Vetting the ‘Jewish State’

For weeks now, we’ve all been reading about Prime Minister Netanyahu’s demand that the Palestinians publicly acknowledge the legitimacy of the State of Israel as a ‘Jewish State’ (or, as Herzl termed it ‘The State of the Jews.’). The demand is so logical, so self-evidently valid, that it enjoys overwhelming support among Israeli Jews and, until a week ago, was endorsed by Secretary of State John Kerry. Indeed, many observers found themselves scratching their heads in amazement at the absolute refusal of PA Head, Mahmoud Abbas to even consider such a possibility. Abbas has, as we shall see to his credit, stuck to his guns and absolutely refused to concede to this Israeli demand.

Predictably, Arab intransigence has fostered a move to pressure Israel to drop its demand. Secretary of State Kerry now calls the demand ‘a mistake.’ Now, Jewish thinkers, Israeli Politicians and publicists, tantalized by a potential deal are getting on the band wagon and urging that the Prime Minister’s demand either be modified or totally withdrawn. They fear for the sensitivities of Israel’s non-Jewish citizens. They fear for the democratic fabric of Israeli society. They are concerned for all kinds of reasons, many of them apparently credible. Nevertheless, they are wrong. Though they do not write out of malice, such statements are symptomatic of a serious case of religious, cultural and political myopia.

Briefly stated, most pundits simply don’t ‘see’ Muslim Arabs in general, or Palestinians in particular. They have no idea that opposition to the establishment of Israel, is deeply rooted not in Pan-Arab Nationalism (which was a fleeting episode), not in Palestinian National Identity (which is also of more recent vintage), but in almost 1400 years of Muslim Religious Law and Lore. They don’t ‘see’ that Islam, from the days of Muhammad, sought to redeem the world by bringing all of mankind through God’s Law, as vouchsafed to Muhammad and his followers in the Qur’an and its attendant literature. This redemption could be achieved by missionizing, but it was usually attained by conquest. Hence, in classical Muslim Law, the world is divided between the ‘House of Islam’ (Dar al Islam) and the ‘House of War’ (Dar al Harb, that which is yet to be part of the former). Furthermore, and for our purposes more crucially, once territory has been amalgamated into the Dar al Islam, it may never be alienated therefrom. If Muslim territory were to fall into non-Muslim hands, it becomes the sacred responsibility of every Muslim to restore that territory to the Dar al Islam. This is a principled and consistent religious position. In contemporary, geopolitical terms, that means that Greece, Albania, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Hungary, the Slovak Republic, Western China and parts of Russia represent theological (and not simply political) challenges. Above them all, however, looms the dream of redeeming not only Falestin, both also Al-Andalus (i.e. Southern Spain). It’s a dream that is openly discussed in the Islamist (and large portions of the Islamic) media.

The Post-Christian West, which is characterized by militant post- nationalism and aggressive secularism (and what academics call ‘cognitive egocentrism’), is simply blind to the fact that there are those who understand and experience the world in terms that are different than theirs. So, they either ignore them or dismiss them. As the great historian, Bernard Lewis, noted in a prophetic article almost forty years ago, this paternalist myopia is the original sin that the West commits vis-a-vis the Islamic World. (It is also a serious flaw in Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land.) This is a fundamentally paternalistic, colonialist, cultural imperialist position. It’s no wonder that Arabs complain of Western supercilliance!

In its present configuration, then, no credible Muslim leader can acknowledge the right of the Jewish People to a state in their ancestral homeland (especially since the dominant Muslim discourse denies both, despite Qur’anic and Traditional sources to the contrary.) To do so would be to renege of their deepest belief in Islam as the only Truth, and the conviction that the sanctity that inheres to the Dar al Islam is eternal.This has nothing, moreover, to do with the degree of personal observance on the part of individual Muslims. One can be a marginally observant Muslim, and still profoundly subscribe to Islamic values, vision and collective memory (much as, mutatis mutandis, the overwhelming majority of Jewish Israelis live on a spectrum of cognitive traditionalism, even if their personal observance might not reflect that.)

Ironically, the Israeli demand that the Palestinians acknowledge precisely our right to be here as a Jewish State is, therefore, critical for attaining any long term accord. Placing the core issue of the War against Israel front and center has the potential to achieve several things:

1) It can prevent the acceptance of a suicidal pact that will only advance the PLO strategy of stages

2) It can lower expectations (at least among our friends) as to what can reasonably be achieved in the short and middle term and

3) Maybe, just  maybe, in the same way that certain strands of Judaism have developed ways of deferring or shelving Jewish National aspirations (Neture Qarta, the American Council for Judaism and portions of the Jewish Renewal Movement come to mind), normative Muslim authorities could engage the theological tools that do exist in Islam to allow for long term co-existence between us. (At the present, contra the mantra of Peace Now, Muslims only reach Salaam with other Muslims. One only reaches a sulha i.e. cessation of hostilities with non-Muslims).

In the interim, we should stand firm in our demands, proud of what we are, and unflinching in our respect for our adversaries and, most important, in our own religious, cultural and national self-respect.

About the Author
Jeffrey Woolf is an Associate Professor in the Talmud Department at Bar Ilan University. He is both a Medieval and Renaissance Jewish Historian, and an Orthodox Rabbi who is a long time advocate of the creation of a uniquely Israeli form of Modern Orthodoxy.