Home inContext The Jewish State Debate

The Jewish State Debate

Josef Olmert

The latest brouhaha regarding Israel these days is the debate over the proposed ‘loyalty oath’ in which non-Jewish and Jewish immigrants would have to swear allegiance to Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state” before receiving citizenship.

A debate over Israel as a Jewish State? Are you kidding? Unfortunately, no. As with all issues concerning Israel, the problem that critics have with this pledge is not as simple as it may seem and, as usual, hypocrisy, double standards, and anti-Semitism are in ample display.

For years, Israel’s right-wing parties have lobbied for such a loyalty oath, but to no avail. Now, as Israel meets with Palestinian leaders to discuss a potential peace, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a seasoned politician, supports the pledge. What can explain this timing?

As many analysts today claim, Netanyahu may have agreed to the loyalty oath in order to appease Israel’s right-wing parties in the hopes that if he has to extend the controversial freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank, they will go along with the plan. But this would hardly be the best way for Netanyahu to handle the grumbling to his right. Therefore, the prime minister most likely viewed the acceptance of the loyalty oath as a way to further define Israel as a Jewish State in the context of renewed talks with the Palestinian Authority. In essence, Netanyahu is forcing the Palestinians, and the world, to deal with the root of the Middle East conflict, which is Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.

In the last few years, Israel has been subjected to a sustained and vicious campaign aimed at de-legitimizing her very right to exist. Indeed, at its core, the conflict between Israel and her Palestinian neighbors is about acceptance. Are the Palestinians willing to accept a Jewish state on land that used to be ruled by Muslims? Since the Palestine Mandate’s creation as a Jewish national home following World War I, the answer has been an unequivocal ‘no.’ No to the UN Partition Plan of 1947 and no today to accepting Israel as a Jewish State. On the other hand, when asked to accept an Arab state, the Jews always responded ‘yes.’ Yes to the UN Partition Plan and later to a two state solution. Israel has never even asked if a future Palestinian state would be ruled by Sharia law.

In a just world, the international community would recognize and applaud Israel’s attempts to share the land with her neighbors. In a just world, international and human rights organizations would denigrate states that support and encourage the liquidation of an independent, recognized member state of the international community. In a just world, the epoch of the Jewish people returning to their homeland, restoring their national language, and reestablishing sovereignty would be taught and told as a story of hope, optimism, and bravery.

But this is not a just world. Pro-Palestinianism is the ‘trend’ today, and Zionism has become a dirty word, the subject of worldwide derision, hatred, and endless condemnations. At times, this anti-Zionism sentiment turns itself into sheer, unabashed anti-Semitism when the world decides that the Jewish people do not have the right to self-determination, and when Jews are attacked in Europe, the Americas, and elsewhere when a crazy individual disagrees with an action taken by the Jewish State.

It’s also a hypocritical world full of double standards. By a democratic decision of its elected parliament, Israel has chosen to define herself as Jewish. And the most vocal, vitriolic opponents of this are those who champion the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination and to create a Muslim state not welcome to Jews. What about the rights of the Jewish people? Israel has never denied non-Jewish people residence in the country, or equal rights.

With this environment, its no wonder the Palestinian Authority makes no bones about refusing to accept Israel for what she is. In a just world, the international community would call this what it is: anti-Semitism, the hatred of Jewish people. In this world, it is accepted.

Whatever reason(s) motivated Mr. Netanyahu to raise the issue of Israel’s Jewish character at this particular moment, by doing so, he has served notice to us all as to the real parameters of the conflict and the precarious position that Israel and world Jewry hold today, even in the 21st century.

For this, he is to be commended.

Dr. Josef Olmert is a JPC contributor and Adjunct Professor at American University. He is a well-known Israeli Middle East expert and brother of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.