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A state of the Jews, or a state of Judaism?
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A state of the Jews, or a state of Judaism?

One cannot enter a negotiation without a clear sense of one’s red lines. It is okay and at times necessary to reject a deal and walk away, despite the consequences of such an act. Careful thought in advance ensures that one does so only because the consequences of accepting the deal are more severe.

In our negotiations with the Palestinians, the purpose of our red lines is to ensure that a withdrawal from Judea and Samaria and the formation of a Palestinian state not undermine our legitimate security concerns or our identity as a Jewish state. Our defense and security experts do not agree on the specifics, but most of Israel is united against a deal which neither recognizes nor attempts to address these security concerns. A significant part of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s longstanding popularity lies precisely in the fact that the vast majority of Israelis from across the political spectrum trust his instincts and commitment to our security red lines.

I want to focus on our other red lines, those meant to protect and preserve the identity of Israel as a Jewish state. Over the last number of years, a new issue has emerged as a primary demand, and under Netanyahu, a deal-breaker: the recognition by the Palestinian Authority of Israel as a Jewish state.

The Palestinian leadership has rejected this demand, destining the current negotiations to failure. If this condition is critical to our future, the fact that it causes a breakdown should not be upsetting — saddening maybe, but not upsetting. The goal of the negotiations is not to bring about Israel’s surrender, but advance its deepest interests. If our goal is to ensure that the Palestinians accept that a Palestinian state is now the sole homeland of the Palestinian nation, while Israel is the homeland of Israelis, the majority of whom are members of the Jewish nation and the minority of whom are Palestinian, the importance of this red line is critical.

However, it should be stated as such, and not in its “Jewish state” formulation.

A peace treaty will have no meaning if the Palestinians still insist on a right of return — that their national aspirations can be fulfilled outside of the Palestinian state, and more specifically in Israel. Palestinians need not forego their narrative about this right, just as Israelis need not forego our narrative regarding the Jewish people’s right to the ancient Land of Israel. But both sides need to forego their claims to the actualization of those rights. This is the basic meaning of a peace treaty: the recognition of each other’s borders and foregoing of one’s claim to the other’s land.

The use of the term “Jewish state” to express the above is confusing, unhelpful, and detrimental to Israel’s basic and legitimate interests. The formulation locates the issue within the context of Israel’s Jewish identity concerns, an issue which we, the members of the Jewish nation, must pursue, but which we neither need nor expect outsiders, even if they are peace partners, to share with us.

While I would not mind if the Palestinian Authority chose to recognize the Jewish character of Israel and the historic right of the Jewish people to our homeland here, their recognition of such is of no consequence to me, especially given the fact that the meaning of a “Jewish state” has so far eluded most Israelis.

According to our Declaration of Independence, the “Jewish” in Jewish state refers to the identity of the nation for whom the State of Israel is its rightful expression of sovereignty. The parallel to Jewish state in this sense is Irish state, French state, Palestinian state — and not Christian state or Muslim state. Israel is a Jewish state not in the sense that it is where Judaism is sovereign, but where the Jewish people are the majority and consequently sovereign, all the while protecting the inalienable rights of national and religious minorities, as behooves a democracy.

While this was the intent of the founders of the country, it is not shared by all Israelis. For others, a Jewish state is where Judaism must determine much of the legal and cultural fabric of the country. It is Jewish not because it is the homeland of Jews, but the homeland of Judaism. This latter position profoundly undermines the democratic commitments of Israel, and our ability to overcome it is one of the central challenges that we face in the decade to come.

If we have yet to resolve the meaning of the term, how can we expect Palestinians to agree to it? Are they, in so doing, agreeing to the primacy of Judaism in Israel, and in so doing, destining Israeli-Palestinians to being second-class citizens in a Jewish theocracy? This interpretation, while rejected by me and possibly Netanyahu, is a viable interpretation, and still an unresolved debate.

When the Palestinian right of return is combated through the language of Jewish statehood, we are both shifting the conversation away from the central issue and at the same time giving the Palestinians the tools to reject our legitimate concerns.

It is possible that peace in our time is unattainable. Both sides need to relinquish some of their claims in order to enable the viability, security, and prosperity of the other. The purpose of the negotiations and red lines is for each side to test the other’s sincerity on this issue. It is not to subdue the other into accepting terminology or slogans which have nothing to do with our ability to live side-by-side in peace.

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