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John Kerry’s attack on liberal democracy

According to reports, the secretary of state has accepted Netanyahu’s demand that Israel be recognized as a ‘Jewish state.’

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. Adopting a term put forward by the Israeli right, and opposed to by most of the Knesset (Photo: State Dept.)

I added an important update to this post, see below. 

Haaretz’s Barak Ravid reported Wednesday that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is demanding that Arab leaders pressure the Palestinians to recognize Israel as “a Jewish State,” or at least not protest if he can get Abbas to agree to such terms. This is yet another confirmation that the Obama administration has accepted the new demand posed by Netanyahu, and that it is intended to be a part of its proposal for a two-state settlement.

I find this move – and the indifference with which it was met among the Israeli-American peace camp – simply astonishing. The demand to recognize Israel as a Jewish state originated in the Israeli far-right. The Left never demanded it, nor did any prime minister who negotiated with the Palestinians prior to Netanyahu. Even today’s elusive center sees no importance in it; Labor, Tzipi Livni – they never saw it as necessary (Correction: Livni and Olmert spoke on a recognition of Jewish State in 2007-2008, but none of them, especially not Olmert, made it such a central element in their policy; Olmert later attacked Netanyahu for insisting on this issue). Even Finance Minister Yair Lapid, has taken hardline positions on other issues, came out publicly against these new terms. In other words, there was a Knesset majority against this idea.

But all of this is history. Now that Kerry has accepted the demand, it will be the starting point for every future negotiator since no mainstream Israeli politician can take a position which is to the left of the the White House on the Palestinian issue.

This is not just bad politics – there is something fundamentally flawed in the idea. Bernard Avishai has a good piece about the issue in the New Yorker (I made my own argument against it here) but for now I will just say this: would anyone in his or her right mind demand the United States be recognized as a white nation? Proportionally, there are more Palestinian-Israelis than there are blacks in the U.S., by the way. Isn’t the nature of the state a topic for its own citizens to discuss and determine? What if Arab citizens and Jewish liberals joined forces to advocate for a colorblind, ethnicity blind democracy? Will they still need to run this by the State Department?

I guess that Secretary Kerry believes that there is some positive trade-off here: maybe if he can get the Palestinian Authority to agree to these terms Netanyahu will be able to swallow the notion of a final status agreement based on pre-1967 borders. But what is the price of it all? This is worse than the entire wave of anti-democratic legislation we’ve seen in recent years. Who can really blame Liberman for advocating more rights for Jews only, or Avi Dichter for wanting to cancel the status of Arabic as an official language, if the entire international community is to recognize the ethnicity of the state apparatus? Or perhaps we must settle for lip service regarding equal rights for non-Jews, in the same way blacks would enjoy equal rights under a white state?

And what about all those liberal Jewish groups – New Israel Fund, Americans for Peace Now, J Street – that based much of their advocacy in recent years on the battle “to save Israeli democracy?” Are we to throw our Palestinian friends and partners under the bus and forget the moral and spiritual essence of our political battles in the name of this push for the two-state solution and for the sake of an administration headed by the Democratic Party? I simply don’t get it.

UPDATE: I was contacted by several people which noted that J Street, APN (and NIF) never supported Netanyahu’s demand to recognized Israel “as a Jewish state.” This is obviously true – see here, here and here – but my point was about the failure to criticize the U.S. Secretary of State for accepting this term and for his intention to include it in his proposal for a final status agreement to the parties. The fact that all those peace groups are very much aware of the potential damage here – both for the peace process and for Jewish-Arab relations in Israel – only highlights the need to confront Kerry on this issue.  

Still, it shouldn’t be understood that anyone of these organizations is supportive of this demand. 

Why I oppose recognizing Israel as a Jewish state
‘A Jewish and Democratic state is a zombie idea’ 
‘Religion and politics’ in Israel: The mythology of Jewish nationalism 

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    1. Kolumn9

      Don’t play coy. You get it. Its an attempt to assure Israeli Jews that a settlement that includes a Palestinian state will not be done at the expense of a Jewish state as it exists today. And that the Arabs will accept the persistent existence of a Jewish State in the Middle East.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Adam Dayton

      Apparently someone never bothered to read general assembly resolution 181. It uses the term “Jewish State” about half a billion times. There is nothing controversial about the idea of a Jewish State. Since day 1, Israel was intended as the nation state of the Jewish people.

