Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s demand that Israel be recognized as a “Jewish state” is unprecedented in the history of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Rooted in a nineteenth century European-nationalist worldview, the concept has been officially opposed by the United States, and with good reason—it goes against basic principles of international law and has served to undermine efforts to negotiate a lasting Middle East peace.
Jack Ross, last updated: May 31, 2011
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s newest tactic in advancing the Likud Party’s hawkish approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is his demand, first enunciated in his response to Barack Obama’s June 2009 Cairo Speech and now an ubiquitous talking point, that Israel be recognized by the Palestinians and other adversaries as either “the nation-state of the Jewish people” or “the national home of the Jewish people.” This demand is unprecedented in the history of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and the United States has, to its credit, rejected the framing. Indeed, how could such a concept—that a nation-state belongs not necessarily to its own citizens or even an exclusive subset of its citizens, but to an abstract if not fictitious transnational entity—serve as a principle of international law?
In the wake of Obama’s May 2011 speech on Middle East policy and Netanyahu’s exaggerated response to it, this precondition requires additional scrutiny because of its growing prevalence in hawkish discourse on the so-called peace process. The demand to grant official recognition to the Jewish nationalist narrative is now a regular neoconservative talking point, particularly at Commentary magazine’s “Contentions” blog. It has also been adopted by Obama administration allies like J Street, which seems to invoke the slogans of Jewish “nationhood” in order to remain kosher in the eyes of the American Jewish establishment.
Origins and Opposition
Israel has always held that it is a state not merely of its own people but a transnational entity called “the Jewish people.” In his June 2010 book, The Invention of the Jewish People, the Israeli historian Shlomo Sand chronicled how this concept was created in the nationalist ferment of nineteenth century Europe and owes more to the historic doctrines of modern nationalism than to historical Judaism. Sand provocatively begins his book by illustrating that as far as the Israeli government is concerned, there is no such nationality as “Israeli”—only the universal “Jewish.”
The most provocative instance of Israel employing force on the world stage in the name of “the Jewish people” was in 1961, when it took it upon itself to capture, try, convict, and execute the Nazi fugitive Adolf Eichmann. This took place in defiance of a broad U.S. and international consensus that an international tribunal should have tried Eichmann. In her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Study in the Banality of Evil, Hannah Arendt famously criticized the trial for being a gratuitous exercise in Israeli nationalist propaganda. Time magazine editorialized at the time: “In his justifiable determination to see Eichmann punished for his monstrous past, Ben-Gurion seemed to be unaware of the inverse racism in his claim that Israel, as ‘the only sovereign authority in Jewry,’ had the right to seek out criminals guilty of offenses against ‘the Jewish people’ anywhere it could find them.”
The Eichmann case spurred Rabbi Elmer Berger, leader of the anti-Zionist American Council for Judaism, to seek a clarification from the State Department—which opposed the unilateral Israeli capture of Eichmann—as to whether it recognized the concept of “the Jewish people” as a valid concept of international law. With the collaboration of William Thomas Mallison, an international law expert, a forty-one page brief was presented to the State Department and was also published in the George Washington University Law Review.
On April 20, 1964, Assistant Secretary of State Phillip Talbot sent a letter acknowledging receipt of the brief, detailing the State Department’s official position:
“The Department of State recognizes the State of Israel as a sovereign state and citizenship in the State of Israel. It recognizes no other citizenship or sovereignty in connection therewith. It does not recognize a legal-political relationship based on the religious identification of American citizens. It does not in any way discriminate among American citizens upon the basis of their religion. Accordingly, it should be clear that the Department of State does not regard the ‘Jewish people’ concept as a concept of international law.”
Though seemingly mundane, the Israeli embassy reportedly pressured the State Department to retract the letter for many years. However strange it may seem as abstract legal theory, the letter has important real-world implications. It lays out a position directly contrary to the Balfour Declaration, the British imperial edict that gave blessing, at least in principle, to the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine in its assumption that a transnational “Jewish people” was a valid concept in international law. The 1947 UN partition plan of Palestine also relied on the same assumption.
In recent years, the Israel lobby’s increasingly strident and erratic demands have chipped away at the policy outlined in the Talbot letter. In a 2008 column, for instance, Charles Krauthammer unambiguously urged the United States to declare itself bound to defend Israel against Iran out of the duty to prevent another Holocaust, or “crimes against the Jewish people.” John McCain endorsed this principle in his 2008 presidential election debates with Barack Obama. Groups like John Hagee’s Christians United for Israel have relied on the concept in their advocacy on behalf of a Greater Israel Project.
In direct conflict with the Talbot letter, last March, the Colorado legislature issued a joint resolution resolving to “recognize the state of Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people,” which followed an address by Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren.
The significance of the Talbot letter also appears to have been undermined by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, which has been under pressure to overturn its long-standing policy of not covering religion under their mandate. The commission now includes “religious groups perceived to share ethnic characteristics,” a formulation that seems designed to label criticism of Israel and Zionism as a violation of Jewish students civil rights.
