from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Can Israel Be a "Jewish State?"

July 14, 2011

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Negotiations between Israel and the PLO have been stalled for many reasons, but a central issue is the Palestinian refusal to acknowledge Israel as a “Jewish state.”

The whole idea behind the partition of the Palestine Mandate in 1947 was, in the words of U.N. General Assembly resolution 181, the creation of an “Arab state” and a “Jewish state.” The Arab rejection of Israel as a Jewish state is in fact at the heart of the Middle East conflict. It is based on the widespread refusal to accept Israel as a permanent presence in the region, but is usually couched in more acceptable terminology—indeed, the language of “rights.” As one news story put it, “Palestinian negotiators have recognized Israel’s right to exist, but not as a Jewish state, which officials say would prejudice the right of return for refugees and violate the rights of Israel’s non-Jewish residents.”

In other words, the argument is that if Israel is a “Jewish state” it will certainly, unavoidably, necessarily discriminate against non-Jews. The problem with this debating point is that those who use it apply it only to Israel; no one ever voices any concern about states based on Islam and discriminating in favor of Muslims.

There are actually four states whose very name contains a religious reference: the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, and the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. But beyond those, in every Muslim-majority country the constitution asserts a special role for Islam. The Jordanian constitution says “Islam is the religion of the State” and of course  “No person shall ascend the Throne unless he is a Moslem…of Moslem parents.” No converts! But Jordan has a Christian minority that is five to eight percent of the population (Eastern Orthodox, Circassian, Melkite, and other sects).

Egypt is about ten or even fifteen percent Christian (Copts), but its current provisional constitution states that “Islam is the religion of the state….Principles of Islamic law (Shari’a) are the principal source of legislation.” Moreover, this is unlikely to change: presidential candidate Mohammad ElBaradei, viewed as a Westernized moderate, recently released his version of a new Egyptian constitution that similarly holds “Islam shall be the religion of the state….Sharia shall be the main source of legislation.”

The constitution of Malaysia states that “Islam is the religion of the Federation,” even though the country is only about sixty percent Muslim. It is roughly twenty percent Buddhist, ten percent Christian, and six percent Hindu, among other religions.

There are many similar examples. The religion of the state is Islam in Oman, Qatar, and Kuwait (where there are estimates that fifteen percent of the population is non-Muslim)—and one could lengthen the list. In Afghanistan, the constitution holds that “The sacred religion of Islam is the religion of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan” and “No law shall contravene the tenets and provisions of the holy religion of Islam in Afghanistan.” The president must be a Muslim. The Saudis go one further, refusing even to have a constitution: “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a sovereign Arab Islamic state with Islam as its religion; God’s Book and the Sunnah of His Prophet, God’s prayers and peace be upon him, are its constitution….”

It is worth adding that Muslim states are not alone in their religious ties. The constitution of Denmark, for example, states that “The Evangelical Lutheran Church shall be the Established Church of Denmark, and, as such, it shall be supported by the State," and unsurprisingly “The King shall be a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church.” Same for Norway: “The Evangelical-Lutheran religion shall remain the official religion of the State” and “The King shall at all times profess the Evangelical-Lutheran religion.” And of course, the Queen of England is “Defender of the Faith,” and the faith is Anglican Christianity.

So what? So the usual arguments against the acknowledgement of Israel as a Jewish state are hypocritical and specious. Every Arab state is far more Islamic than the “Jewish state” of Israel is Jewish; to take one example, Israel imposes no religious test for the offices of president or prime minister. Moreover, the treatment of religious minorities is far better than in the Muslim states, as the flat ban on building even a single church in Saudi Arabia and the repeated violence against Christians in Egypt and Pakistan remind us. If some secular professor maintains that all states should be devoid of religious identity, fair enough; that is a principled argument. But when Arab political leaders say they will never acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state, that isn’t an argument at all. It is a reminder of their continuing refusal to make peace with the Jewish state and with the very idea that the Jews can have a state in what they view as the Dar al-Islam.

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