      The Jewish people are a nation, no less so than the Palestinians. If the Palestinians wish to have their right to self-determination recognized through the actualization of their nation state, then the same must apply to Jews.

      A Jewish State is not the same as a white state. It’s the same as an Italian state, French State or Palestinian State.

      That there is also a religious component to the Jewish nation is irrelevant. This does not deny the Jewish people peoplehood.

      Frankly, denying nationhood to the Jewish people and the entailed rights is the epitome of anti-Semitism.

      Reply to Comment
      • So, what, you’re implying that Noam is a self hating anti-Semitic Jew for being distressed over the internal consequences of “Jewish State”? I was going along with you until that end. Don’t get too drunk on “Jewish State.” Jewish Israelis can dislike the label while still being Jewish and Israeli citizens–and not at all anti-Semitic.

        On your use of “nation”: Under your logic, there are many people where I live who would be “Mexican nationals” even though US citizens. In the US, “nation” and “State” have become dislodged–a good thing too–with a new nationality, “American,” invented. When it comes to the Law of Return, Israel is more like, say, Germany, than like the US. But when it comes to embedded ethnicity, Israel is more like the US than Germany, even with its Turks. Arab Israeli citizens will not do what they’re told just because the Palestinian “nation” gets its own “State.” If a quasi State eventuates, I can see “if you don’t like it here, go live with your people in your own State!” as a new political slogan. This, I think, is what Noam is worried about.

        Israel is indeed a unique mix. But the processes informing it have ocurred and still do occur elsewhere. I think it best to remember that.

        Reply to Comment
        • Noble

          Greg Pollock: it is poor form to put word in other people’s mouths. And your use of sarcasm is unbecoming.

          Reply to Comment
      • Semiotic.Observer

        This is fascinating: “That there is also a religious component to the Jewish nation is irrelevant.”

        Especially when it is stated after: “A Jewish State is not the same as a white state.”

        So, Judaism is irrelevant to being Jewish, and Judaism is not a race?

        Anyway, instead of waiting for and expecting those pesky antisemitic Palestinians to see the errors of their ways, why doesn’t Israel change its official name to “Jewish State of Israel” or “State of Jews”?

        That way the Palestinians, and everybody else for that matter, would have no choice but to recognize it as such.

        If Israel itself can’t or isn’t willing to do it, how could it expect others to do it.

        Unless, of course, there is more to this demand than meets the eye.

        Reply to Comment
      • sh

        “It’s the same as an Italian state, French State or Palestinian State.”

        Nonsense. The Italian state is called Italy. The French state is called France. The Palestinian state will be called Palestine. All these states comprise or will comprise people of various faiths including Jews. By these criteria Israel should be recognized as the Israeli state or change its name to either Jewland or Yehuda.

        Reply to Comment
        • Adam Dayton

          “Nonsense. The Italian state is called Italy. The French state is called France. The Palestinian state will be called Palestine. All these states comprise or will comprise people of various faiths including Jews. By these criteria Israel should be recognized as the Israeli state or change its name to either Jewland or Yehuda.”

          Sorry, but Italy could change its name today to JLKXJKLX!!(@(@JLKJXLKXJ. It would still be the nation-state of the Italian people.

          Likewise, it matters little what Israel is called. It does not take away from the fact that it is the nation state of the Jewish people.

          You’re more than welcome to cite me any source from the vast literature dealing with the nature of nation-states that in order to be a nation-state, it must be named the same as the nation is named.

          Reply to Comment
          • Joel

            In 2004, an insurgency group calling itself the Green Brigade of the Prophet took four Italians working in Iraq hostage and shot an execution video.
            When it became apparent that Fabrizzio Quattrocchi was going to be killed, he tried to tear off his own hood and shouted his last, instructive words: “Now I’ll show you how an Italian dies!”

            Read more: http://www.cracked.com/article_19620_the-9-most-badass-last-words-ever-uttered-part-2.html#ixzz2pv4ZFW3X

            Need I say more?

            Reply to Comment
      • Philos

        These comments reflect the ardent Zionist Jewish ethos of a Diaspora Jew who is not Israeli. As an Israeli who must frequently encounter these ideas from most foreigners, and growing numbers of fellow Israelis (sadly), I see Zionism nowadays as nothing more than the repression of Israeliness at the expense of some kind of artifical “Jewish” nationhood tied to atavistic notions of racial supremacy. I do not deny the Israeli right to self-determination, which is what Noam, I think, is implying. I do, however, deny the right of over-entitled American Jews to claim their bogus national rights at the expense of Israelis and Palestinians. Sooner or later there will be an Israeli backlash against the wealthy colonizers from Paris, London, New York and Los Angeles. You won’t read about it in the press but resentments against the wealthy new arrivals is growing. This won’t be like the Russian aliyah where the Sabra could satisfy himself that at least this outsider was seen as a street cleaner or security guard; the Israeli who has little sees the Americans and French come with all their money. And we will see how far this notion of “Jewish nationhood” goes.

