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Tel Aviv University
[TAU, co-director, Minerva Center Humanities] Raef Zreik "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

Israel’s raison d’être was as a Jewish state, yet for almost four decades 
after the 1948 declaration of its establishment its Jewishness was 
not inscribed in any law. This essay, a structural-historical discourse 
analysis, seeks to explore what led up to today’s insistent assertion 
of the state’s Jewish identity. To this end, the author traces Israel’s 
gradual evolution from its purely ethnic roots (the Zionist revolution)
to a more civic concept of statehood involving greater inclusiveness
(accompanied in recent decades by a rise in Jewish religious 
discourse). The author finds that while the state’s Jewishness was for 
decades an assumption so basic as to be self-evident to the Jewish 
majority, the need to declare it became more urgent as the possibility 
of becoming “normalized” (i.e., a state for all its citizens) became an 
option, however distant. The essay ends with an analysis of Israel’s 
demand for recognition as a Jewish state, arguing why the Palestinian 
negotiators would benefit from deconstructing it rather than simply 
disregarding it. 

DURING ITS PEACE NEGOTIATIONS WITH EGYPT AND JODAN,
Israel did not ask for recognition for itself as a Jewish state,
and such recognition does not appear in 
the peace treaties with either state. With regard to negotiations with the PLO 
for the final status of the Palestinian territories, the demand for recognition 
of Israel as a Jewish state or as a state of the Jewish people (which are different concepts1)
was not on the table at the 1991 Madrid conference, during 
the Oslo talks of 1992–93, or even at the failed Camp David summit of July 
2000, or the subsequent negotiations at Taba in early 2001. This demand was 
put forward for the first time in a negotiation context at the 2007 Annapolis 
conference by the Olmert government in its last days in office. The current 
Israeli government, by contrast, has made recognition of the Jewishness of 
the state one of its principal negotiating demands, on occasion even presenting
it as a precondition for the negotiations themselves. 
Nor has the growing emphasis on the demand been restricted to the negotiating sphere.
Projects aimed at affirming the Jewishness of the state through 
legislation2
  have  increased  in  recent  years:  amendments  to  the  citizenship 
law require persons seeking Israeli citizenship to swear allegiance to a Jewish 
and democratic Israel and limit family unification between Israeli Palestinians 
and their spouses from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.3
 Proposals for a population swap in the context of a final settlement are becoming increasingly 
legitimate in the public discourse,4
 while amendments to other legislation 
include restricting Palestinian citizens’ commemoration of the Nakba5
and de facto restrictions on the right of Palestinian citizens to purchase homes 
in (Jewish) communal settlements.6
So what is happening here? At the level of Israeli domestic politics, and 
with regard to the now-stalled negotiations with Palestinians, one could say 
that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been keen to divert attention 
from divisive issues in Israeli society, such as settlements and Jerusalem, 
to nondivisive issues such as the Jewish state. Netanyahu knows well that 
negotiations may fail, but he would prefer that they fail by being dashed 
against the rock of the Jewish state, which enjoys absolute majority Jewish 
support, than because of the absence of a settlement freeze, which would have 
led to claims that had there been one, there might have been progress in the 
negotiations and possibly even a peace agreement. According to this line of 
reasoning, Netanyahu’s demands for the recognition of the Jewishness of 
the state is a tactical, even a partisan maneuver—his way of torpedoing the 
negotiations over an issue that is not controversial in Israeli society so as to 
consolidate his position not only as the leader of the Israeli Right but also as 
the leader of Israeli society as a whole. 
In my opinion, however, the above analysis does not fully explain the stridency
of the Israeli discourse on the subject of the Jewish state. This essay 
is an attempt to offer a more penetrating analysis, one that examines the 
discourse on the Jewish state to reveal the internal dynamics and horizons 
of its evolution. 

FIRST WAS THE ETHNOS

Israel was born as a Jewish state, established by and  for the Jews. The 
body that issued the proclamation of statehood, the National Council, was 
made up solely of Jewish bodies representing not the Jews of Palestine but 
the Jewish people everywhere. The Jewishness of the state was therefore 
part of its genetic makeup, the raison d’être of the whole project, the living 
spirit of the proclamation itself. It was not deemed necessary to codify it into 
formal law, because from the very outset it was taken for granted that Israel 
was the state of the Jewish people—a state not for the people living inside 
its borders but for a people most of whom lived outside.
In other words, the mandate of the new state was not to act as the guardian 
of its citizens, both Arab and Jewish, but to safeguard the interests of the Jewish 
people wherever they were. This fact, a priori, determined the moral and political
duties of the state. Consequently, one could say that Israeli citizenship was 
deformed at birth, genetically flawed as it were, since Israeli citizenship per se 
was almost irrelevant. What determined the lives and fortunes of those residing
in the country was not citizenship but ethnic-national affiliation.

