Yehuda Schwartz

Israel and Jewish right to self-determination

We are approaching  the centennial commemorations of the Balfour Declaration, scheduled for November 2 2017.

MK Haneen Zoabi, according to her recent remarks, does not recognize the Jews as a nationality. The same is true of President Abbas who asked the UK to apologize, as it is true of most Palestinians. In other words, for Palestinians, Jews are not entitled to a right of self-determination.

One hundred years later, Palestinians still decry the “Balfour colonial project“.

On the other hand, many Jews do not recognize the existence of a Palestinian people.

How can we bring both peoples to recognize other’s existence and national rights, a prerequisite to any conflict resolution?

The principle which defined the Oslo peace process was “two states for two peoples”. At least Israelis and Americans understood it in those terms. As for the Palestinians, it turns out that they understood the process should lead to two states for one people: one, Israel, non national, and the other, Palestine, for Palestinians only. This is the main reason, it appears, for the failure of Oslo.

The question of the Jews’ right to self-determination  is the core of the conflict.

I will try to answer this complex question in the shortest way as possible:

Jews were a political nation in Antiquity. They remained a political nation in Exile, living under Jewish Law and Jewish communal institutions, and were considered strangers by the hosting nations, under Christendom and Islam.

The French revolutionaries tried to abolish any expression of Jewish national life by turning the Jews into a mere religion.

Here is a very significative excerpt from the speech of the Count of Clermont-Tonnerre, deputy at the Constituent Assembly in 1789:

We must refuse everything to the Jews as a nation and accord everything to Jews as individuals. We must withdraw recognition from their judges; they should only have our judges. We must refuse legal protection to the maintenance of the so-called laws of their Judaic organization; they should not be allowed to form in the state either a political body or an order. They must be citizens individually. But, some will say to me, they do not want to be citizens. Well then! If they do not want to be citizens, they should say so, and then, we should banish them. It is repugnant to have in the state an association of non-citizens, and a nation within the nation…

Modern Western nations are defined as children of a territory (the mother), and of a culture and law (the father).

Unlike  pagans and neopaganic modern nations, Jews are not defined by territory. They were born in Egypt, “a nation within the nation” precisely, and given a Constitution by their Father in the desert. The Promised Land was conquered after the Hebrews were constituted as a nation. Their relation with this Land was as with a wife, depending on a kind of social contract, the Covenant.

(One is entitled to consider this a myth, but then it should be understood as a political myth, which like others is able to create a political and historical reality).

Modern nation-states did not recognize “their” Jews as a nation, yet most recognized their right to national self-determination in Palestine, which is a contradiction they never solved.They recognized this right only together with the Palestinian Arabs’ national rights in the 1947 UN Partition Plan, after the shock of the Holocaust.

Most Jews in the world today see themselves as a political nation, like most Palestinians do. Nobody has a right to deny their identity.

Haneen Zoabi, don’t tell me who I am please! To do so is patronizing and not different from colonialist thinking. You are behaving toward the Jews like an Arab imperialist! You are not going to define who I am!

I am not going to decide whether the Palestinians are a nation or not. It is up to them to choose between Palestinian nationalism, pan-Islamism, pan-Arabism, or whatever, and to put it in practice. Whatever they will decide we shall accept.

The Israeli nation-state has been created by Europeanized Jews. It is based on the Western model, which gives a territorial definition to the nation and therefore denies the Jews any real political existence.
Legally, Israel is the nation-state of the Israeli nation, a fiction that only a minority of post-Zionist Israelis recognizes. Jews only control the Israeli nation-state by leading the army and excluding Arab Israelis from the highest spheres of power.

(Jordanian Bedouins use quite the same expedient with Jordanian Palestinians).

Like revolutionary France, Israel says to “its” Arabs: “we accord to you everything as individuals, and refuse to you everything as a nation”. However by doing so it doesn’t really recognizes the Jewish people as a body politic either. The Israeli nation-state is “Jewish” only through symbols and some laws giving preference to Jews.

Haneen Zoabi’s logic is therefore consistent with Western nationalism: Palestinians, with their identity defined mainly by territory, can be considered as a nation, Israelis can be considered as a nation, while Jews must not.

In conclusion, we need first to reform the Israeli nation-state and turn it into the state of all its nationalities,recognized as political bodies in a way independent of territory.

Those constituant nationalities will include the Jewish Israeli nation and the Palestinian Arab nation, together with other national groups which would eventually like their collective to be recognized (Druzes, Arameans, Bedouins….?).

When Israel itself will recognize Israeli Jews as a body politic, it will have the right to criticize MK Zoabi.

The political recognition of several nationalities means implementing a form of federalism inside Israel. A federal Constitution is able to prevent any demographic threat, and might let Israelis control the army until a comprehensive peace in the whole Middle-East will be achieved.

It will be easy then to associate to such a federal arrangement the West Bank/Yehuda & Shomron and Gaza without endangering the Jewish self-determination. The conflict will be then largely solved.

About the Author
Born in Paris, France, Israeli for 30 years, Yehuda lives in Jerusalem. Doctor in clinical pharmacy, holder of a master's degree in the history of religions, Yehuda also studied in a traditional yeshiva. Former field agent for the Rabbis for Human Rights. He now devotes his time to his two young sons, rabbinical studies and promoting a federalist solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.