        Reply to Comment
        • Adam Dayton

          Philos –

          “I see Zionism nowadays as nothing more than the repression of Israeliness at the expense of some kind of artifical “Jewish” nationhood”

          The Jewish nation has existed for over 2,000 years. Under any mainstream formulation of nationhood, the Jews are a nation.

          Israel, on the other hand, is far less than 100 years old. If anything is artificial, it’s this “Israeliness” you speak of.

          Israelis – inclusive of all people in Israel, are not a nation. Jews are a nation. Israel is the nation state of these people. Israel was NEVER intended to be an Israeli state. It was intended to be a Jewish state.

          I’d encourage you to do a little bit of research on the foundations of Zionism and the historical factors leading to the creation of Israel. Resolution 181 doesn’t say “An Arab State and an Israeli State.” It says an Arab State and a Jewish State.

          Reply to Comment
          • Philos

            Thanks Adam for proving my point so eloquently.

            Reply to Comment
          • JG

            AdamDayton thinks:
            “The Jewish nation has existed for over 2,000 years. Under any mainstream formulation of nationhood, the Jews are a nation.”

            You really should check some facts, folk.
            Nations are just a made-up construct, invented by Europeans in the 18th century, an idea which Zionists took from them.
            So how could it be that there was a “Jewish nation” for “2000 years”?

            Reply to Comment
          • Adam Dayton

            JG – it’s actually quite simple. The relevant predicates of a concept can exist before a concept exists, and then can be applied backwards.

            A nation is defined as: “a large aggregate of people united by common descent, history, culture, or language, inhabiting a particular country or territory.”

            Did that apply to the Jews 2,000 years ago?

            Reply to Comment
        • JohnW

          “I do, however, deny the right of over-entitled American Jews to claim their bogus national rights”

          ” Sooner or later there will be an Israeli backlash against the wealthy colonizers from Paris, London, New York and Los Angeles.”

          The politics of envy and Philos’s racism. He does not like American Jews nor the fact that some American Jews are more wealthy than he is.

          Reply to Comment
          • Philos

            So now American Jews are a race? I thought they were part of the Jewish nation… I guess it’s hard to keep your story straight with all your entitlement

            Reply to Comment
          • JohnW

            “So now American Jews are a race? I thought they were part of the Jewish nation… I guess it’s hard to keep your story straight with all your entitlement”

            American Jews are a group of people whom you, Philos, chose to put under the one umbrella and made derogatory comments about.

            If that is not racism, Philos, then I don’t know what racism is. Either that or you don’t because that’s what racists do Philos. They generalise about a group of people whom they single out instead of recognising that all people have a range of views. A point of view is not unique to “American Jews” as you call them Philos. Some American Jews don’t hold the views that YOU attribute to them Philos. On the other hand, many Israeli Jews DO have the point of view that you attribute to American Jews.

            So what is the lesson for you here, my racist friend? That if you disagree about a point of view, argue against that point of view, don’t pretend that the point of view is professed only by the target group whom you hate.

            Am I right, Mr Pollock? You seem to be a self appointed expert on racism on this site. Or is it only the imaginary racism of Israelis that you are worried about?

            What a bunch of hypocrites we have on this site.

            Reply to Comment
          • Philos

            It’s quite possible to be anti-American without being racist, just like it’s possible to be an anti-Zionist without being an anti-Semite. Anyway, to clear up your misunderstandings here’s a definition of racism

            rac·ism [rey-siz-uhm] Show IPA
            a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human races determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to rule others.
            a policy, system of government, etc., based upon or fostering such a doctrine; discrimination.
            hatred or intolerance of another race or other races.

