Wednesday :: Jan 14, 2009

The Jewish State

by eriposte

A few days ago I briefly mentioned an op-ed by Israeli writer and Haaretz columnist Tom Segev in the Washington Post titled "Peace is No Longer in Sight". There are a number of issues discussed in the op-ed and I would like to return to some of them in due course. However, the one phrase that I'd like to discuss in this post is the one I've highlighted in bold below:

The friendliest thing that President Obama can do for Israel in the long run would be to induce her to return to her original purpose: to be a Jewish and democratic country.. Rather than design another fictitious "road map" for peace, the Obama administration may be more useful and successful by trying merely to manage the conflict, aiming at a more limited yet urgently needed goal: to make life more livable for both Israelis and Palestinians.

I do think the U.S. can and should do substantially more than just help "manage the conflict", but let me focus on Segev's comment about the need to return Israel to her original purpose of a "" - or as it is expressed more frequently "Jewish state".

My question to Segev would be:

Why does he believe there is a need today to consider Israel a Jewish state - as opposed to the State of Israel that would allow its Jewish majority to advance their interests and preserve their traditions and culture?

This is not meant to be a trivial question. I completely understand the fundamental concerns about strongly preserving both the country of Israel as a home for a big part of the world's Jewish population and Jewish religious, ethnic, linguistic and cultural traditions. There is no doubt in my mind that a Jewish state would in fact be a vehicle that could accomplish those objectives. In fact, when Israel was originally created, the conditions were such that it was easy to understand why it was essential to create a single country - a home - for the world's Jewish people. Since then, Israel has continued to face challenges to its legitimacy and security - manifested particularly in multiple wars and conflicts - and this might, at face value, suggest a need to reinforce the importance of a Jewish state.

There are however some strong counter-arguments, in my view, to portraying Israel merely as a "Jewish state", raising the question as to whether the notion of a "Jewish state" is in fact the best vehicle to accomplish the objectives laid out above. In this post, I offer some brief observations that are intended to stimulate debate on this subject. As part of my observations, I include a short discussion on India, where there has been a decades-long ongoing debate about whether India should shed its nominally secular status and declare itself a "Hindu State".

My first observation is that Jews are generally amongst the most enlightened, capable and successful people in the world today across so many different fronts. Wherever they are, they have contributed in significant ways to major advancements in the second half of the 20th century and this, if anything, has helped them proudly solidify their religious, linguistic and cultural heritage - particularly in Israel. Israel is one of the world's most advanced economies - partly because of its innovativeness - and has one of the world's most powerful military forces (that has repeatedly been battle-tested). While there is good reason to be concerned about threats to its security from one or more neighboring regions, there is no doubt that any serious threat to Israel will face not just Israel's strong military response but also the might of Israel's powerful friends across the world. Prior to the latest conflict within the Gaza Strip, Israel was also on a path to building better long-term relations with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. The current events have disturbed that progress somewhat but not in a permanent and irrecoverable manner (at least not yet). With a President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton it is likely that over the next few years, we can reverse at least some of the damage caused by the latest conflict and restore the trajectory of progress. Hence, in today's world, despite the terrible rhetoric of some of Israel's enemies, I would argue that Israel does not really face an existential threat that cannot somehow be pre-empted or repelled.

Secondly, and more importantly, Israel's population today is not exclusively Jewish. It has a considerable (~20%) minority population of Arab lineage - most of whom are Muslims, with a smattering of Christians and Druze, and other minorities. In such an environment, it is important to remember that any large scale attack on Israel by its enemies would be an attack not just on Jews but also on Israeli Arabs. Therefore, the continued reference to Israel as a Jewish state has the unfortunate effect of masking the reality that Israel is more than just Jewish and that any attacks on it by its enemies constitute an attack not just on Jews but also Arabs. This is not a trivial point. Part of the reason why Israel stands out in the Middle-East is that it shows the ability of Jews and Arabs to live together as friends and neighbors within the same country. Thus, by advertizing itself as a Jewish state, Israel is not acknowledging one of its most important strengths - its significant, co-existing minority population of Arabs.