The founding of the State of Israel was a major milestone for the Zionist 
project, but its ultimate goal was in gathering the Jews of the diaspora into 
the new state as the solution to the “Jewish question.” In other words, its 
aim was not to solve the problem of the Jews in Palestine alone but to solve 
the problem of the Jews worldwide. And in the process of building the state, 
Zionism entertained a second mission, which was to effect a radical transformation
of Jewish identity and the life of the Jewish people—to create the new 
Jew, the new soldier, the new farmer, the new sabra. Consequently,
the establishment of Israel was merely a stage, albeit an important one, in the long-term 
Zionist project, in effect, a continuous revolution. The state as conceived was 
but an instrument in the service of the ongoing Zionist revolution, subservient to its logic. 
But in order to functi'on, a state needs state institutions, which by definition are for all  citizens  
(barring  a  declaration  of  apartheid  from  the  start). 
Prior to the establishment of the state, Zionism’s sole concern had been the 
ethno-national movement, but from then on it was charged with a statehood 
project that included non-Jews as citizens. Thus the National Council, which 
represented both the Yishuv (the prestate Jewish community in Palestine)7
and the Jewish people as a whole, and was responsible solely to them, transferred
its powers to the newly elected Knesset, a  state institution and as 
such representing (at least formally) all the citizens of the state, including 
the Arabs. This move in effect marked the transition from a pure ethnonational logic
to a civic logic, from the expansionist dynamic of the Zionist 
revolution to the normative, bounded constraints of the state—in short, the 
transition from ethnos to demos. But from the start there was a clear tension 
between ethnos and demos, as well as between the locus of the problem (i.e., 
the Jewish question, mainly in Europe) and the locus of the solution (Israeli 
statehood, in Palestine).
Paradoxically, the fact that 150,000 Palestinians remained inside what 
became Israel at the end of the 1948 war represented a sort of historical 
miracle for both sides. The Arabs who remained found their situation to 
be miraculous compared to the fate of their brethren, the some 750,000 
Palestinians who had lost their homes, lands, and country and became
refugees overnight; for them, it was enough that they were left standing in 
their homeland to feel that God had come to their aid. For the newly created
Jewish majority, too, it was a miracle, considering that the number of 
Arabs within the borders of the Jewish state awarded by the UN Partition 
Plan might have reached 600,000 but instead was reduced to one-fourth that 
number by a war that simultaneously considerably enlarged the territory of 
the Jewish state. Such an achievement was thus to be celebrated, having far 
exceeded the wildest hopes of the state’s founders.
In this light, the granting of Israeli citizenship to the Palestinians who 
remained within the new state constituted a sort of truce, a (negative) compromise
accepted by both sides, each for its own reasons: the Palestinians 
were content because citizenship at least guaranteed that they could remain 
in their homeland, and the Jews were content because there were relatively few
Palestinians to whom citizenship had to be granted. In fact, of 
course, neither  side was  really happy with  this  shotgun marriage. After  all, 
the Palestinians had not wanted to be Israeli citizens in an Israeli state, and 
Israel had not wanted to have Palestinian citizens at all. Moreover, neither 
side took this citizenship seriously: the Palestinians 
did not consider the Israeli state to be theirs, and 
Israel did not see the Palestinians as real and genuine citizens.8
Still, I believe that in those early days, 
when the Palestinians were living on the margins of 
the state without being part of it, both sides were 
comfortable with this formula.
Up until the late 1970s, the Palestinian presence 
did not represent a theoretical, legal, or conceptual 
challenge to Israel, or the kind of jarring anomaly that 
might have forced Israeli Jewish society to come to 
terms with itself and the definition of the state. Palestinian society, having 
lost its cultural, intellectual, and legal elite, had been defeated from within 
and had implicitly accepted that the condition for remaining in their
homeland was that they not disrupt the serenity of the new state project.
Like the Zionist project in general, Israel was more revolution than state 
in the early decades. It had no constitution or anything like a constitution. Its 
borders, which were little more than an embodiment of the military balance 
of power, were not recognized either internationally or by its neighbors on 
the grounds that they had been extended by force beyond those stipulated by 
the UN partition plan. The Jewish potential citizens that the state intended to 
in-gather were still outside, whereas the actual Arab citizens were not quite 
full citizens. In this sense, Israel was a state on hold. 
As for the land, its acquisition and settlement in prestate days had been 
among the tools for winning sovereignty. That achieved, the real battle for the 
land began, since at the war’s end most of it still belonged to the Palestinians, 
either refugees or citizens of the new state.9
 From then on, instead of land 
and settlement being an instrument for attaining sovereignty, sovereignty 
became the instrument through which land title could be obtained and the 
settlement project continued and expanded. The refugee land, the first target
for transfer to Jewish hands, was expropriated under a series of laws 
that declared the refugees to be “absentees” (including those still within 
the borders of the state).10
At the same time, the agricultural lands of the 
Palestinians who had stayed put in their villages were gradually confiscated. 
Thus the takeover of Palestinian land inside Israel went forward as internal 
colonization. In this sense, Israel in the early decades continued the Zionist 
project under the Mandate aimed at acquiring as much land and absorbing 
and settling as many Jewish immigrants as possible, with one difference: 
with the capture of the state apparatus, the Zionist movement was able to 
pursue these goals without the limits imposed on it from the outside by the 
Mandate authorities. Nonetheless, as we shall see, this Zionist project ultimately
became subject to the laws of the very state it had itself created. 
In such conditions, any talk about equality between Palestinians and Jews 
in Israel was meaningless. There was a winner and a loser: one people had 
lost a homeland and another had gained one; one people had ended their 
condition of exile, the other had begun theirs. What could equality possibly 
mean in the context of such a zero-sum struggle? 
Thus, when in the early 1950s the Israeli government offered loans and 
tax incentives to encourage Israeli citizens to settle the border areas in order 
to prevent Palestinian “infiltrators” (i.e., refugees in bordering states) from 
returning to their deserted villages, what could possibly be offered to approximate equality?
Or when the state offered incentives to encourage new settlers to move into the houses
left by the Palestinian refugees, what could 
the Palestinians ask for that would mirror such benefits? Likewise for land 
expropriations, which were “explained” at the time by the “demographic 
surplus” and “shortage of land” for the arriving Jews and the opposite situation for the
Palestinian citizens, with the result that the incoming immigrants 
needed housing and the suitable land just happened to be in Palestinian 
hands. In such circumstances, what does citizenship mean? And what kind 
of equal treatment could be envisaged to parallel the laws that provided loans 
and grants for anyone who had participated in the war effort to establish the 
State of Israel? Could the Palestinians, for example, ask for economic aid and 
fiscal benefits for those who had participated in the war effort against the 
establishment of the state?
In fact, given the absence of any common ground or any common denominator,
the question of equality, or even of citizenship, seldom arose in the 
early decades of the state. All the more so in that there were no explicitly 
discriminatory laws at the time. There had been no need to spell out in legislation
that Israel was a state for the Jews when this was the operating premise 
of the entire state apparatus, the project in whose service the entire state was 
organized. There is no need to assert what is taken for granted.
Indeed, discrimination was not in the text of the law but in the intent of 
the legislator. Discrimination both preceded and followed the drafting of 
the legal text and was present in its implementation. Scores of Israeli laws 
did not even mention the words “Arab” or “Jew” but granted privileges that 
applied either exclusively to Jews (e.g., Holocaust survivors, avocado farmers, 
residents of border regions or “development areas”) or largely to them (i.e., 
persons serving in the army). Since each of the groups singled out had specific
characteristics, all these laws could be justified as having been passed 
not to benefit Jews per se but to address the needs of a particular group.
The net result was that Israel had no need for an apartheid system. 
Discrimination against a group is an indication of that group’s existence, and 
because a large part of the Palestinian population had already been expelled or 
had left out of fear during the war, there was no obvious Palestinian presence 
in the new state. Having been placed under martial law immediately after the 
war, they lived within a separate legal order up until 1966 (when military rule 
ended) and were concentrated in limited geographic areas, their movement 
considerably restricted. Meanwhile, the State of Israel, essentially a continuation
of the Yishuv (which under the British Mandate had operated as a state 
within a state), was heir to its (exclusively Jewish) institutions, which
comprised the health system, the banking system, labor unions, and so on. In such 
conditions, there was no need to refer to separation between Jews and Arabs, 
because Jews and Arabs lived in geographic and economic realities so different 
that they might as well have been living in different countries. 
For precisely the same reasons that apartheid or any formal separation 
had been unnecessary in Israeli legal texts, so had explicit mention of the 
Jewishness of the state been unnecessary. This remained the case for almost 
four decades, not because there was no Jewish state but because its existence 
was self-evident—a historical, geographic, and natural phenomenon. 