            Reply to Comment
          • JohnW

            I am not the one who confused, Philos my friend. You are the one who is confused. Here, read this:


            “The UN does not define “racism”; however, it does define “racial discrimination”: According to the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination,

            the term “racial discrimination” shall mean any distinction, exclusion, restriction, or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin that has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.[24]

            This definition does not make any difference between discrimination based on ethnicity and race, in part because the distinction between the two remains debatable among anthropologists.[25] Similarly, in British law the phrase racial group means “any group of people who are defined by reference to their race, colour, nationality (including citizenship) or ethnic or national origin”.[26]”

            What was I talking about? Yes, like the above, I mentioned your lumping of a group of people under the one umbrealla and vilifying them, which is what you did when you talked about “American Jews”.

            Stop denying it Philos, you are an out and out racist.

            Reply to Comment
          • Philos

            Well, I know I totally disagree with the British definition because that’s a Parliamentary tyranny over there. I know from studying there in university. I reject aspects of the UN definition too. How can anyone be racist against an American when America is so full of racism? I have no problem with African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Whatever-Americans or most Jewish Americans. I have a problem with the tiny minority of American Jews, mostly Orthodox, who make aliyah, claim state benefits in spite of the fact they’re wealthy (yet hold Tea Party ideologies) and think they’re better than Israelis. They either think their better than Israelis because Israelis aren’t “liberal” enough or because Israelis aren’t “Jewish” enough. And by the way, JohnW, in case you’ve been living in a cave for the last 30-years most people in the world are absolutely terrified of Americans. I am not kidding. Leave the recent survey that shows that most people think the USA is the greatest threat to world peace. If you don’t speak English all you see are a people who love guns, violent sports and invaded countries. You guys are frightening to a lot of people and only Americans can’t understand why.

            Reply to Comment
          • JohnW

            ” I have a problem with the tiny minority of American Jews,”

            That was NOT how you put it originally. You talked about American Jews period. Not SOME American Jews. The fact that you are attempting to back track, confirms that even you now (momentarily) recognise that what you said was racist.

            Yet, your moment of lucidity is short lived because you go on with more of your racism in your last post:

            “If you don’t speak English all you see are a people who love guns, violent sports and invaded countries. You guys are frightening to a lot of people and only Americans can’t understand why.”

            What you are doing here again is lumping all Americans under the one umbrella. You are a sad little man Philos. You ARE a little racist. And when I call you “little”, I don’t mean your stature. I mean your intellect. You always sound off against some group that you hate. If it isn’t the Americans then it is Sabras or the Ashkenazim, but you don’t even see it as racism until someone like me points it out to you and even then you go into denial instead of being a man and apologising for it. I pity you.

            By the way stop referring to me as “you guys”, I am not an American.

            Reply to Comment
      • You actually prove my point: Livni (and Olmert) believed in a Jewish State but didn’t put recognition as a pre-condition for agreement, and Herzog only followed Netanyahu (I challenge you to find a similar statement from him dating to 2010 or before). This was never a part of the center’s agenda.

        Reply to Comment
        • Joe Schick

          “You actually prove my point: Livni (and Olmert) believed in a Jewish State but didn’t put recognition as a pre-condition for agreement.”

          More propaganda – not surprising that you did not bother to look at the link in which Livni, in 2007, said that the Palestinians “must not only recognize Israel’s right to exist but also “the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state'”.

          Here’s the link again since you ignored it the first time.


          Reply to Comment
    3. I don’t think if matters much. If a bantu Palestinian State is stable and grows economically no one will care about the designation. If unstable, there will be plenty of other reasons for hating Abbas and his successors.

      As to the internal Israeli effects of the designation, if the label “Jewish State” is all you need to enact further national right legislation (like making it a crime to advocate that IDF soldiers be prosecuted for actual deeds), then throw in the towel. In my view Israel is inherently Jewish through the Law of Return, guaranteed in the Declaration of Independence–which also enshrines equal protection under law. Adam, above, is right that 181 is founded on the idea, and the Law of Return as said biases the State Jewish in this sense. This is also true of many European countries where, say, it is easier to gain citizenship in Germany if a documented descended of German nationals than if not.

      You cannot expect the US to tell you what you are, or even insure Two States. Israel must internally decide what it is. Problem is, what it is internally also rests on what it controls. I continue to think even the best US Two States “agreement” possible (as Kerry has accepted troops on the Jordan border) is some form of Greater Israel.

      I would prefer an Israeli over a Jewish nationalism, just as I would have preferred a South African over Afrikaner nationalism in 1964–the year of Mandela’s incarceration. But Israel is neither the US nor SA. It will have to find its own way. The ascendant right nationalists are reveling in the power of nationalism and its words. But a good drunk usually has consequences.

