of many Israelis is the key to resolving the conflict.
Why a Jewish State?
To understand why it’s important to Israel that it be recognized as a “Jewish state”, we have to know what Israel means by the term.
Many Arabs, for example, have expressed the concern that a “Jewish state” will be a theocracy, and that Israel will use recognition as an excuse to mistreat or expel its minority population. Those concerns are misplaced. Israel simply wants its neighbours to accept that it is the “nation-state” of the Jewish people.
The right of a “people” or a “nation” to their own state is enshrined in a number of international conventions, to which most states in the world are signatories. Nation-states became popular because they allowed peoples to develop their own culture and to defend themselves against others “nations”.
Nation-states became the successors in Europe to the empires and feudal states that were accountable to an individual or family, not to a people or citizenry. The Germans, for example, were a people long before they had a state they could call their own; as were the Italians.
Even multicultural states (states that traditionally relied on immigration of peoples from different parts of the world joining with an indigenous population) forge their own identity over time. The result is that the Canadian and American people take pride in traditions, customs and values developed over decades and centuries.
By any scale the Jews are a “nation” or “people”, one of the world’s oldest, in fact, like the Japanese or the French or, for that matter, like the Palestinians. Jews everywhere share a common history and heritage and a set of values inspired by a collection of books they have studied for millennia. There is more that unites Jews than divides them.
It’s fair to ask where religion fits in. Aren’t the Jews a religious group, like Christians and Muslims? The answer is complex but key to understanding the Jewish state. The answer is the Jewish people are a people with a religion.
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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

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