Slater says Jewish state is warranted by likelihood of recurrence of anti-Semitism

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Jerome Slater has a provocative post saying that Israel’s demand that the Palestinians recognize it as a Jewish state is not a deal-breaker. Weiss has pulled out a portion of his analysis, in which he seeks to answer the charge that a Jewish state discriminates racially and he argues for the need for a Jewish state:

In the last few months, Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli government have demanded that the Palestinians formally recognize Israel as a “Jewish State.” Depending on the latest iteration, this new demand has been presented either as a precondition for negotiations over a two-state settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or as a necessary component of such a settlement. The demand has been strongly rejected by leading Palestinian officials: Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian National Authority, Nabil Shaath, the deputy prime minister, and Saab Erekat, the PNA’s chief negotiator have all said that while the Israelis can call their state whatever they want, the Palestinians will “never” recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Most of my liberal Jewish colleagues and other critics of Israeli policies also oppose the Israeli demand….

Is the Demand for a Jewish State Racist? In a famous or infamous 1975 resolution (later revoked in 1991), the UN General Assembly stated that “Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination.” Aside from its political stupidity, that argument is untrue on the merits. To be sure, it is evident that many Israelis have racist attitudes towards Arabs in general and the Palestinians in particular. Still, it is important to distinguish between Zionism in principle and its increasing corruption in practice, and to consider whether Zionism and the demand for a Jewish state is inherently racist. 

If it is to have any objective meaning, as distinct from being merely an instrument of denunciation, the term “racism” must include the belief that other races or peoples are inferior to one’s own. In that sense, Zionism is not inherently or necessarily racist: the driving force behind the Zionist quest for a Jewish state was not the belief that it was imperative because the Jews were superior but the belief that it was imperative because the Jews were vulnerable. 

Israel today is increasingly compared with South Africa under apartheid, and there are substantial reasons to do so. However, there are also important differences, among other reasons because South African apartheid was inherently racist, based as it was on the belief that whites were superior to blacks and therefore should rule over them, when necessary by great force and violence. Moreover, South Africa could not claim that because whites were vulnerable all over the world, they needed a state of their own.

To reiterate, by any reasonable definition the Israelis have become increasingly racist. Even so, the argument for a Jewish state is not racist by its very nature, and even in Israel today the predominant driving force behind the demand for formal Arab recognition of Israel as a Jewish state is not so much racism as it is a consequence of a continuing and probably growing sense of Jewish vulnerability in what is believed to be an inherently anti-Semitic world. Of course, this belief blindly equates opposition to the Israeli occupation and repression of the Palestinians with hatred of Jews as such; nonetheless, however paranoid and mindless, genuine beliefs have real consequences, including consequences that the Palestinians have to take into account.

Zionism and Democracy. Whether or not the Jewish state concept is inherently racist, there is a clear tension between a continuing commitment to a Zionist Jewish state and the requirements of democracy in the context of a substantial non-Jewish minority. This is the most difficult issue for defenders of the Jewish state concept, for once the tension between Zionism and democracy is acknowledged, as it must be, the issue of whether Zionism was ever justified or at least is justified today, is unavoidable. 

In thinking about this issue, it is important to distinguish between anti-Zionism and “post-Zionism.” Anti-Zionism usually entails the belief that the state of Israel should never have been created–though except for a handful of well-known crazies it does not include opposition to the continued “existence” of that state and its people, despite disingenuous or hysterical Israeli claims and propaganda. Post-Zionism accepts the need for the creation of a Jewish state in the past but holds that Israel today should no longer be regarded as a Jewish state, as opposed to the state of all its citizens, Jewish and non-Jewish alike; indeed, some post-Zionists accept the full logic of their position, in the sense that they would be prepared to accept an Israel in which Jews eventually might become a minority.

It is my view that in light of the long history of anti-Semitism, often murderous anti-Semitism, few if any other nationalist movements have had a more convincing claim to an imperative need for a state of their own than Jewish nationalism, or Zionism. Thus, the anti-Zionist argument, as applied to the founding of Israel, is quite unpersuasive. Post-Zionism today is another matter; even so, in the final analysis it is not convincing, for on what basis can one be confident that anti-Semitism will never again make life difficult—or impossible—for Jews anywhere in the world? 

For that reason I cannot agree with my estimable colleague Tony Karon, who writes: 

“The majority of the world’s Jews have not claimed a right to self-determination as Jews. On the contrary, we’re very happy that anti-Semitism in the West has been marginalized to the point that we can freely integrate ourselves into the democratic societies in which we’ve chosen to live….most young Jews in the West today are not assuming that their gentile neighbors are going to turn on them.”

True enough—today. However, go back to the 1920s and substitute the word “Germany” for “the West.” 

In short, it is historically short-sighted to be confident that the problem of anti-Semitism– a problem that has repeatedly and with disastrous consequences recurred for more than two thousand years–has now been solved and will not reappear in the future, anywhere. Nor is it necessary to cite the Holocaust to cast doubt on the End of History assumptions implicit in post Zionism–in the last thirty years there has been considerable Ethiopian and massive Russian Jewish immigration into Israel in order to escape growing anti-Semitism and persecution in those countries. In that light, the case for a continued Zionism and the need for a Jewish state remains a reasonably strong one. 

All that said, there is no denying that there is inherent tension between the requirements of Zionism and the requirements of democracy, a tension that already is a problem in Israel today and one that could become far more acute to the degree that the Israeli Arab minority becomes larger or increasingly alienated from the Jewish majority. While it is not only the size of the minority that matters, it is worthwhile to consider that issue: if the Israeli Arab minority should become substantially larger, would the tension between a Jewish state and a democratic one become irresolvable? 

Perhaps surprisingly, Moshe Arens, one of Israel’s most prominent rightwing politicians, has addressed this issue in an interesting and forthright manner:

“Most Israelis are determined to assure the state’s Jewish character…while respecting its Arab citizens. We insist on continuing the mission that the Jewish state has set for itself of providing a haven for those Jews throughout the world who may need one. What happened during the Holocaust can never be allowed to happen again. This requires a substantial Jewish majority.” 

“How big a majority? That’s a question that needs to be pondered. Is the present 80 percent Jewish majority sufficient? Would a reduction to a 70 percent Jewish majority be a catastrophe? Is it solely a question of numbers or is it also a function of the degree to which Israel’s minority population has been integrated into Israeli society?”

As implied in Arens’ argument– but not sufficiently emphasized–the degree of tension between two legitimate goals, a Jewish but still democratic state, depends not only on the size of the minority but also whether it is satisfied to continue to live in a Jewish state. Today the Arab minority is about 20% of the Israeli population; to some degree it is integrated into the fabric of Israeli life (although, of course, not equally so) and to some degree–apparently increasing–it is at odds with it. / In the context of an overall peace settlement with the Palestinians and the Arab world—readily attainable if only the Israelis would agree to it—the size of the minority might well decrease rather than increase because of the likelihood of some voluntary emigration of Israeli Palestinians into a full Palestinian state, especially if it becomes a political and economic success.

Perhaps more importantly, if Israel finally makes good on its commitment to full equality and rights for all its citizens, the “demographic problem,” to employ the Israeli euphemism, would likely become increasingly less important as non-Jewish citizens become fully integrated into the Israeli political system, economy, society, and culture.

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