TOWARD THE LOGIC OF STATEHOOD

The first stirrings of Arab challenge to the Jewish nature of the state 
occurred in 1965. That was when an Arab political movement called Al-Ard 
( The Land ), formed in the late 1950s, decided it wanted to participate in 
the Knesset elections. Suddenly the entire Israeli legal system was hit by the 
realization that no Israeli legal text granted any state body the authority to 
bar a political party from running for the Knesset, even if that party at least 
implicitly challenged the validity of the state’s Jewishness. The Israeli High 
(Supreme) Court therefore had to resort to legal theories and arguments 
based on natural law, rather than positive law, to justify its decision to ban 
the party from participating in the elections and indeed to ban the party 
altogether.11
 The absence of a positive law granting the Election Committee 
authority of this nature shows that the need for such a law had not even 
occurred to anyone, testifying to the mindset of the architects of an Israeli 
legal system for whom such legislation would have been redundant, so deeply 
internalized was the absolute Jewishness of the state. Beyond that, what the 
incident plainly showed is that if ever a Palestinian citizen were to decide 
to take the promise of citizenship seriously, he or she would find the Jewish 
state fully mobilized to block the way. 
From the moment of Israel’s founding, the invisibility of the Jewish state 
in the legal texts went hand in hand with the invisibility of the Palestinians 
in the land. Only when this situation changed would that which had been 
taken for granted—the Jewishness of the state—need to be asserted. A series 
of developments, mostly involving the weakening of the logic of the Zionist 
“revolution” in favor of the logic of statehood as governed by civic institutions,
laid the ground for both the emergence of a civic discourse of citizenship and
for the mounting challenges to the Jewishness of the state, which 
ultimately led Israel to define itself as a Jewish state in legal texts. I briefly 
review those developments below.

