Is it possible to justify the existence of a Jewish state? This question, raised with increased frequency in recent years, is not just a theoretical one. Israel will endure as a Jewish state only if it can be defended, in both the physical and the moral sense. Of course, states may survive in the short term through sheer habit or the application of brute force, even when their legitimacy has been severely undermined. In the long run, however, only a state whose existence is justified by its citizens can hope to endure. The ability to provide a clear rationale for a Jewish state is, therefore, of vital importance to Israel’s long-term survival.1
Over the many years in which I have participated in debates about Israel’s constitutional foundations and the rights of its citizens, I did not generally feel this question to be particularly urgent. Indeed, I believed that there was no more need to demonstrate the legitimacy of a Jewish state than there was for any other nation state, and I did not take claims to the contrary very seriously. Those who denied the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state were, in my eyes, little different from the radical ideologues who dismiss all national movements as inherently immoral, or who insist that Judaism is solely a religion with no right to national self-expression; their claims seemed marginal and unworthy of systematic refutation.2
Today I realize that my view was wrong. The repudiation of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state is now a commonly held position, and one that is increasingly seen as legitimate. Among Israeli Arabs, for example, it is nearly impossible to find anyone willing to endorse, at least publicly, the right of Jews to national self-determination in the land of Israel. Rejection of the Jewish state has in fact become the norm among most representatives of the Arab public--including those who have sworn allegiance as members of Knesset. As far as they are concerned, the State of Israel, inasmuch as it is a Jewish state, was born in sin and continues to live in sin. Such a state is inherently undemocratic and incapable of protecting human rights. Only when it has lost its distinctive Jewish character, they insist, will Israel’s existence be justified.
More worrisome, perhaps, is the fact that many Jews in Israel agree with this view, or at least show a measure of sympathy for it. Some of the Jews committed to promoting the causes of democracy, human rights, and universal norms are, knowingly or not, assisting efforts to turn Israel into a neutral, liberal state--a “state of all its citizens,” as it is commonly called. Few of them understand the broader implications of such a belief for Israel’s character. Most are simply reassured by Israel’s success in establishing a modern, secular, liberal-democratic state with a Jewish national language and public culture, and think these achievements are not dependent on Israel’s status as the nation state of the Jews. Like many liberals in the modern era, they are suspicious of nation states, without always understanding their historical roots or the profound societal functions they serve. This suspicion often translates into a willingness to sacrifice Israel’s distinct national identity--even when this sacrifice is demanded on behalf of a competing national movement.3
Nor, at times, have Israel’s own actions made the job of justifying its unique national character an easy one. On the one hand, the government uses the state’s Jewish identity to justify wrongs it perpetrates on others; on the other, it hesitates to take steps that are vital to preserving the country’s national character. The use of Jewish identity as a shield to deflect claims concerning unjustifiable policies--such as discrimination against non-Jews or the Orthodox monopoly over matters of personal status--only reinforces the tendency of many Israelis to ignore the legitimate existential needs of the Jewish state, such as the preservation of a Jewish majority within its borders and the development of a vibrant Jewish cultural life.
It is against this backdrop that I write this essay. In what follows, I will argue that the idea of a Jewish nation state is justified, and that the existence of such a state is an important condition for the security of its Jewish citizens and the continuation of Jewish civilization. The establishment of Israel as a Jewish state was justified at the time of independence half a century ago, and its preservation continues to be justified today. Israel does have an obligation to protect the rights of all its citizens, to treat them fairly and with respect, and to provide equally for the security and welfare of its non-Jewish minorities. Yet these demands do not require a negation of the state’s Jewish character. Nor does that character pose an inherent threat to the state’s democratic nature: On the contrary, it is the duty of every democracy to reflect the basic preferences of the majority, so long as they do not infringe on the rights of others. In Israel’s case, this means preserving the Jewish character of the state.
