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Tel Aviv University
[TAU, Minerva Humanities] Review of Raef Zreik's article "Why the Jewish State Now?"

Why the Jewish State Now?

Author(s): Raef Zreik


Raef Zreik is co-director of the Minerva Center for the Humanities at Tel Aviv University, 

and a lecturer at the Carmel Academic Center in Haifa.



Source: Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 40, No. 3 (Spring 2011), pp. 23-37

Published by: University of California Press on behalf of the Institute for Palestine Studies

Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/jps.2011.XL.3.23 .

Accessed: 06/06/2011 11:07



Unlike the staple post-Zionist writings with its de rigour depiction of Israel as a “colonial state” and/or  “apartheid state”,  Zreik’sessay is  more  sophisticated  and thus more challenging.  His question as to why has the Netanyahu government insisted on Palestinian acknowledgment of Israel as a Jewish state certainly deserves an answer.

 Zreik notes that during the first decades Israel’s Jewishness was taken for granted.  Indeed, in his view, “there was no need for an apartheid system” and no need for discriminatory laws because privileges were granted to groups such as Holocaust survivors, IDF veterans or avocado farmer, all benefiting Jews or mostly Jews.   Indeed, Zreik finds that “scores” of Israeli laws did not even mention the word “Arab” or “Jew” when discussing benefits.   While few would refuse to admit that the net result was discriminatory toward the Arab minority, it is wrong to assume that the system was primarily set up with this goal in mind.   It should be noted that the Jewish society in Palestine was essentially corporatist, i.e. a conglomerate of groups that negotiated privileges for its members. This structure carried into the new state, prompting the first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion to fight for more statist policies.  However, the group-based allocations and its attendant disparities have tended to linger.   Holocaust benefits discriminate against Oriental Jews and Arabs, veteran benefits discriminate against Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews, new immigrant benefits discriminate against veteran Jews and Arabs.   Conversely, generous allocations for children disproportionally benefited the Arab and ultra -Orthodox populations at the expense of secular Jews.  

 Zreik’s definition of the Absentee Property Law that transferred Arab property to Jews as “internal colonialism” should be reexamined in the context of other population movements such as Turkey and Greece, India and Pakistan and Poland and Germany, to name a few. As new research in comparative law indicates, the Israeli case was part of the British legal tradition that had aimed at depriving the enemy of its economic basis.  The transfer of German property to Poles after WW II bears more than passing scrutiny; rather than innocent victims of a catastrophe, the Palestinians were aggressors who lost a war and suffered the consequences. 

Zriek correctly notes that a number of factors have combined to challenge the implicit Jewishness of the state in the 1990s.  Concern for civil rights spurred legislation that gave the Arab minority a more equal footing; the 2000 High Court ruling confirmed that Arabs cannot be discrimination in the allocation of state-owned land.   At the same time, as Zriek points out, the move toward a civic orientation has exposed the inherent tensions between the Jewish and democratic definitions of the state.   The Basic Laws and other legislative initiatives recognized that Israel is unique in the sense that Judaism is an inextricable blend of religious and ethno-national elements.  At the same time, the assumption was that the Jewish and democratic value is not mutually exclusive and indeed, can be reconciled as the language of the laws stated.  This was not an unreasonable assumption given the experience of some European democracies where Christianity is deeply embedded in the fabric of society. 

But as Zriek admits, this view is not shared by the Arab society where “there was a growing awareness that in order to win full citizenship and equality it would be necessary to mount a more forceful challenge to the Jewish nature of the state. “  Starting in 1996, a number of Vision statements have urged the creation of a democratic state by largely eliminating its Jewish character.  The 2006 document asserts that defining Israel as a Jewish state is exclusionary to Arabs and demands the creation of a non -Jewish Consensual Democracy.  The 2007 Vision declaration adds that “Israel must recognize its responsibility for past injustices suffered by the Palestinian people [and] recognize the right of return of Palestinian refugees.”

Much as the zero-sum game depiction of relation between Jewishness and democracy may satisfy a highly- developed liberal sensibility, it has been a hard sell in Israel.  Even many liberal Jews found such demands too harsh, especially as a return of a large number of Palestinians threatens to undermine the Jewish majority.  Zriek fails to address this fact, but chooses to assert that the “Israeli Right was able to restore the ethno-religious discourse of the Arab demographic threat.” 

Zriek is entirely correct to attribute the revival of the Jewish nationalist right to the collapse of the Oslo peace process and the Intifada, not to mention the security threat from the Islamist-dominated Gaza Strip.  But it bears emphasizing that Yasser Arafat refused to accept a historically generous offer to settle the conflict because of a last minute insistence on the right to return of Palestinian refugees, a development that neither the Israeli or American negotiators had anticipated.  Despairing over the turn of events, two ultra-dovish Labor politicians present at the final round of negations in Sharm al-Sheikh in January 2001, acknowledged as much, adding that the right to return was a deal breaker.

Given this fact, Zreik’s assertion that Netanyahu has used the “Jewish angle” as a tactical weapon to torpedo negations with the Palestinians is puzzling.  His suggestion that Palestinians consider recognizing the Jewish character of Israel in exchange for an Israeli recognition of the right to return is even more perplexing.  If, as he seems to believe, the right to return is a key element in the negotiations, then a “forever conflict” is virtually assured.

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