First: The 1967 war resulted in Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and 
the Gaza Strip, reuniting what had been Palestine in a single geopolitical unit. 
The occupation created a duality between two important concepts: the Land 
of Israel on the one hand and the State of Israel on the other, for although the 
State of Israel is located within the Land of Israel, the two are not synonymous.
The 1967 war expanded Israel’s military borders, even while it gave 
political meaning to the 1948 borders for the first time. Thenceforth, instead 
of merely tracing the 1948 armistice lines (by definition temporary), what 
was later known as the “Green Line” became the internationally accepted 
political border of a recognized state. In a sense, Israel was normalized (legitimized)
within the 1967 borders through displacement of the site of contestation to the occupied territories. 
Thus, as a result of the 1967 war, Nazareth, conquered in 1948, and 
al-Khalil (Hebron), conquered in 1967, became part of the same physical 
political unity, both subject to Israeli control. It was precisely this new “unification,”
however, that allowed the difference between the “here” (Israel) 
and the “there” (the occupied territories) to appear, and that difference was 
citizenship: here (in Israel) there are citizens, both Palestinians and Jews 
(however unequal), and there (in the occupied territories), there are noncitizens only.
This distinction between the Palestinians in Israel and those in the 
territories made the concept of Israeli citizenship visible, and in this sense, 
the meaning of citizenship in Israel was constructed from outside.12
 By the 
same token, whereas previously the significant boundary within Israel had 
been between Jews and Arabs, the 1967 war added a new boundary: between 
Israeli (Arab and Jew) and non-Israeli (Palestinians in the territories).13
 It was 
thus that 1967 and its consequences made the discourse about the concepts 
of “Israeli” and “citizenship” possible.
Second: The 1977 Knesset elections brought the victory of the Likud 
party over Mapai (Labor), which had ruled Israel without interruption since 
the establishment of the state. Most of those who voted for Likud were oriental Jews
who had emigrated from the Arab countries in the 1950s, after Israel 
was established. Thus, for the first time, the state could no longer be seen 
as an extension of the Yishuv and its political, social, and economic institutions.
With Labor ousted, the seemingly organic link between the state and 
the deeply entrenched (Ashkenazi) Labor founding fathers was broken, and 
it was henceforth the Israeli people as a whole—essentially a new polity—
who would control and lead the state organs. This crucial juncture marked 
the triumph of the state (and its institutions) over the revolution that had 
given birth to it. In other words, the offspring—the state—having reached 
maturity and gained the confidence to manage on its own, rebelled against 
its fathers/founders. 
Third: The privatization and emergence of a free economy relatively 
independent of state control was achieved by separating the state from the 
market as well as from the quasi-state conglomerates, such as the Histadrut 
(which besides its functi'on as Israel’s labor federation also owned numerous 
companies and factories, for a time making it the country’s largest employer), 
Eged (transport), Tnuva (food industries), and Kuppat Holim (health insurance),
all dominant in their fields. These virtual monopolies, controlled by 
Labor, not only played a major economic role but also offered their members 
numerous benefits and acted as social organizations and solidarity groups 
(imbued with a certain ideology). Labor’s control of these powerful bodies, 
combined with its previous hold on the government and military, bespeaks 
the high level of congruence between the groups that held political, military, 
social, and economic power. 
Ironically, it was the economic liberalization led by the Likud, albeit 
inspired by the international neo-liberalism of the mid-1980s, that made possible
the development of an Arab economic elite in Israel. This in turn fostered the
emergence of a middle-class Palestinian intelligentsia, increasingly 
imbued with a national consciousness that would increasingly challenge 
Israel’s status as a Jewish state. 
Fourth: While political liberalism and economic liberalization are not 
intrinsically linked, in the Israeli case they marched together during the 1980s 
and 1990s.14
 The 1973 war—several years before the Likud victory—had sundered the
Zionist national consensus, forcibly rousing it from the intoxication 
of the 1967 war, and critical voices inside Israeli society increased. This was 
the beginning of a certain separation between Israeli Jewish society and the 
Israeli state, hitherto virtually synonymous, and this likewise contributed to 
the emergence of a civic discourse.
Fifth: The aforementioned transition from the ethno-national Jewish institutions
to “state institutions” ostensibly representing all citizens had progressed in the
years since the establishment of the High Court in 1948 and of 
the Knesset in 1949. As time went on, it had clearly no longer been possible 
to run the state on the logic of revolution: a victorious revolution inevitably 
ceases to be a revolution, transforming itself into state institutions. Thus, 
other state bodies followed the High Court and the Histadrut, including, 
among many others, the lower court system, the Attorney General’s office, 
the state ombudsman’s office, and the Interior Ministry (in charge of issuing 
IDs and passports). The Histadrut had begun gradually opening its doors to 
Arab labor as early as 1959. Bit by bit, a common roof—the state—was built, 
a site of commonality despite the communal differences.
Sixth: The final event that seemed to mark the end of the Zionist revolution,
while giving some flesh to the civic discourse, was the signing of the 
Oslo accords by Israel and the PLO in 1993. The accords were initially seen 
as providing for two entities or states. This would have meant, among other 
things, setting limits and establishing agreed-upon permanent political borders
for the State of Israel. Furthermore, Oslo, by putting Israel within reach 
of recognition by all its neighbors and the Muslim world, permitting it to 
normalize its presence in the region at last, also gave Israel the confidence 
to tolerate the wider range of discourse made possible by the other developments enumerated above.