The argument I will present here is framed mainly within the discourse of human rights, including the right of peoples, under certain conditions, to self-determination. Such an argument begins by recognizing the uniqueness of peoples and by acknowledging as a universal principle their right to preserve and develop that uniqueness. This starting point may seem shallow or even offensive to some Jews, particularly those for whom the Jewish right to a state and to the land of Israel is axiomatic, flowing inexorably from Jewish faith or history. According to this view, neither the long exile of the Jews nor the fact of Arab settlement in the areas where the ancient Jewish kingdom lay undermines the Jewish claim, which is absolute and unquestionable, an elemental point of religious belief.
In my view, it is crucial to base the justification of a Jewish state on arguments that appeal to people who do not share such beliefs. We must look instead for a justification on universal moral grounds. This is the only sort of argument which will make sense to the majority of Israelis, who prefer not to base their Zionism on religious belief, or to those non-Jews who are committed to human rights but not to the Jews’ biblically based claims. Moreover, such an argument may have the added benefit of encouraging Palestinians to argue in universal terms, rather than relying on claims of historical ownership or the sanctity of Muslim lands. Locating an argument within the discourse of universal rights is, therefore, the best way to avoid a pointless clash of dogmas that leaves no room for dialogue or compromise.
Justifying the principle of a Jewish nation state, however, is only part of protecting the future of Israel. No less important is demonstrating that the state in fact can uphold, and does uphold, the principles considered essential to any civilized government, including the maintenance of a democratic regime and the protection of human rights. Accordingly, after presenting the arguments that support the existence of a Jewish state in the land of Israel in principle, I will go on to discuss how such a state ought to be fashioned--that is, how its policies and institutions should be crafted so as to help preserve the country’s Jewish character without violating its basic obligations to both Jews and non-Jews, in Israel and abroad.
One commonly held view of liberal democracy asserts that the state must be absolutely neutral with regard to the cultural, ethnic, and religious identity of its population and of its public sphere. I do not share this view. I believe such total neutrality is impossible, and that in the context of the region it is not desired by any group. The character of Israel as a Jewish nation state does generate some tension with the democratic principle of civic equality. Nonetheless, this tension does not prevent Israel from being a democracy. There is no inherent disagreement between the Jewish identity of the state and its liberal-democratic nature. The state I will describe would have a stable and large Jewish majority. It would respect the rights of all its citizens, irrespective of nationality and religion, and would recognize the distinct interests and cultures of its various communities. It would not, however, abandon its preference for the interests of a particular national community, nor would it need to.
The Jewish state whose existence I will justify is not, therefore, a neutral “state of all its citizens.” Israel has basic obligations to democracy and human rights, but its language is Hebrew, its weekly day of rest is Saturday, and it marks Jewish religious festivals as public holidays. The public culture of this state is Jewish, although it is not a theocracy, nor does it impose a specific religious concept of Jewish identity on its citizens. No doubt this kind of state should encourage public dialogue about the relationship between its liberal-democratic nature and its commitment to the preservation of Jewish culture. In what follows, I will offer an argument for the justification of an Israel that is both proudly Jewish and strongly democratic–and that has the right, therefore, to take action to preserve both basic elements of its identity.4
I begin with the premise that peoples have a right to self-determination in their own land. Exercising this right, however, does not necessarily depend on establishing a sovereign state. Self-determination can be achieved, for example, by securing cultural autonomy within a multi-national political framework.5 Yet a nation state--a state whose institutions and official public culture are linked to a particular national group–offers special benefits to the people with whom the state is identified. At the same time, it puts those citizens who are not members of the preferred national community at a disadvantage. Whether it is just to give the advantage to one people at the expense of another is a question that cannot be answered a priori. Rather, we must take into account the competing interests of the different parties, as well as their relative size and the political alternatives available to each of them. The starting point for our justification of the Jewish state, then, is an examination of the advantages of such a state for the Jewish people--in Israel and elsewhere--as compared to the disadvantages it poses for other national groups within its borders.
