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Is Israel Jewish like France is French?

May 3, 2016 at 3:59 pm

On June 11, 1967, days after Israel’s armed forces had conquered the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan appeared on US news show ‘Face the Nation’.

Addressing Israel’s ability to “absorb” Palestinian inhabitants of the newly-occupied territory, a journalist asked Dayan if it was necessary to maintain Israel as “as a Jewish state and purely a Jewish state.” Absolutely, Dayan replied. “We want a Jewish state like the French have a French state.”

But is this a fair comparison? Is Israel Jewish like France is French? In 2003, this precise question was answered by the late historian and essayist Tony Judt, responding to attacks on his important piece for The New York Review of Books, ‘Israel: The Alternative’.

One such critic was the then-head of Anti-Defamation League Abe Foxman, who claimed that “[Israel’s] identity as a Jewish state is comparable to France’s identity as a state of the French and Italy’s identity as a state of the Italians.”

As Judt perceptively highlighted, “the comparison with France…is revealing” (albeit not in the way that Israel’s defenders intend). He went on:

Yes, France – like Italy, Germany, and every other sovereign state – distinguishes and discriminates between citizens and noncitizens…But if someone is a citizen of, e.g., France, he or she is French and that is all there is to the matter, at least as far as the law is concerned.

Thus, Judt wrote, one can say that “France is the state of all the French; all French persons are by definition citizens of France; and all citizens of France are…French.”

But when it comes to Israel, the equivalent proposition is impossible. “Israel, by contrast, is by its own account the ‘state of all the Jews’ (wherever they live and whether or not they seek the association), while containing non-Jewish (Arab) citizens who do not enjoy similar status and rights.”

As legal scholar Aeyal Gross has described, “Israel differs from democratic states like France, where the concept of citizenship and nationhood are identical. In these countries, a person is a citizen with equal rights regardless of his ethnic background, and his nationality is based on his equal citizenship.”

Gross notes how “of course in many countries there are different types of discrimination and prejudice,” but adds that, in Israel, “discrimination is constitutionally justified.”

Thus Israel is not Jewish like France is French, and the internal contradiction in the claim points to what Zionism has meant for Palestinians: those expelled and denationalised in the Nakba, those living under military occupation, and those with (second-class) Israeli citizenship.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.