DISCOURSE AND COUNTER-DISCOURSE

Meanwhile, other important developments, which sometimes went 
unnoticed, were taking place in the legal domain, particularly at the High 
Court. By the 1980s, the state’s formative period was drawing to a close: 
Israel’s existence had been consolidated and the Jewish collective right 
to self-determination had been established. Against this background, the 
High Court apparently decided that it could now turn to matters relating 
to self-determination for the individual citizen. On this basis, the Court 
issued a number of rulings that granted political liberties to citizens,
limited the state’s power to intervene in their personal affairs, and placed 
curbs on military and political censorship. Important rulings of a technical 
nature had the effect of allowing any citizen to approach the Court and ask 
for a ruling on matters relating to the rule of law, the violation of rights, 
or bad governance. This had two important consequences. First, it opened 
the door to the proliferation of civic rights groups and nongovernmental 
organizations representing the interests of various groups and speaking on 
their behalf, thus laying the groundwork for the development of a relatively 
active civil society. Second, it led to a culture of legalization, where the 
Court became the main adjudicator in public (i.e., political) controversies 
or disputes. 
The new culture of legalization, which by its very nature puts limits on 
politics and subjects the power of the majority to judicial review, reached 
its climax in the early 1990s with the enactment of two Basic Laws that 
were the centerpiece of what became known as the constitutional revolution.
In a way, the rise of constitutionalism in Israel was meant to signal a 
shift from simple majoritarian politics dominated by the Jewish majority to 
a more liberal politics that subjects the judgment of the majority to certain 
restrictions.
Thus in the 1990s, Israel from a legal standpoint appeared to be on the 
verge of becoming merely a state, an abstract entity—abstracted from the 
revolution that created it, from the market, from society; a state that transcended
its ethno-religious affiliations instead of being an extension of them. This trend 
toward the logic of the “statehood” qua statehood culminated in
the 2000 High Court ruling in the case of 
Adel Qa‘dan, an Arab citizen who had appealed to the 
Court after his request to live in a Jewish settlement 
on state land had been rejected. The Court ruled in 
Qa‘dan’s favor, holding that discrimination between 
Jewish and Arab citizens in the use and allocation of 
state-controlled land was impermissible.15
 The trends 
within the court system undoubtedly influenced the public discourse, at least 
for a time. Moreover, the courts speak the language of rights, which is the 
language of citizenship. 