While a vibrant Jewish state plays a variety of roles in the lives of Jews, we must not forget the circumstances that gave rise to the Zionist dream. It is well known that Zionism emerged as a response to two interrelated problems: The persecution of the Jews on the one hand, and their widespread assimilation on the other. Of the two, the concern for the security of the Jewish people predominated: For years, the Zionist movement claimed that only a Jewish state could ensure the safety of Jews around the world. Today, however, it is fair to ask whether this claim has really stood the test of time. After all, the Jewish people survived for two millennia without a state, often in the most difficult of conditions. In recent generations, particularly in Western countries, Jews have enjoyed an unprecedented level of security and freedom of cultural expression. Perhaps this recent success stems in part from the sense of belonging Jews feel toward Israel, and the knowledge that there exists in the world a country committed to their safety. It may also be a result of lessons the world learned from the destruction of European Jewry. But these alone do not seem to justify the claim that a Jewish state is somehow essential for Jewish survival. Even the clear rise in anti-Semitism throughout the diaspora over the last few years does not decide the issue. While some argue that this new trend is merely the emergence of previously suppressed anti-Semitic sentiments, we should not dismiss out of hand the claim that this renewed anti-Semitism is, at least in part, a response to Israel’s behavior in its ongoing conflict with the Palestinians. Moreover, Israel’s ability to protect its own Jewish citizens appears tragically limited–a fact made brutally clear by the murder of hundreds of Jewish civilians by Palestinian terrorists since September 2000. Nevertheless, there is one form of anti-Semitism that is inconceivable in a Jewish state: The state-sponsored, or state-endured, persecution of Jews. The trauma of systematic oppression that was the lot of every previous generation of Jews stops at the borders of the Jewish state.6
The problem of assimilation presents Israel with a different challenge. Israel offers the possibility of a richer Jewish life than could ever be found in the diaspora, and not merely because Israel is the only country with a Jewish majority. The public culture of the state is Jewish, the language of the country is Hebrew, national holidays commemorate Jewish religious festivals and historical events, and the national discourse is permeated with concern for the fate of the Jews. In addition, state lands, immigration, and the defense of the civilian population are all in the hands of a Jewish government. In just half a century, Israel has become home to the strongest Jewish community in the world–a role that is likely to become even more pronounced in the years ahead, as assimilation and emigration gradually reduce the power and influence of Jewish communities in the diaspora.7
For observant Jews--even those who are opposed to Zionism--the advantages of a Jewish state are obvious. Certainly anyone who has practiced an observant lifestyle in both Israel and the diaspora knows how much easier it is in the Jewish state. In addition, Orthodox Jews in Israel fulfill the commandment of yishuv ha’aretz, of living in the land of Israel. While a Jewish state may not be absolutely necessary to fulfill this commandment, its absence might make it very difficult for Jews to remain here.8
A less obvious yet arguably greater advantage of a Jewish state is the cultural reinforcement it offers to secular Jews, whose Jewish identities are more fluid and generally lack the internal safeguards possessed by their Orthodox counterparts. For only in Israel, with its Jewish public culture, can Jewish identity be taken for granted as the default option, and the cultivation of any other identity require a special effort–the kind of effort all too familiar to diaspora Jews, who must struggle daily to maintain their links to Judaism.
In addition to offering Jews a safe haven from the forces of assimilation, a Jewish state offers the possibility of an exceptionally vibrant secular Jewish life. Since the rise of the Zionist movement, the Jewish people has witnessed the creation, in Hebrew, of countless new works of literature, poetry, and philosophy, whose wellsprings of inspiration are Jewish beliefs, customs, and history. This immense creative activity benefits Jews everywhere, for it offers wide new possibilities for a Jewish identity that is not dependent on halacha, or Jewish law.
For Jews in both Israel and the diaspora, then, the loss of the Jewish state would mean the loss of all these advantages. Without a Jewish state, the Jews would revert to the status of a cultural minority everywhere. And as we know from history, the return of the Jews to minority status would likely mean the constant fear of a resurgence of anti-Semitism, persecution, and even genocide--as well as the need to dedicate ever more resources to staving off assimilation. I do not feel that I am being overly dramatic, then, if I say that forgoing a state is, for the Jewish people, akin to national suicide.
