Two weeks ago, Israel’s outgoing ambassador to the US Michael Oren was interviewed by Fareed Zakaria on CNN. In the context of discussing renewed negotiations, Zakaria asked Oren about the demand that Palestinians recognize “Israel as a Jewish state”. Oren’s response is instructive and goes to the heart of the nature of the State of Israel as a settler colonial ethnocracy that practices an institutionalized racism Oren specifically denies, yet unintentionally highlights.
According to Oren, a “Jewish state” means ensuring that “refugees from 1948” will “will be repatriated to the Palestinian state and not to Israel” since, quite simply, Israel is “predicated on having a Jewish majority”.
A politician who, for example, said that the U.K. is predicated on having an Anglo-Saxon Christian majority would be roundly condemned and marginalized as a racist. Moreover, if Israel indeed depends on having a Jewish majority then it has only been made possible through the ethnic cleansing of those Palestinian refugees Oren says cannot return.
Following a question by Zakaria about the serious consequences for Palestinian citizens – who he says are rendered “invisible” – of Israel being defined as a Jewish state, the Israeli ambassador claims that “Jew” is a “national category” like “Bulgarians” or “Germans” and that the Jews “are a people and we are a nation state like most of the nation states in the world”.
Aside from the flaws in Oren’s familiar argument about self-determination, Israel is not, as the diplomat wishes to pretend, seeking merely a similar “arrangement” to what is already “very common” amongst European states. The formulation ‘France is the state of the French, every French person is a citizen of France and all citizens of France are French’ is not applicable in the case of Israel, which as a Jewish state is explicitly not the state of all its citizens.
Just since Oren’s appearance on CNN, a few examples have cropped up which highlight ways in which Israel’s definition as a Jewish state is problematic.
Firstly, on the 5 August, it was reported that Justice Minister Tzipi Livni plans to apply freedom of information regulations to the World Zionist Organization (WZO)’s Settlement Department. That is interesting – but what’s noteworthy for our purposes here is to note the very existence of the WZO and its relationship with the state.
The WZO, like the Jewish National Fund (JNF), is a body intended to primarily benefit Jews – yet is delegated responsibilities by a state that in theory should be acting on behalf of all its citizens. The WZO, which works in the West Bank as well as in the Negev and Galilee, receives funding direct from the government to further Jewish settlements.
Secondly, the mayor of Israeli town Upper Nazareth in the Galilee has made the headlines for once again advocating explicitly racist policies. His election campaign slogans include: “Upper Nazareth will be Jewish forever; no more shutting our eyes, no more grabbing on to the law allowing every citizen to live where he wants. This is the time to defend our home”, and “I will not allow the city’s Jewish character to be changed. I will block the establishment of an Arab school and will build neighbourhoods for Jewish residents … Upper Nazareth is a Jewish city!”
Gapso has form – only in April he was boasting of how he had acted “to preserve upper Nazareth as a Jewish city forever”. Upper Nazareth itself is a town established by the Israeli government in the 1950s with a settler colonial agenda. As I wrote in my book:
The director of the IDF Planning Department said that the role of Upper Nazareth would be to ’emphasize and safeguard the Jewish character of the Galilee as a whole’, while according to the Northern Military Governor, the final aim of the settlement was to ‘swallow up’ the Arab city through ‘growth of the Jewish population around a hard-core group’.
Thirdly and finally, there has been much discussion lately of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s promise to hold a national referendum on any potential future deal with the Palestinians. Yet a poll whose results were published this week showed that almost half of the Jewish Israeli public – 49 per cent – think that only Jewish citizens should be granted the right to vote in such a referendum. Perhaps even more disturbingly, these kinds of ideas were legitimized by a cabinet minister, Silvan Shalom, who at the end of July said no government would be able to implement a deal after a referendum decided by non-Jewish citizens.
These are all manifestations – from many examples – of why Israel’s definition as a Jewish state is not conducive to the values of democracy and equality that the likes of Oren have to feign respect for when mounting hasbara offensives. Yet even Oren could not help but let the cat out of the bag: Israel is based on demography more than it is on democracy.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.