The Jewish and Democratic State Discourse
The first mention in an Israeli legal text of Israel as a Jewish state (in 
its nationalist sense) occurred in a 1985 amendment to the Basic Law: The 
Knesset, which was originally passed in 1958. The amendment stipulated that 
any party that denied the existence of the State of Israel as the “state of the 
Jewish people” or that incited to racism would be barred from participating 
in elections for the Knesset. The drive behind this amendment was mixed, 
but the clause affirming Israel as a Jewish state was a response to a bid to run 
for the Knesset by the Progressive Movement,16
 a Palestinian political formation whose emphasis on Arab citizenship rights and full equality was seen 
as posing a challenge to the Jewish character of the state. The racism clause, 
on the other hand, was a response to the racist discourse manifested in the 
platform of the Kach party (led by Rabbi Meir Kahane): the 1985 amendment 
was the result of the Knesset’s attempt to find a compromise between two 
camps, Left and Right, by restricting both. In fact, the Progressive Movement 
was ultimately not found in violation of the law and was allowed to participate
in the elections, whereas Kach was banned.17
Two Basic Laws passed in the early 1990s by the Knesset in its capacity as 
Constituent Assembly were the first laws to characterize Israel as a “Jewish 
and democratic state”; with these laws, the tension between the Jewish and 
democratic elements of the Israeli state not only was acknowledged but was 
elevated to a constitutional level. The two laws—Basic Law: Human Dignity 
and Liberty (1992, amended 1994) and Basic Law: Freedom of Occupation 
(1994)—were identical in their stated purpose as stipulated in their texts: 
“to establish in a Basic Law the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish and 
democratic state.” 
Meanwhile, within the Arab community, 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.
That challenge came to fruition in 1996, when the National Democratic Assembly18
raised the slogan of Israel as “a state for all its citizens.”
The slogan soon figured prominently in the agendas of all Arab political formations
in the country, and while the Jewish majority was far from embracing the discourse, 
a certain debate was initiated (with several groups maintaining that Israel 
was both a Jewish state and a state for all its citizens). The maturation of 
civic discourse—especially about rights and the state—gave specific
meaning to the discourse about citizenship, namely that the state could potentially 
become a legal and political entity above ideology and religious, ethnic, or 
national affiliations. 
Thus, what happened in the 1990s, and particularly as of the middle of the 
decade with the relative success of the “state for all its citizens’” slogan, was 
that the idea that there could be something other than a Jewish state was 
on the table for the first time. In the wake of the Oslo accords, and with the 
Jewish majority bolstered by the influx of about a million new immigrants 
from the former Soviet Union, Israel was sufficiently confident to allow the 
discourse of rights and citizenship to take place and even, to a degree, to 
engage in a debate that centered on concepts such as “liberal civic state,” 
“citizens’ state,” and “neutral state.” 

The Ethno-Religious Discourse
In parallel to the emerging discourse about citizenship and rights, with 
its promise of greater inclusiveness, another discourse had also been developing.
Particularly after the 1967 war, religious forces, which proffered 
theological interpretations of the occupation, reasserted themselves, and 
the religious underpinnings that had always existed in the Zionist discourse 
resurfaced with unprecedented intensity.19
 A messianic Jewish religious discourse emerged as a counterweight
to the civil discourse. Political questions 
were now formulated as theological dilemmas. Withdrawal from Hebron, 
for example, was no longer to be decided by secular considerations such 
as the political balance of forces, but by theological considerations, such as 
the permissibility of evacuating sites sacred to the Jewish people. The most 
forceful expression of this discourse was within nationalist religious circles 
and within nationalist religious seminaries (yeshivot). Gush Emmunim was 
one of its clearest manifestations.
The religious discourse did not shrink from incitement, targeting those 
with opposing views, and its first major victim was Prime Minister Yitzhak 
Rabin, assassinated in 1995 by a young yeshiva student who justified his action 
by invoking the Oslo agreement, which Rabin had championed and which 
had passed in the Knesset only thanks to the support of its Arab members. 
For the assassin, Yigal Amir, and others of like ideas, the Oslo agreement was 
a sign that the Jewish people had lost their power of self-determination by 
delegating it in part to the Arabs. According to this logic, the Jewish people 
were no longer in control of the decision-making process and therefore were 
no longer the sole and uncontested masters of the country. 
As long as the optimism of the peace process remained alive, the religious Right’s
ethno-religious/national discourse was held in check, and civic 
discourse appeared to have the upper hand. Furthermore, developments 
such as the March 2000 High Court ruling in the Qa‘dan case mentioned 
earlier seemed to place Israel on the brink of becoming a state qua state 
with its inevitable implications in terms of weakening the Jewish majority 
dominance. 
Less than six months later, however, the Camp David peace negotiations 
collapsed and the second Palestinian intifada—seen as proof that there was 
no Palestinian “partner for peace”—broke out, fueling the already growing 
perceptions of threat to the Jewishness of the state. The Israeli Right regained 
its confidence, and the ethno-religious/national trend swept through Israeli 
society. From then on, the mere thought that Israel could be anything other 
than a Jewish state was anathema to the Jewish majority, but in contrast to 
earlier decades when it had been taken for granted, the challenge by the 
Palestinians made it necessary to aggressively assert it with unprecedented 
force. The “state for all its citizens” slogan was buried, and the achievements 
of the 1990s in the direction of greater democracy, a more equal and plural 
society, and the rise of constitutionalism within Israeli legal and political 
discourse were subjected to a fierce and relentless assault. The relative ease 
with which the Israeli Right was able to restore the ethno-religious discourse 
of the Arab demographic threat is indicative of the fragility of the gains that 
had been made during the past decade. At the same time these gains,
however modest and limited, had been sufficient to unleash powerful forces to 
restore an ethno-national-religious right-wing discourse demanding first and 
foremost loyalty to the Jewish state. 