The benefits of Israel for Jews are mirrored, at least in some respects, by the price it exacts from its Arab citizens. For in a Jewish state, Arab citizens lack the ability to control their own public domain. The national language and culture are not their own, and without control over immigration, their ability to increase their proportion in the overall population is limited. Furthermore, their personal and cultural security are dependent on the goodwill and competence of a regime they perceive as alien. All these are harder for Arabs to accept since they used to be a majority in the land, and have become a minority despite the fact that they remained on their land. The Jewish state is thus an enterprise in which the Arabs are not equal partners, in which their interests are placed below those of a different national group--most of whose members are newcomers to the land, and many of whom are not even living in the country. In addition, as we shall see, the establishment of Israel has had a major impact on the lot of Palestinians who are not its citizens. It follows, then, that the case for a Jewish state must weigh the advantages it brings to Jews against the burdens it imposes on its Arab citizens.
Balancing Jewish and Arab claims to self-determination in the land of Israel (or Palestine) is not a matter of abstract rights-talk. Rather, such claims must be addressed according to the demographic, societal, and political realities that prevail both in the Middle East and in other parts of the world. It thus follows that the degree to which a Jewish state in the land of Israel is justified does not remain constant, but instead varies over time and according to changing circumstances. Indeed, it is my contention that at the beginning of the twentieth century, when the Zionist movement was in its formative stages, the Jewish people did not have the right to establish a state in any part of Palestine. By the time statehood was declared in 1948, however, the existence of a thriving Jewish community with a political infrastructure justified the creation of a Jewish state. Today, Israel has not only the right to exist but also the right to promote and strengthen its Jewish character. Indeed, this dramatic shift in the validity of the Jewish claim to statehood is one of Zionism’s major achievements.
This approach necessarily distinguishes between claims regarding the legitimacy of Israel’s creation and claims regarding the right of Israel, once established, to maintain itself as a Jewish state. Such a dichotomy contrasts sharply with the view of most Arab leaders and intellectuals, who insist that Israel was wrongfully established and that its continued existence today is ipso facto unjustified. It is important to see that the two are not necessarily connected. For even if there was no justification for the creation of a Jewish state in 1948--a claim which I do not accept--it does not follow that the preservation of Israel as a Jewish state is unjustified today. Similarly, even if we accept the establishment of Israel in 1948 as justified, one would still have to show why the preservation of Israel’s Jewish character is legitimate today. The point here is that changing conditions affect the balance of legitimacy, and therefore no claim to self-determination can be absolute. This approach, which may appear at first glance to weaken the case for the Jewish state by making it contingent, to my mind, provides one of the strongest universal arguments in its favor.
To see why this is so, it is instructive to divide the history of modern Jewish settlement in the land of Israel into five distinct periods, and to consider the degree to which a Jewish state was justified in each of them. Relevant factors include the size of the Jewish and Arab populations in the land of Israel or in parts of it; the alternatives available to the two communities; the situation of Jewish communities in the diaspora; the relationship of the Jewish people to the land; Jewish-Arab relations; the decisions made by those in charge of the territory prior to statehood; and the status of Arab citizens under Israeli rule.
The first period covers the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries, when the Zionist idea was first translated into concerted action. There is no disputing the fact that, at the time, the Arab population in Palestine was far greater than that of the Jews, despite the steady stream of Jewish immigration throughout the preceding generations.9 This disparity reflected the centuries-long absence of a Jewish majority in the land of Israel, initially the result of expulsions and persecutions and later of free choice. In this period, the Jewish people did not have the right to establish a state in any part of the land of Israel, for the right of a people to establish a state in a given territory requires that it constitute a clear majority in all or part of it. The Jewish people may have longed for and prayed toward their land, but very few chose to make it their home.10
The important question concerning this period, however, is not the right of the Jews to sovereignty in Palestine, but rather their liberty to create a settlement infrastructure that would enable them to establish a Jewish state at a later date. From the Arab perspective, such settlement was illegitimate at its core, since it was harmful to Arab interests and limited their control over the public domain. The claim that Jewish settlement harmed Arab interests is certainly understandable, and the fears that lay at its core were no doubt warranted. But did these fears place a moral obligation on the Jewish people to refrain from returning to their homeland?
