The “Jewish state” issue

Posted: October 22, 2010 by Rex Brynen in being argumentative

As predicted at the start of direct Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations in September—that is, before they collapsed again in October—the issue of Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state is a thorny one. Prime Minister Netanyahu is not only demanding the inclusion of such recognition in any framework agreement on peace, but now even as a prerequisite for extending a moratorium on settlement construction. However, as Israeli-Palestinian MK Ahmed Tibi argues with regard to Israel’s new “loyalty oath” in an op ed in today’s New York Times, Palestinians understandably see any such recognition as implicitly justifying their dispossession and forced displacement in 1948 as well as confirming a second-class status within Israel itself. Moreover, PA President Mahmud Abbas would have to be just plain stupid to compromise on a final status issue like recognition in exchange for a partial and temporary halt to settlement activity that—as the International Court of Justice (and just about everyone else) has made clear—is illegal to begin with.

That being said, I’ve spent enough time running graduate seminars to enjoy arguing both sides of an issue. Consequently, here’s the puzzle: if Israel ought not to be recognized as a Jewish state because it would legitimize Palestinian dispossession and marginalize its non-Jewish citizens, why then is it OK for the Syrian constitution to describe the country as “Arab” when almost 10% of its population are Kurdish, Armenian, or Turkish?

As points of comparison, Algeria (which has a substantial Berber minority) chooses not to emphasize any Arabness in its constitution, and instead uses the term Algerian. The Moroccan constitution only mentions that the country is part of the “Arab Maghreb.” The current Iraqi constitution speaks of all of its major ethnicities. Sudan (hardly a poster-child of inter-ethnic harmony) mentions Arabic as its official language in its constitution, but beyond that does not address the issue.



  1. line says:

    well one can argue that, theoretically speaking, the Bathist definition of “Arab” is not exclusionary (to an extent) in the sense that it’s not ethnically based, it is ideological and includes anyone who “speaks Arabic” and wishes to be part of the “progressive” entity.

  2. Terry Rempel says:

    The fundamental question that MK Tibi is raising, it seems, is one of equality. It’s not the name itself – whether or not states in the region define themselves as Jewish, Arab or other – but rather what’s in the name as reflected in law, policy, and practice. The old UN partition plan (res. 181) illustrates the point. Those advocating recognition of Israel as a Jewish state frequently refer to the resolution, which recommended the creation of Jewish and Arab states in Palestine through partition, as international recognition of the Jewish character of the state of Israel. In substance, however, the character of each of the two states, as set forth in the resolution, was to be defined by fundamental human rights, protection of minority rights, and, importantly, the overarching principles of equality and non-discrimination. While Israel’s legal system incorporates a wide range of human rights, it also places important limitations on others in order to maintain the Jewish character of the state. According to Israel’s High Court, the Jewish character of the state, includes, among others, a permanent Jewish majority, privileging of the Jewish population in certain areas, and the special relationship between the state and the Jewish diaspora. Maintenance of this definition thus requires certain limitations on fundamental human rights including freedom of movement (right to return) and the right to property. More importantly, perhaps, while the judiciary has accepted equality as a basic principle of Israeli law, the principles of equality and non-discrimination were intentionally excluded from Israel’s Basic Laws (i.e., laws forming Israel’s emerging constitution), in part, because it would negate foundational elements of Israel’s self-definition as a Jewish state. This is the subject of ongoing debate over a future constitution. The question that arises for me in relation to all the discussion about Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, is whether, given the centrality of the principle of equality to both law and democracy, is whether a solution to the refugee question, and the broader conflict, which entrenches the status quo through recognition, de facto or otherwise, of Israel’s existing self-definition as a Jewish state, will actually sow the seeds of ongoing or future conflict, rather than resolve it, as well as the implications for the rule of law in both domestic and inter-state relations across the region.

  3. line says:

    This is a bit off topic since it goes back to our facebook comments. A significant number of Syrian Kurds are today upset with Syria’s imposed Arabness. However, and this is just to be the DEVIL’s ADVOCATE, France and Spain achieved some sort of national identity by doing the same sort of idelogical framing. Is Syria balmed for doing so just because times are different and the UN is monitoring certain moves? Many of the Kurds I know, alhough i have to admit they all live in Damascus, see Arabic as an extension of their Muslim identity, rather than a language imposed from above. The most important Syrian Kurdish writer (lives in Sweden I thinnk) writes in Arabic. Also, Kurds and Arabs’ relations were good relations and they shared much of their history. I don’t know if these two points apply to the Quebec case?

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