BACK TO NEGOTIATIONS

In looking to the future, and assuming that negotiations between Israel 
and the PLO will eventually resume, it is interesting to consider the demand 
for recognition of the Jews as a nation from the standpoint of its having been 
pushed forward by the Likud, successor to the Herut party, which in turn was 
the offspring of Zionism’s Revisionist movement founded by Vladimir (Ze’ev) 
Jabotinsky. In his famous 1923 article “The Iron Wall,” Jabotinsky argued that 
there was no point in trying to win Palestinian or Arab acquiescence in the 
Zionist project because, like all indigenous peoples, they would not accept 
a Jewish national presence in Palestine or voluntarily give up their right to 
their homeland. Consequently, he continued, there was no choice but to use 
force against them, to erect an “iron wall” of bayonets between them and 
the Jewish state to be. To achieve that, he wrote, the Zionists would have to 
rely on the support of a major world power. What is most significant about 
the article is the absence of any hint that winning Arab recognition of Jewish 
rights might be needed or even desirable. In Hegelian terms, Jabotinsky’s 
position could be reduced to the conviction that to be the master does not 
require the recognition of the slave but only of other masters such as the 
great European powers and the United States—and let the slave be damned. 
The question to be asked today is: Has there been any change in the role 
of the Palestinian slave in the thinking of Jabotinsky’s heirs within the Likud 
and the Israeli Right? Rather than respond with a yes or a no, I will simply note
that the Israeli Right (and most of the Israeli body politic) is no 
longer content with the language of force and of the fait accompli; it also 
wants the language of recognition, that is, the language of rights. It wants the 
Palestinians to recognize the right of the Jews to self-determination in their 
own state (a state in which moreover Palestinians have a sizable presence). At 
the same time, Netanyahu insists that any settlement reached must be final, 
the end of claims, the closing of all files. 
But herein lies the paradox of power. It was Israel, thanks to its overwhelming superiority
in the balance of power, that imposed the terms of the negotiations, that dictated strict
adherence to the issues of 1967, that excluded all 
but lip service to international law, the language of rights, any history prior 
to 1967. Israel wanted (and wants) to reach a historic compromise without 
facing history, to get the Palestinians to give up their right of return without 
even recognizing that such a right exists, to reach a radical solution without 
going back to the roots of the conflict. Netanyahu’s “addition” to the above, in 
the form of his insistence on the recognition of the Jewish state, is precisely 
his transition to the language of recognition and rights. But in this new language,
and in raising the question of the rights of the Jews themselves, he is 
quite unintentionally returning the struggle to its beginnings. His emphasis 
on rights and recognition has inadvertently highlighted the fact that for any 
settlement to be final it will have to resolve, once and for all, not only the 
issues of 1967 but also—and perhaps especially—those of 1948. Netanyahu’s 
problem is the same as that which has always faced the “masters”: he wants 
to gain by force and power what can only be given freely. He wants to buy 
the settlement of the 1948 question with the currency of 1967.
There is yet another interesting aspect to Netanyahu’s insistence that recognizing
Israel as a Jewish state is an essential component of a final settlement. In so doing,
perhaps without even being aware of it, he has made the 
rights of the Jews in Palestine a subject for negotiations. Not only that, in so 
doing, he is inviting the Arabs and the Palestinians to intervene in the question
of the nature and the form of the Jewish state.
Netanyahu’s intention in demanding recognition has no doubt been to torpedo the negotiations.
Yet at the same time, the insistence on rights and on 
Palestinian recognition constitutes a tacit acknowledgment that securing the 
recognition of the master overseas is no longer enough for the Jewish state 
project to succeed in the long run, and that there is no substitute for recognition by the victim himself.
Of course there is considerable difference between 
recognizing Israel as the state of the Jewish people and recognizing the collective
national rights of the Jews in Palestine, and between presenting a concept (the Jewish state)
as a natural right to be recognized a priori (and even 
made a precondition for negotiations) and presenting the same thing as a right 
that needs to be demonstrated and negotiated with the possibility of being 
agreed to as an outcome at the end of the negotiations. It is imperative that the 
Palestinian negotiators recognize these essential distinctions, and that they are 
very clear about what they are accepting or rejecting, and why.
When all is said and done, the fact that the language of recognition and 
rights is resurfacing should not frighten the Palestinians. It is clear that any 
historic solution with Israel (as opposed to a mere settlement) must clarify 
what Jewish rights are—and the rejection of the Jewish state as presented by 
Netanyahu need not be confused with a rejection of the collective rights of 
the Jews of Palestine. Thus, in my opinion, if and when negotiations resume, 
the Palestinian negotiator can accept Netanyahu’s challenge and engage him 
without fear: “You, Netanyahu, want to discuss Jewish rights in Palestine. Be 
our guest. And the following are our conditions for recognizing your rights.” 
However, this is not at all a simple task, because it requires the Palestinians 
to decide on their conditions for a historic reconciliation with Israel.

