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Dr. Avineri and Mr. Lieberman
By: Ran Greenstein
University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg
14 October 2010

In the last few years we have seen the rise of debate about the
meaning and implications of the notion of Israel as a Jewish state.

Much of it is motivated by growing concern with the exclusionary
consequences of defining Israel as the state of the Jewish People, and
by implication not the state of its own non-Jewish citizens. To
counter this criticism, and salvage the image of liberal Zionism, a
number of prominent academics have taken upon themselves the task of
rescuing the image of the Jewish state. To be precise, they wish to
defend the notion that there is nothing in the idea of Israel as a
Jewish state that contradicts liberal universal principles. Among them
are Shlomo Avineri, Amnon Rubinstein, Ruth Gavison and Alexander
Yakobson. In what follows I discuss their approach, and the problems
with it, as illustrated in recent newspaper articles.

A case in point is Avineri’s article “A Palestinian people, yes, a
Jewish people, no?”, published in Haaretz on 13/08/2010
argues that the source of the Israeli-Arab conflict is the inability
of Arabs to accept that Jews are a nation with a right to
self-determination. But, in fact, most Arabs and critical people in
general do not challenge the right of Jews to define themselves any
way they wish, and to enjoy self-determination. What they do challenge
is the right of Jews to exercise self-determination in a territory
already occupied by other people, against their will, and at their
expense. Whether Palestinians are deprived of their right in the name
of a religious, ethnic or a national group is irrelevant.

Avineri claims that the principle of Jewish self-determination was
recognized by the UN partition resolution of 1947. But, that was not
the case. The UN recognized the right of Jews resident in the country
to form their own state (in which non-Jews would have equal rights),
and allowed for Jewish immigration to resolve the problem of post-war
displaced persons (DPs) in European camps. But, it never recognized
the right of Jews elsewhere or ‘the Jewish People’ to exercise
self-determination is Palestine.

Avineri claims that Israel is a Jewish nation-state just as Poland is
Polish and Greece is Greek. But, all citizens of Poland of whatever
ethno-religious origins are equally Polish in the eyes of the law
(including Jews, Germans, and so on). All citizens of Greece are
equally Greek. That is not the case for all Israeli citizens – they
are divided and granted differential rights on the basis of
ethno-religious affiliation. Even the language used here should alert
us to the difference: Poland is a Polish state, Greece is a Greek
state, and Israel is ... a Jewish (NOT Israeli) state.

Avineri claims that the religious component in Jewish identity is no
different from the religious component of Polish or Arab identity.
But, you can be Polish without being Catholic. You can be Arab without
being Muslim. You cannot be Jewish (ethnically) without being Jewish
(religiously, even if you are a non-practicing Jew). To be precise,
you cannot be Jewish while being an adherent of a different religion.
In other words, whereas the religious component in Polish, Greek, Arab
identities can be separated from the ethno-national components, that
is NOT the case with Jewish identity. Further, you can become Polish
or Arab by adopting Polish and Arabic as languages, by identifying
with Polish/Arab culture and history, and so on. In contrast, you can
only become Jewish through religious conversion.

Avineri claims that Arabs (in general) do not accept that Jews are a
nation, and therefore they reject Israel as a Jewish state. But, that
is a complete fabrication. What most Arabs and others critical of
Israeli policies and practices reject is the notion that Israel can be
a democratic state in which Jews enjoy a privileged political
position. This has nothing to do with the question of Jews as a
nation, but with the way Israel allocates differential political
rights based on ethno-national group membership.

Avineri claims that just as Arab countries can be in principle Arab
and democratic, so can a Jewish state. But, if the Arab nature of
Egypt and Lebanon meant that non-Arabs (Armenians, Greeks, Kurds) were
discriminated against, then of course Egypt and Lebanon would be
considered undemocratic. If the Arab nature of Egypt and Lebanon were
restricted to symbolic issues (flag, anthem, coat of arms), then most
reasonable people would have little problem with it, and would
similarly have little problem with Israel as a Jewish state, if the
expression of Jewishness were similarly restricted to the flag and
anthem. But, as Avineri should know full well, to be Jewish in Israel
means much more than gaining some symbolic advantage. It has to do
with fundamental questions of right to full citizenship, access to
resources, political legitimacy and membership in the `national`
community. A renowned scholar such as Avineri cannot be accused of
ignorance in these matters, which leaves us with the only other
option, if we wish to understand his article: he deliberately distorts
evidence and uses bogus arguments to advance a political agenda: to
present a Liebermanism with a human face.

A similar perspective is offered by Alexander Yakobson in his article
“What`s in a name? The term `Jewish state` may be problematic – but
would relinquishing it be any improvement?”, published in Haaretz on
19/08.2010 []

Yakobson asks: “How can a democrat deny the right of the Jewish people
to a state”, and the answer is that no-one does that. What democrats
deny is the right of the Jewish people to a state at the expense of
the indigenous population, displacing and marginalizing them in their
own homeland.

Yakobson asks: “Is the problem, perhaps, not the right to a state, but
rather the term ‘Jewish state’, which invites anti-democratic
interpretations”, and the answer is that terms are not a problem,
policies and practices are. If the Jewish state did not systematically
discriminate against non-Jews, there would be no problem with whatever
name it uses.

Yakobson asks: given the UN 1947 partition resolution, “how, then, can
one claim that the Jewish state, ‘by definition,’ cannot be
democratic?”, and the answer is that for the UN the Jewishness of the
state was merely a description of the demographic breakdown of the
population at that point in time (with a slight majority of Jews),
with complete political, cultural, religious and linguistic equality
to all: it had no content beyond that. Any definition in which the
state is Jewish in a political sense cannot be democratic. If Israel
stuck to that UN original intention, perhaps with some Jewish
cultural/symbolic content, there would be very little problem with it.