Third, and tied to the point above, is the question of how the Arab minority in Israel - that has chosen to be part and parcel of a country that is hated by some Arab and Muslim groups in the broader Middle-East neighborhood - feels about being told repeatedly that the country they live in is merely a Jewish state. The experience of India, a country that has long faced significant pressure from some leaders of its Hindu majority to declare itself as a Hindu State, is instructive in this regard and is worth discussing briefly. India is a much larger country than Israel but its Hindus represent roughly the same proportion of India's total population (~80%) that Jews represent in Israel. India also has a significant minority population amounting to roughly 20% of its total population. The campaign for a "Hindu Rashtra" (Hindu Nation) has a long history and has been based partly on religious arguments and partly on nationalistic arguments. The latter view was espoused by one of its earliest proponents - the controversial Vinayak (Veer) Savarkar - who is also the originator of the term "Hindutva" commonly used today by India's Hindu parties. Savarkar, who became head of the Hindu Mahasabha political party in 1937, was actually an atheist Hindu [1] whose appeals to Hindutva were based on nationalism - as an expression of cultural and ethnic identity. Savarkar is a key icon to the various overtly Hindu nationalist political parties in India today; however, some of these parties explicitly advocate not just a nationalist view but also a religious view for a Hindu Rashtra. The original emergence of Hindu nationalism and its reinvigoration in the last two decades has been challenging for India to deal with. Further, the presence of a State founded on religious grounds (some say, based on minority rights) next door to India - it's long-time rival Pakistan - has been a point of tension between India's Hindus and Muslims for decades. Yet, despite the long-standing pressure from some major Hindu leaders, India has shakily, but steadfastly, avoided going down the path of declaring itself a Hindu country. In part, this is because of the major efforts since its founding, of key Hindu leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru (and many others who succeeded them) to ensure that minorities in India felt that they have a strong voice in the country and the ability to establish, propagate and enjoy their identity in a secular India. Granted, the relationship between India's religious majority and minorities has sometimes been tenuous and not without violent conflict (driven by factors such as India's partition during independence along religious lines, troubled relations with neighboring Islamic Pakistan, actions of Hindu fundamentalists, local Hindu-Muslim strife, and so on), but in some areas, India has also swung the pendulum pretty far in the direction of accommodating minority needs by propagating a separate civil code for some minorities that is different from the civil code that its majority is subject to (which is one of the key points of tension between Hindus and Muslims in India today). On balance, although India has work to do to make majority-minority relations better, the diversity and relative strength of India's model - borne out over the last few decades in comparison to its overtly religious and largely un-Democratic neighbor - is useful to keep in mind in an age where fundamentalists across the world are seeking to grow their influence. Which brings me to my next point.

We are in an age where religious fundamentalism is increasingly asserting itself in many parts of the world. This is an era where movement towards a more secular realm would be desirable, in order to push back on fundamentalist forces and preserve the rights of both majorities and minorities and the peace between them. For these, and the other reasons discussed above, I believe the best advancement of Israel might lie in its advertizing itself as a secular country, as the country of Israel (as opposed to a "Jewish state") where Jews can and will continue to exert considerable influence and preserve their culture, ethnicity, language and traditions while simultaneously preserving the conditions for minorities to flourish and succeed. 

A final point. I don't assume here that Segev's notion of a Jewish state is based on a religious argument. It might, for instance, be an argument based on ethnicity or nationalism. However, regardless of the basis of the argument, I see more downsides than upsides in labeling Israel merely as a "Jewish state".


[1] I will discuss this further at some point, but some of the original strands of Hinduism were explicitly atheist and as confusing as this might seem, Hinduism in many ways is far less a religion than it is a way of life.

eriposte :: 7:41 AM :: Comments (34) :: Digg It!