The importance of self definition

In his address to the Saban Forum last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered audiences a mixture of the old and the new when commenting on the issues most crucial to Israel’s security; Iran’s nuclear program and the negotiations with the Palestinians. On the Iranian front the PM adopted a much softer tone stating more than once that he shares President Obama’s hopes that Iran’s nuclear program will be dealt with by diplomacy rather than by force. With regard to the negotiations with the Palestinians, Netanyahu said “Our best efforts to reach Palestinian-Israeli peace will come to nothing if Iran succeeds in building atomic bombs”. This remark represents the first time the PM has linked between the negotiations with the Palestinians and Iran’s nuclear ambitions.  Until now the PM has refused to adopt what Hannibal Lecter may have referred to as quid pro quo diplomacy, an Israeli compromise with the Palestinians in return for a nuclear free Iran.

But while Netanyahu’s address offered a new stance regarding the negotiations with the Palestinians, they also included a reiteration of his previous demand that any peace accord must include a Palestinian recognition of Israel as the Jewish State. Netanyahu has insisted in the past that the Palestinians’ refusal to acknowledge Israel as a Jewish State is at the core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and is a major hurdle on the road peace. What is interesting is that Netanyahu wants the Palestinians to define Israel before Israel has done so herself.

When Netanyahu defines Israel he speaks of a Jewish democratic state. Indeed Israel’s Declaration of Independence calls for the establishment “of a Jewish State in Erez-Israel, to be known as the State of Israel”. It also goes on to outline the democratic nature of Israel by promising immediate elections to the national assembly. Thus, one might conclude that the PM’s definition of Israel is in accordance to the vision outlined by our founding fathers. However, this definition which was agreed upon in 1948, does not necessarily reflect how Israelis would define their country in 2013.

Firstly, some twenty percent of Israelis reject the definition of Israel as a Jewish state. I am referring of course the Palestinian-Israeli minority. Their demand for total equality, and subsequent inclusion in the very definition of the State of Israel, was granted to them by the same Deceleration of Independence which calls upon the Arab inhabitants of Israel to “participate in the up building of the State on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions”.

The Palestinian-Israeli minority is not the only one to argue with the definition of Israel as a Jewish democratic state. Many secular Jews who believe in separation of Church and State would adopt a definition of Israel as a democratic pluralistic state, one that has embraced the values of Judaism rather than its practice. Others still may see Israel as a democracy that should adopt the pluralistic values of all faiths practiced in Israel and not necessarily Jewish ones.

There is another important minority that would reject Netanyahu’s Jewish democratic state, the Ultra Orthodox. This minority believes that a Jewish State would be one governed by the Halacha or Jewish Law. While some Ultra Orthodox are willing to partake in Israeli society, and vote in elections, they view Israel as an interim state, a stepping stone towards the true Jewish State. Moreover, while this minority takes part in Israel’s democratic system, it has by no means adopted democracy as a system of government voting in accordance to Rabbis’ orders.

Should we add up the Ultra Orthodox minority with the Palestinian-Israeli one and other secular Jews we discover that some thirty percent of Israelis do not accept Netanyahu’s definition of Israel. So isn’t it preposterous to demand the Palestinians define Israel in manner which three out of every ten Israelis would reject?

Defining the State of Israel is an important undertaking for Israeli society as it calls for a public debate which shall reveal the different visions we all have for our country and perhaps even foster dialogue between estranged groups of Israelis. Furthermore, such a debate will enable us to identify certain core values that may in turn serve as the foundations of our society while also allowing disenfranchised minorities to take part in this discussion as equal partners.

Are we first and foremost a democracy? One dedicated to the values of freedom and equality? If so, how is it that we have blatantly excluded minorities from our minds, hearts and national discourse? Or are we the Jewish homeland, one dedicated to preserving Jewish religion, culture and legacy and offering Jews everywhere a safe haven and a home to call their own?

Perhaps we are both, perhaps we are neither. Whatever decision we may reach, it is far more important that we Israelis define Israel than the Palestinians.

About the Author
Dr. Ilan Manor (PhD Oxford University) is a diplomacy scholar at Tel Aviv University. Manor's recent book, The Digitalization of Diplomacy, explores how digital technologies have reshaped diplomatic practices. Manor has contributed to several publications including The Times of Israel, The Jerusalem Post, Haaretz and the Jewish Daily Forward. According to his Twitter bio, Manor is the inventor of the ashtray. He blogs at
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