Michael Oren is the Israeli ambassador to the United States. This means he stands in a line of foreign diplomats who are often quite out of the ordinary. For one thing they may well be ex-Americans. Oren (nee Bornstein) was born in upstate New York and grew up in West Orange, New Jersey. He switched countries in 1979. For another, Israeli ambassadors do not hesitate to engage in public debates aimed at swaying American public opinion. Actually, this is very un-diplomatic behavior and you don’t see the ambassadors from China, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Mexico, Paraguay or Liechtenstein, ad finem, doing that sort of thing. Yet Oren has done this several times by sending op-eds to the New York Times. On October 13 he did so again with one entitled, “An End to Israel’s Invisibility.”
It is an odd title, for if there is one thing Israel is not, it is invisible. But the ambassador is arguing from a peculiar point of view. Essentially, he claims that the Palestinians have yet to officially acknowledge that Israel is a “Jewish state.” For Oren it is the Jewish aspect of Israel that remains “invisible.” As odd as this sounds, the ambassador’s complaint echos a current theme across the political spectrum in Israel. At the same time that he put out his op-ed, Ari Shavit, the center-right contributor to Ha’aretz, published a piece that made a similar argument but extended the failure of recognition accusation to Europe and beyond. It appeared on October 14 and is entitled “The Core of the Conflict.”
All of this might appear as something of a mystery. Doesn’t the entire world already know that Israel is a “Jewish state?” Oren, however, expresses profound insecurity over the issue. “The core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been the refusal to recognize Jews as a people, indigenous to the region and endowed with right of self-government.” Here Mr. Oren, who is certainly not “indigenous to the region,” is practicing a bit of plagiarism by taking a long standing Palestinian argument and asserting it as an Israeli one. Thus, for 62 years the Palestinians have claimed that the core of the conflict is the refusal of Israel to recognize them as indigenous to the region and endowed with the right of self-government.
At this point the mystery takes another twist. For Oren insists that this recognition of the Palestinians has already been pledged by Israel and now it is the Palestinians’ turn to reciprocate. “Just as Isreal recognizes the existence of the Palestinian people with an inalienable right to self-determination in its homeland, so, too, must the Palestinians accede to the Jewish people’s 3,000 year connection to our homeland and our right to sovereignty there.” No doubt the first part of this sentence is a reference to the Oslo Accords, which the Israelis have spent at least the last ten years describing as a dead and buried. So are we to believe that the ambassador now takes this pledge seriously? Hardly. The assertion of recognition of Palestinian rights is but a weak red herring. The only way the Israelis recognize the existence of the Palestinian people is by evicting them daily so as to clear the way for their illegal colonization of conquered land. Finally, why should millions of Palestinian refugees buy into the ambassador’s insistence that “Jewish right to statehood is a tenet of international law”? Every one of Israel’s governments has made a profession of violating international laws such as those embodied in the Geneva Conventions. So, this claim is simply hypocritical . Why should anyone give credence to Israel’s assertion that it be accorded rights it has systematically denied others?
So, what is going on here? Why, at this particular time, do we get an evidently improvised emphasis on Israel as a “Jewish state?” Perhaps we should see it as a negotiation tactic. If you can get the Palestinian Authority to buy into this recognition you automatically negate, at least in prospective treaty terms, the right of return. And indeed, the Israelis have come pretty close to pulling off this gambit. Thus, Mahmoud Abbas stated on October 17 that once the Palestinians have a state of their own in the lands occupied by Israel after 1967, they will “end all historic claims against Israel” within the 1967 borders. One would think that if the Israeli government is serious about the Jewish recognition issue they would take Abbas up on this offer and negotiate non-stop to close the not very large gap between the two positions. To date there has been no move in that direction. That certainly undermines the negotiating tactic argument and supports those who say the demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state is not designed to shape negotiations, but to end them.
That last interpretation might have some truth to it, but I do not think it tells the whole story. There is still another way of interpreting the recognition theme that is presently being promoted. A suggestion of this alternative motivation comes in the Shavit piece mentioned above. Shavit offers “seven reasons why the demand to recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people is a legitimate one.” None of them are any more convincing than Oren’s arguments, but one does stand out as revealing. Shavit claims that the recognition being demanded will cause a halt to the assault on the legitimacy of Israel. It will stop a process that has caused “Ehud Olmert’s Israel” to be seen as less legitimate than “Yitzhak Shamir’s Israel.” Shavit describes this process as an “avalanche” implying that he sees the attack on legitimacy as getting worse as time goes by.
What this means is that the present emphasis on Israel as the Jewish state is aimed not only at complicating negotiations with the Palestinians, but also at undermining the growing boycott movement that seeks to isolate Israel and call into serious question the legitimacy of a state designed exclusively for one ethnic or religious group. The efforts of Oren, Shavit and others are testimony to the fact that the boycott movement is working, and the Israeli government knows it.
To tell the truth, Oren and Shavit have it wrong about Israel. It is not a Jewish state. Rather it is a Zionist state. For 93 years (counting from 1917 and the Balfour Declaration) the Zionists have sought to make the two synonymous. But they are not the same. Judaism is a religion that, at its best, demands tolerance and acceptance of the other. Zionism is a political ideology the ethnic exclusiveness of which leads, almost inevitably, to apartheid.
More and more Jews are coming to understand this and that too is part of Shavit’s feared avalanche. In the end it is the practice of Zionism, and not lack of recognition of its alleged Jewishness, that is causing Israel’s legitimacy crisis. Demanding that the Palestinians, or indeed the whole world, call Israel the Jewish state cannot mask its real nature.
LAWRENCE DAVIDSON is a Professor of History at West Chester University in West Chester, Pennsylvania.