ENDNOTES

1. The debate about the “state of the 
Jewish people” versus the “Jewish state” 
sheds light on the difference between 
the two concepts. The first focuses on 
the right of the Jewish people to a state 
of their own, which is Israel. Here the 
focus is on the national aspect, and the 
emphasis on the right implies exclusion of 
the Palestinians and denial of their equal 
rights in the same territory. These dimensions
are best captured in “the state of the 
Jewish people.” The “Jewish State,” on the 
other hand, puts the focus on the nature
of the state, and because there is no further
qualification, the formulation leaves 
open the possibility that the state can 
have a religious character, and that religion
and religious law can have an official 
public role. In this sense, the debate with 
regard to the Jewish state is more internal.
In my opinion, when Israel today 
demands that the Palestinians explicitly 
recognize it as a Jewish state, what it has 
in mind is the sense of the first formulation,
with its implication of ownership 
and exclusivism. Thus the attempt by 
some Palestinian spokesmen (perhaps as 
a means of facilitating an agreement?) to 
portray the Jewish state issue as an internal
Israeli matter for them to decide is 
both misleading and dangerous.
2. For a general review of these 
developments, see Adalah, “New 
Discriminatory Laws and Bills in Israel,” 
3. HCJ 7052/03 Adalah et al. v. The 
Minister of the Interior (2006).
4. Barak Ravid, “Lieberman Presents 
Plans for Population Exchange at UN,” 
Ha’Aretz, 28 September 2010, http://
5. Clause 3b(a)(1) of the Budget Law 
(Amendment—Illegal Expenditure), 
2009, Bill No. 1403/18.
6. Bill for the Amendment of 
the Communal Settlements Order 
(Amendment No. 8), 2010, Bill No. 
1740/18.
7. The Yishuv included both the 
immigrants who had arrived since the 
1880s and the tiny preexisting Jewish 
community.
8. While the Palestinian citizens were 
granted equal voting rights from the first 
election and enjoyed, on the formal level, 
certain political and civil rights, the issue 
here is that the new state did not see the 
Palestinian citizens’ needs, aspirations, 
and interests as essential state concerns.
9. For an excellent account of Israel’s 
takeover of land from its Palestinian 
owners, see Alexander Kedar, “The 
Israeli Law and the Redemption of Arab 
Land, 1948–1969” (PhD diss., Harvard 
University, 1996).
10. Internal refugees are those 
Palestinians who were displaced from 
their home villages and towns in 1948 
but remained within the State of Israel as 
Israeli citizens. Also known as “present 
absentees,” they were not allowed to go 
back to their villages, and were unable to 
reclaim their lands. For further review, 
see Nur Masalha, ed., Catastrophe 
Remembered: Palestine, Israel and the 
Internal Refugees (London: Zed Books, 
2005).
11. For the story of Al-Ard, see Ron 
Harris, “Jewish Democracy Arab Politics: 
Al-Ard Movement in the Supreme Court,” 
Plilim (December 2001), pp. 107–55 [in 
Hebrew].
12. On the dialectics of the 1967 war, 
see Azmi Bishara, “On the Question 
of Palestinians in Israel,” Theory and 
Critique 3 (1993), p. 7 [in Hebrew].
13. For the religious right, yet another 
politically significant distinction resulting
from the 1967 war and the occupation
was that between the citizens of 
Israel on the one hand and the people of 
Israel on the other. 
14. In fact, it was the collapse of the 
so-called peace process after the failed 
Camp David negotiations in 2000 that 
signaled the separation of the two tracks. 
While the economic liberalization continued
and even accelerated, political liberalism
is on retreat and on the defensive.
15. See HCJ 6698/95, Ka’adan v. 
Israel Land Administration (1995), 44 
(1) PD 264. In actual fact, the decision 
was not able to change the discriminatory
practice, and even the petitioner 
himself never managed to build his 
house in the settlement. 
16. The Progressive Movement is a 
political movement that arose at the 
beginning of the 1980s and put forward the
principle of the citizen state 
and spoke of a Palestinian identity. 
Muhammad Mi’ary and Many Bilo were 
among its leaders.
17. This amendment shows that the 
ideological map was expanding, but it 
also embodies the extremes of the spectrum
on the state, with Kach’s all-Jewish 
extreme on one end and the Progressive 
Movement’s total democracy on the 
other.
18. The National Democratic 
Assembly is an Arab political party 
established in 1996 that contested the 
elections that year. Since then, it has had 
representatives in the Knesset. Its most 
prominent demand is turning Israel into 
a state for all its citizens and cultural 
self-determination for the Palestinians in 
Israel.
19. The growing influence of the 
post-1967 religious forces is shown in 
a change of terminology used in legal 
texts, from “state of the Jewish people” 
(as formulated in the 1985 amendment 
to the Basic Law: Knesset) to the “Jewish 
state” formulation in the 1992 and 1994 
Basic Laws. The change was motivated 
in part to appease the religious groups 
by hinting at a shift from the national 
dimension of the state (state of the 
Jewish people, expressing their right to 
self-determination) to a definition that 
might bear religious interpretation.



Extremist right-wing Israeli activists march
through the Palestinian neighborhood of Jaffa
in Tel Aviv, under police guard on 2 March 2011.  (Uriel Sinai/Getty Images) 
JPS4003_03_Zreik.indd   37 5/3/11   10:06:49 AM

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