I do not believe so. To understand why this is the case, it is useful to employ the distinction between “rights” and “liberties” first introduced by the American jurist Wesley Newcomb Hohfeld. According to Hohfeld, we may speak of a liberty when there is no obligation to act or refrain from acting in a certain manner.. A right, on the other hand, means that others have an obligation not to interfere with, or to grant the possibility of, my acting in a certain manner. Using this model, we may say that as long as their actions were legal and non-violent, the Jewish settlers were at liberty to enlarge their numbers among the local population, even with the declared and specific intent of establishing the infrastructure for a future Jewish state.11 Their liberty to create such an infrastructure was certainly greater, for example, than that of England and Spain to settle the Americas, and Palestine was certainly a more legitimate destination than Uganda or Argentina. The immigration of Jews to Palestine was vastly different from colonialism, both with respect to their situation in their countries of origin and with respect to their relationship with the land itself. Unlike colonial powers, the Jews were a people in exile, foreigners wherever they went; they were everywhere a minority, and in some places persecuted relentlessly; and they had never possessed national sovereignty over any land but the land of Israel. Add to this their profound cultural and religious bond to the land, and you have a solid basis for a unique connection between the Jews and the land of Israel–one far more compelling than the claims of a typical group of European settlers.
It was in fact precisely the power of this connection that made the local Arabs see Jewish immigration as far more threatening than any influx of English or French colonists. In light of the Jews’ historical connection to the land of Israel, the Arabs correctly understood the waves of Zionist immigration as something new, unlike the conquest of the Crusaders during medieval times or the settlement of the British under the Mandate.12 Considering the threat that Jewish settlement posed to the continued existence of a Muslim public culture in Palestine, the Arab population certainly had full liberty to take steps to resist this settlement, so long as they did not infringe on any basic human rights or violate the laws of the land. Thus, while the Arabs’ success in persuading the authorities to limit immigration and land purchases was a setback to Zionism, it was in no way a violation of the Jews’ rights.
When the Arabs realized that diplomatic measures alone could not prevent the creation of the infrastructure for Jewish settlement, however, they turned to violence as a means of resistance. This clearly was a violation of the rights of the Jews, and it was here that the great tragedy of Jewish-Arab relations began. The violent resistance of the Arabs ultimately lent significant weight to the Jewish claim to a sovereign state, and not merely to self-determination within a non-state framework. From the 1920s until today, one of the strongest arguments for Jewish statehood has been the fact that the security of Jews as individuals and as a collective cannot be secured without it.
Both Jews and Arabs attach great importance to this early period, and both sides continue to ignore certain facts about it. The great majority of Arabs believes that Jewish settlement was both illegal and immoral; even those willing to accept the current regime still refuse to recognize the legitimacy of the Jewish national movement. As a result, we hear the constant repetition of the claim that Zionism is, by its very nature, a form of both colonialism and racism.13 On the other hand, many Jews refuse to accept that Arab objections to Zionist settlement are not only legitimate, but almost inevitable. Now as then, Arab violence turns Jewish attention to the need for self-defense, and few are willing to admit that the original Zionist settlers did not come to an uninhabited land, or that they posed a real threat to local Arab interests.14 As long as each side continues to deny the other’s narratives, hopes, and needs, reconciliation and compromise over the long term are unlikely.
In the second period of the conflict, from the Arab Revolt that began in 1936 to the United Nations partition decision of November 1947, a number of attempts were made to find a solution acceptable to the international community and reflective of the reality in the Mandate territory. While the details differed, each plan suggested division of the territory into Jewish and Arab states in accordance with demographic concentrations, providing for the rights of those who remained outside their own nation state. This approach derived from the recognition of two basic facts: That a critical mass of Jews had formed in Palestine, in certain areas constituting a clear majority; and that the only hope for the region lay in a two-state solution. From the perspective of both sides to the conflict, this approach signaled both a major achievement and a serious setback. The Jews had succeeded in winning international recognition for their right to a sovereign state. The Arabs had succeeded in preventing that state from encompassing all of the territory west of the Jordan River, as was implied in the Balfour Declaration. The ultimate expression of this new approach was the partition plan ratified by the UN General Assembly on November 29, 1947. The Jewish and Arab responses could not have been more different: The Jews accepted partition and declared independence; the Arabs categorically rejected the UN plan and went to war.