Yakobson argues that if Israel were defined as an Israeli state, that
too could serve as a basis for discrimination. True, but there is one
crucial difference. Israel is a state, and the term `Israeli` could
refer to citizenship or legal or civic status - it has no inherent
ethnic content today (even if historically it did). The term Jewish,
in contrast, has distinctive ethno-religious content. It cannot be
used in a neutral civic manner, and therefore any link between it and
the state is inherently exclusionary.

As the late Tony Judt said in response to similar arguments: “The
comparison with France, which many critics raised, is revealing in
this respect. Yes, France—like Italy, Germany, and every other
sovereign state—distinguishes and discriminates between citizens and
noncitizens. No country welcomes anyone and everyone … the Europeans
in particular discriminate quite shamelessly against would-be
immigrants. And all countries have resident noncitizens who get
second-class treatment. 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. The categories become tautological:
France is the state of all the French; all French persons are by
definition citizens of France; and all citizens of France are …
French. 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. There is no comparison.”

This seems pretty convincing, but not to Avineri, who offers a sort of
a comeback in “Biladi, Biladi - what`s in a name?”, published in
Haaretz on 8/09/2010

What does Avineri have to say? That if Israel became an Israeli state,
a state of all its citizens, there might be some calls – god forbid -
to adjust its laws, practices and symbols to that reality. Those pesky
Arab activists would not be satisfied with speeches in the Knesset;
they might actually demand some real changes! And public discourse
might have to take into consideration the notion that `Israeli` does
not necessarily mean Jewish, and that Jewish-only institutions (JNF)
would have no official role. The Arabs would even demand changes in
Jewish religion, though why they would do that if the state is secular
and has no involvement in communal matters - according to Avineri`s
own premise - remains a mystery. Why a minority vastly outnumbered by
a Jewish majority in all public institutions (including parliament and
the courts) would insist on state involvement in the majority`s
affairs, which would inevitably invite much more drastic intervention
against itself, is another mystery that
Avineri does not bother to address.

And, the saga continues. In a subsequent article “The right
questions”, published in Haaretz on 5/10/2010
he argues: “Palestinian leaders should be asked whether it is clear to
them that the territory of Israel proper is not part of Palestine, and
should not be presented as such in the Palestinian
narrative and in Palestinian schools. Just as a majority of Israel`s
Jewish citizens distinguish between ‘the State of Israel’ and ‘the
Land of Israel’, it should be clear to us, and to them, that Acre and
Jaffa and Be`er Sheva are not part of Palestine.”

What Avineri fails to consider is that there is no reason why areas
under Israeli control will not remain part of Palestine as a
geographic/symbolic area, regardless of the boundaries of the State of
Palestine. Second, most Israeli Jews and - especially - political
leaders do NOT distinguish between the state of Israel and the land of
Israel. Acre and Jaffa are and have been part of Palestine
(geographically, historically, symbolically) and part of Israel
(politically) at the same time. Where is the contradiction? And, if
there is indeed a contradiction, would Avineri demand that Israeli
Jews will abandon the term `Land of Israel`? And how would he enforce
that? By changing the religious and historical texts? Were not
Palestinians guilty of such suggestions according to his own logic?

He goes on to question “Israel`s Arab citizens” self-identification as
Palestinians: “it is impossible to ignore the fact that following the
establishment of an independent Palestinian state, this definition is
liable to seem problematic. Does this definition mean they will view
the independent state of Palestine as their country and their

Needless to say, the answer is ‘No’. Their country and homeland is
where they live and always have lived. Why would that need to change?
The term Palestine is geographical and symbolic regardless of the
boundaries of the political entity which might be called Palestine
according to any future arrangement.

But this is not an academic debate, he warns: “some clarifications
could advance Israeli Arabs` acceptance as equal citizens - a
challenge that will only become more pressing for Israel after
independent Palestine is established, since then, Israel`s various
security-oriented excuses will no longer have the same weight and
validity.” In this convoluted formulation Avineri seems to be saying
that if the security excuses are no longer there, other excuses will
replace them, but if he recognizes these are all excuses should not rather the
political mentality that constantly generates such excuses be the cause for

Unfortunately, instead of tackling that mentality head-on, Avineri
adopts it, albeit with a qualification. His latest article, “It`s
enough to recognize Israel`s legitimacy”, published in Haaretz on
8/10/2010 [
argues that “It would be a mistake for the government to adopt a
proposal to expand the general pledge of allegiance required of
naturalized citizens (those who are not entitled to citizenship under
the Law of Return ) by adding a pledge of allegiance to Israel as a
Jewish and democratic state.” Instead they should be required to
declare that they accept the legitimacy of the state of Israel. Why?
Because this legitimacy is “what Israel`s enemies, especially in the
Arab world, reject. Palestinians who wish to marry Israeli Arabs may
have difficulty voicing a declaration of this kind, but that is their
problem. If they wish to be citizens of Israel, they cannot reject its

And with this, we come back full circle. The real difference between
Dr. Avineri and Mr. Lieberman is not their goals. They share the quest
for a Jewish state that privileges its Jewish citizens, though may
dispute the precise details and implications of that. The difference
is in the tactics: how to present arguments in a way that would
prevent international criticism? In all likelihood, Avineri’s
increasing failure of logic reflects desperation in the face of
inability to offer any rational arguments. After all, if we want a
state in which Jews enjoyed political privileges at the expense of
Arabs, who really needs liberal apologetics for that?

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