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Historian Says Recognizing Israel as a “Jewish State” Would Be Like Saying the U.S. Is a “White State”

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
April 2014

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has added a demand to his negotiations with Secretary of State John Kerry and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas: that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a “Jewish” state, a demand not made when peace agreements were signed with Egypt and Jordan.  
Historian Juan Cole of the University of Michigan, author of Engaging the Muslim World, writes in Informed Comment (Jan. 6, 2014) that, “For Netanyahu’s demand to make any sense, he first has to define ‘Jewish.’ ‘Jewish’ has a number of possible meanings. It can mean ‘those recognized by Talmudic law as members of the Jewish ‘race’ via maternal descent.’ The latter is the legal definition of Jewishness in Israeli law itself, and for this reason we must presume that is what Netanyahu has in mind. It can also mean ‘adherents to the Jewish religion’ … Of the some 6 million self-identified Jews in Israel, about 300,000 are not recognized as ‘Jewish’ by the chief rabbi … So if Israel is a ‘Jewish’ state, is it a state for these largely (Russian and Ukrainian) ‘non-Jewish’ Jews?”  
If “Jewish” means “observant adherents of Judaism” then, Cole points out, “that definition would exclude a lot of Israeli Jews. Only 66 percent of Israelis in polling assert that ‘I know God exists and have no doubt about it’… while only 6 percent are outright atheists, another 28 percent appear to be agnostics. Since Palestinian-Israeli Muslims are mostly believers, it is likely that the percentage of Jewish agnostics and atheists is even higher than the nationwide estimate suggests. There is no legal requirement that Israeli Jews be observant believers. Would recognizing Israel as a ‘Jewish’ state impose such a requirement?”  
Either way Jewishness is defined, in Cole’s view, several million Israeli Jews would not qualify. In addition, he notes, there are 1.7 million Israelis, about a fifth of the population, who are Palestinian Muslims and Christians. “Saying Israel is a ‘Jewish’ state in the sense of race would be analogous to insisting that the U.S. is a ‘white’ state and defining Latinos as ‘brown.’ And saying Israel is a Jewish state in the sense of observant believers would be like asserting the U.S. is a Christian state even though about 22 percent of the population does not identify as Christian (roughly the same proportion as non-Jews in Israel).”  
Professor Cole concludes that, “Netanyahu’s demand is either racist or fundamentalist and is objectionable from an American point of view on human rights grounds either way. … More ominously, the demand has to be seen in the context of his (Netanyahu’s) partnership with extreme national¬ist Avigdor Lieberman … who wants to strip Palestinian-Israelis of their citizenship and make them stateless … Secretary Kerry should simply slap Netanyahu down over this new demand, which is illogical and unreasonable.” •

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