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Many Ways to be a Jewish State

When Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, spoke to some 60 influential Jewish-Americans in the Plaza’s Edwardian Room on September 21, the first question came from World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder, who pushed Abbas on whether he was prepared to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Mr. Lauder was echoing a demand repeatedly made by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the last year and a half.

Judging from Mr. Netanyahu’s repeated plucking of this string, one might almost say it is the demand that binds his right-wing governing coalition and declares to the Palestinian Authority—the most nation-building-committed Palestinian entity that has ever existed on any soil whatsoever—and indeed to the rest of the world, what the Jewish state holds dear and definitive. Indeed, earlier the same day, Mr. Netanyahu rolled out the selfsame talking point yet again in a conference call to American Jews:

President Abbas has to decide. He cannot skirt the issue. He cannot find clever language designed to obfuscate or to fudge it. He needs to recognize the Jewish state. He needs to say it clearly and unequivocally. He needs to say it to his own people in their own language. Remember that famous commercial—Just Do It? I think for the Palestinian leadership, it’s even simpler: Just Say It. Say that you recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. Say that you recognize the Jewish state.

A variant note was sounded by Stephen J. Savitsky, president of the Orthodox Union, who asked the Palestinian leader to recognize the Jewish character of the Temple Mount (to “create goodwill in the Jewish community,” he said later, as if whatever “goodwill” Muslims ought to extend toward Jews must come at the cost of the simultaneous Muslim idea that the place in question is the Haram-al-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary). Mr. Savitsky did not find it too late in the game to demand zero-sum declarations. Like Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Lauder, he offers a touching faith that loyalty oaths will prove binding to people who are ordinarily held to be untrustworthy.

Still later at the Plaza, the plot got more intricate as Daniel Levy of the New America Foundation gave President Abbas the opportunity to say how he would react if Israel took the initiative to declare itself, in full official voice, a state of the Jewish people. Abbas batted the ball back, saying he was ready to recognize whatever state Israel declared itself to be: "If the Israeli people want to name themselves whatever they want, they are free to do so."

Some religious Jews believe that formal Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state would prevent a two-state solution from dissolving into a temporary measure that awaits mutation into a one-state successor. Other Israelis are sincerely pressing a reasonable point on demographic, not theological grounds—this, in response to various Palestinian officials making the case for the right of return on precisely the grounds that they do not wish Israel to remain a Jewish state. But how the legitimate concern to preserve a Jewish-majority state would be addressed by a formalistic acknowledgment of the obvious escapes me. 

Abbas was on to something: We have here a case of the fetish of naming, a trumping of the purpose that should reside at the center of a moral life by the formality that lives at its margins. Even secular Israelis ought to ask themselves: Does the future of the Jewish people really depend on its longtime adversaries’ verbal certificate to the effect that the state which designates its flag with the Star (or Shield) of David, and whose official language is Hebrew, has a special relationship to the Jews? Isn’t this insistence on the single, exclusive meaning of that plateau in Jerusalem—that extraordinary spot where, long before the First Temple, Abraham is said to have held a knife to the throat of his Isaac—excruciatingly close to a literal-minded, materialist interpretation of the sacred?

Now, I am surely no more familiar with God’s purposes than the Orthodox Union. But possibly I am no less so either. May I wonder aloud whether the guardians of Jewish orthodoxy, again in contrast to those concerned primarily by Israel’s demographic future, sincerely believe that the utterance of syllables by others constitutes a decisive recognition of how the Jewish people stand with the Almighty? 

As Liel Leibovitz and I show at length in our new book, The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election, the question of why it was Abraham and his descendants in perpetuity who were divinely elected has roiled and challenged the Jewish people from their beginnings. Within the framework of Genesis, it was by no means self-evident why Abraham had been singled out so ringingly. The story about Abraham having destroyed the idols is a Talmudic add-on, not biblical in origin. 

To put it too simply, two traditions intertwine—and collide—in the history of Jewish interpretations of chosenness. One presumes, in effect if not explicitly, that chosen people status is a mark of distinction, a celestial seal of approval—and often enough, a signal for bitter and envious others to pursue their lunatic persecutions. Beginning with God’s command to Abraham to leave his family and resettle in a place he has never seen, this tradition ties Judaism to particular places in the material world. It’s fundamentally a territorial notion, as if physical ownership of the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, on the West Bank, were the ne plus ultra of Jewish identity—and as if coastal Tel Aviv, built on what in biblical times was the land of the Philistines, were chopped liver.

The other interpretation, which I would call ethical, takes most seriously that the Jews are charged, even burdened, with a mission of justice—that “there shall be one law for the citizen and the stranger who dwells among you” (Exodus 12:49) and “when an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him” (Leviticus 19:33). Territory has a symbolic presence in this tradition, but the symbols rest on a foundation of human action that marks the other as no less worthy, no less feelingful, no less bloody when pricked, as him- or herself.

In Israel itself, no less a political figure than Tzipi Livni recently told an interviewer from Tablet magazine, “We need to define ourselves through a common vision that helps Israel put some meaning into the words ‘Jewish State.’ The problem is that a party like Likud, which is not ultra-Orthodox, gives the monopoly on the substance of the words ‘Jewish State’ to the ultra-Orthodox. And this is something that affects not only our relationship with world Jewry but also my life in Israel.”

At this delicate, urgent moment in the history of the Middle East, American Jewish leaders should stop channeling Israel’s myopic prime minister. Netanyahu has appropriated a legitimate and self-evident truth—the Jewish stake in Israel—and transformed it into a cheaply bought obstacle to peace. Since the very meaning of being a Jew rests on an assumption of specialness, he ought to take his own advice seriously. You want to preserve a Jewish state? Make it a Jewish state. Don’t drive the greatness of the Jews into the sea. Give up pettiness for the New Year.

Todd Gitlin’s The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election, written with Liel Leibovitz, has just been published by Simon & Schuster.