Relevance to Middle East Peace
This history is important in understanding Israel’s precondition that the Palestinians must recognize Israel as a “Jewish homeland.” Furthermore, Netanyahu’s demand makes clear that Israel should be allowed to wage war against Iran and potentially other countries in defense of the transnational “Jewish people.” The idea is controversial both diplomatically but also among Jews themselves. With the increasing influence and popularity of works by authors like Shlomo Sand, there is an increasing awareness that Judaism does not necessarily equate with the nineteenth century romantic nationalist construct called “the Jewish people.” As Rabbi Elmer Berger explained in an essay in the 1980s:
“Recognition of this ‘Jewish people’ nationality concept is the first priority of Zionism’s diplomacy. It is the cornerstone of the Zionist state’s system of nationality rights and obligations. Appreciation of the centrality of this factor is indispensable to any assessment of Israel’s long-range adaptability to the Middle East. It is therefore indispensable to any formula touted to solve the Palestinian problem with the desired ‘just and enduring peace.’”
Jack Ross is a contributor to Right Web (http://rightweb.irc-online.org/) and the author of Rabbi Outcast: Elmer Berger and American Jewish Anti-Zionism.
Charles Krauthammer, "The Holocaust Declaration," RealClearPolitics, April 11, 2008, http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2008/04/deterrence_to_defend_israel.html.
Philip Weiss, "Israeli flag is dropped off at Colorado legislator's office in the nick of time," Mondoweiss, March 18, 2011, http://mondoweiss.net/2011/03/israeli-flag-is-dropped-off-at-colo-legislators-office-in-the-nick-of-time.html.
Jonathan Tobin, "The Reality of Campus Anti-Semitism," Commentary, April 22, 2011, http://www.commentarymagazine.com/2011/04/22/reality-of-campus-antisemitism/.
Ray Takeyh is an Iran-hawk who has recently migrated from the Council on Foreign Relations to the neoconservative Hudson Institute. Takeyh has been a vociferous critic of the Obama administration’s diplomatic efforts aimed at peacefully resolving the Iranian nuclear dispute, framing a potential agreement as the “most advantageous path to nuclear arms” for Iran and arguing for a “revamped coercive strategy” against the country.
Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, notorious for reigning in the rights of workers in his home state, has staked out hawkish positions on foreign policy in advance of his expected run for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. He has called for the United States to have a “strong presence” in the Middle East, has said he would not rule out U.S. “boots on the ground” in the fight against ISIS, and has said he would “absolutely” reject any nuclear deal with Iran if he becomes president. Walker has also spurred ridicule for saying the “most significant foreign policy decision” of his lifetime was Ronald Reagan’s decision to fire striking air traffic controllers in 1981.
Stephen Hadley, a former national security advisor to President George W. Bush, has advocated a hardline towards Russia in the wake of the 2014 Ukraine crisis. Among his recommendations is for the CIA to covertly arm Ukrainian rebels. He said in November 2014: “If I were in my old job I would be thinking about lethal assistance—yes. But you know this is why you have a CIA, you know this is why you have covert action and I would be thinking—do we want to do it explicitly to send a message to Putin? Or do you want to do it covertly?”
The Washington Institute for Near East Policy recently published a letter signed by former officials from both the Bush and Obama administrations that has been framed as critical of the Obama administration’s nuclear negotiations with Iran. However, the letter, which was also signed by prominent neoconservatives, has been described by one signatory as “very much in line with current U.S. policy.”
Gary Samore, a former adviser to the Obama administration who is now the president of the hawkish United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), recently signed onto an open letter published by the “pro-Israel” Washington Institute for Near East Policy that several media outlets have framed as a warning from President Obama’s “ex-advisers” about the “Iran nuclear deal.” Samore, however, appears to disagree with this interpretation of the letter, saying in a recent CNN interview: “If you look through the substance of the letter, you'll see that the positions we take on the key unresolved issues are very much in line with current U.S. policy.”
For media inquiries,
or call 202-234-9382.
June 30, 2015
A recent open letter by the hawkish Washington Institute for Near East Policy about the Iran nuclear negotiations was signed by many figures who claim they support a nuclear deal with Iran, but whose past recommendations would have led to war with Iran.
June 29, 2015
The authors of an open letter published by the hawkish Washington Institute for Near East Policy most likely knew that their statement was intended to set goals for the negotiations that are unattainable.
June 22, 2015
Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., has released a new book vilifying President Obama and his supposed treatment of the U.S.-Israel relationship.
June 20, 2015
Neocon stalwart Elliott Abrams prides himself on having a passion for democracy and human rights even as he has brazenly praised the tightening of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel.
June 18, 2015
Critics of the Iran nuclear negotiations fail to see that any potential agreement was always going to be a compromise and that what they claim are “concessions” are really the compromises necessary for a successful deal.
June 13, 2015
The Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Clifford May conveniently criticizes China for creating “facts on the ground” in the South China Sea while ignoring similar Israeli moves in the Occupied West Bank.
June 08, 2015
The neoconservative claim that George W. Bush “won” the Iraq War is ridiculous.