      Reply to Comment
    4. kate

      That Kerry has done this comes as absolutely no surprise, he’s found a way to fulfill Israel’s mission to insure the failure of the talks and that it’ll be the Palestinians who shoulder the blame, no surprises and that he has done this despite FM Lieberman’s revealing the true intentions of the “Jewish State” to remove as many of the Palestinians with Israeli citizenship as possible from the Jewish State should open some eyes if nothing else does

      Reply to Comment
      • Semiotic.Observer

        I agree. This signals that the blame phase of this charade has officially started.

        Reply to Comment
      • Danny

        Just goes to show that there’s no real alternative to BDS.

        Reply to Comment
    5. Danny

      This is not as big a deal as you make it out to be, Noam. The real sticking point of John Kerry’s exercise in futility is Israel’s outrageous demands with respect to conquered lands which it intends to retain, such as for example the Jordan Valley. If Kerry can’t get Netanyahu to drop his ridiculous demands vis-a-vis control of Palestine’s eastern borders, what difference does recognition of Israel’s Jewish character make?

      Reply to Comment
    6. Ish Yehudi

      Noam- i expect you have spoken to enough Palestinians about the conflict to have heard what convinced me that the recognition issue is actually an important part of a peace process. The CW in the Palestinian world, heard from almost everyone- is that “the Jews are not a people, rather a religion. And therefore the Zionist entity of Israel is not for the Jews, a people even the Koran teaches to respect.”
      The first time I heard Palestinians describing Israel this way, it was a shock. Now I’m used to it and see it as part of the real issue of peace-building- the kind of thing you BDS’ers scoff at– learning the other sides narrative/ making space etc. If we are to move forward, the thing our leaders need to at least try and do is to lead their people (i think we’re both pretty stiff necked peoples). If there is any pretense to this being a final status game in the negotiations, as in they are supposed to lead to peace, then having the leader of (part of) Palestine acknowledge and pass down the bitter pill, that Israel is the country of the Jews- the same Jews that lived here long ago- we are moving forward.
      Its true, that from the beginning of modern Zionism there were those who envisioned a truly universalist commune- with Jew and Arab working in one entity open to all the workers of the land. But the Israel created and continually built by our Declaration of Independence and on is one that is clearly as the vision of our peoples project- not anybody elses. Others should be welcomed, respected etc… but just as in these negotiations we’re acknowledging the Palestinians need for national self-determination for their dreams…

      Reply to Comment
      • What you say about your Declaration is why “Jewish State” does not bother me much anymore. Your Declaration explicitly embraces UN 181. UN 181 is a highly detailed constitutional plan for both a Jewish and Arab Palestinian State; in fact its is so detailed one gets the impression its authors never visited Palestine. If I recall correctly, 181 expected some Arabs to stay in Israel and some Jews to stay in Palestine (State). Voting on their constitutions, however, was to be race specific; Arabs would not vote for the Israeli even if living there, Jews in “Palestine” would vote for the Israeli although not in partitioned Israel, and similarly for Arabs. However, once the constitutions were ratified, full equality of civil and social rights were to be assured in both States. Since the vote is a civil right, that meant Arab Israelis would vote as citizens.

        The plan completely foundered save for the Israeli Declaration of Independence. No supra-State authority (like the UN) can force Israel to abide by its own Declaration; but I believe the High Court can. Israel is all that remains of the promise of 181. That promise is for a Jewish State Homeland (as I keep saying, in the law of return); but is as well a promise for full equal protection rather amazing in 2014 let alone 1947.

        The first promise is the reason Israel came to be and now exists. The second insures internal peace and acts as a cooperative hand to the never made Palestinian State. Since I now see Greater Israel inevitable, that cooperative hand becomes internal peace. Even with a partial Palestinian State, there will have to be access to the courts on economic and social transactions, and that would entail the second promise. Perceived security needs has removed two true States; this expansion of the second promise, while keeping the promise of Jewish Return, is the only incremental solution I see.

        Reply to Comment
    7. ibnab

      So, you consider fundamentally flawed the palestinian demand of an arab state whose official religion would be Islam. The first article of the palestinien constitution is

      “Palestine is part of the large Arab World, and the Palestinian people are part of the Arab Nation. Arab Unity is an objective which the Palestinian People shall work to achieve.”
      The third article:

      “Islam is the official religion in Palestine. Respect and sanctity of all other heavenly religions shall be maintained.
      The principles of Islamic Shari’a shall be the main source of legislation.
      Arabic shall be the official language.”

      Reply to Comment
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