The third period, which includes Israel’s War of Independence and its immediate aftermath, was one of decisive victory for one side and crushing defeat for the other. When the smoke of battle had cleared in early 1949, the new State of Israel controlled a much larger area than had originally been allocated to it by the UN plan, and the remaining territories were seized by Jordan and Egypt. Hundreds of thousands of Arabs left the Jewish territory either voluntarily or under duress. Many Arab villages were ruined or abandoned.15 The Arab minority that remained in Israel was placed under military rule.
In the Palestinian narrative, this chain of events is known as al-nakba, the “Catastrophe,” the formative experience upon which the Palestinians’ dream of return and the restoration of the status quo ante is founded. The official political expressions of this ambition have changed over time: There are major differences between the language of the Palestinian National Covenant as approved in 1968, the PLO’s declaration of 1988 accepting the UN partition plan (albeit with reservations), and the 1993 Oslo accords, which recognized Israel’s existence and agreed to peaceful relations. Despite the progress implicit in each of these declarations, however, nowhere has the Palestinian movement given up on its dream of return. The centrality of this issue is impossible to understand without a closer look at the events of 1947 through 1949.
There is no doubt that the consequences of this period were tragic for the local Arab population. This is not to say, however, that the exclusive or even prime responsibility for this tragedy rests on Israel’s shoulders. Indeed, it is encouraging that a tendency has developed in recent years, both in the academy and in the Israeli public, to examine more critically the events that occurred both during and after the War of Independence. There is, it seems, a growing awareness that no good can come of bad history. Fortunately, while these examinations may shatter the myth of moral purity that Jews have ascribed to their side in the war, they may also reinforce the more substantive Jewish claims. The Arabs themselves bear a great deal of responsibility for the region’s miseries during this period, which were brought on by a war which they themselves declared. After all, the purpose of the war was to prevent the establishment of the Jewish state. If the Arabs had won, they would not have allowed such a state to come into being. The Jews, therefore, had no alternative but to fight to defend their state.16
After the war, Israel signed cease-fire agreements with Jordan and Egypt that did not reflect the UN partition map. Nor could they have: The Palestinians lacked any official representation with which to reach a postwar settlement. More importantly, the war had rendered irrelevant the vision of two democratic nation states, living side by side under joint economic administration. In light of the Arab states’ refusal to recognize Israel, no settlement on the issues of Palestinian statehood and refugee absorption could possibly have been reached.
In the fourth period, between 1949 and 1967, Israel had full jurisdiction over its new borders. Immigration, largely from Europe and from Arab countries, dramatically altered the country’s demographic balance: Whereas the pre-1947 Jewish majority was a bare 60 percent in its territory, the State of Israel soon boasted a Jewish population nearing 80 percent.17 During these years, the state consolidated control over its territory through widespread nationalization of land, including “public” lands that had been used by Palestinians, as well as abandoned areas. The enraged Palestinian community, now under military rule, was unable to mount an effective protest.18
The results of the war brought an end to the symmetry between Arabs and Jews. Palestinian Arabs did not achieve statehood, and their communities suffered a major setback, while Zionism made a critical transition from having the moral liberty to establish a Jewish state to having a moral right to maintain it and to preserve its Jewish character.
The regional war that broke out in 1967 marks the beginning of the fifth period, a period that has continued, in one form or another, until today. The Six Day War was another attempt by the Arab states to transform the political reality in the region through the destruction of the Jewish state. Once again their efforts failed, and Israel’s overwhelming victory included the seizure of the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria.
One important consequence of the Six Day War was the revival among Jews of a controversy that appeared to have been settled with the partition plan and the establishment of the State of Israel: The controversy regarding those territories that had once been part of the historic land of Israel but did not fall within Israel’s pre-1967 borders. In the face of the Arab refusal to negotiate with Israel after the Six Day War, intensive Jewish settlement began in some of these territories. In the years that followed, important political developments continued to affect the territories’ status: Israel imposed its civilian law on the whole of Jerusalem (immediately after the war) and on the Golan Heights (in 1981), yet refrained from doing so in the other areas it had seized. The Sinai Peninsula in its entirety was returned to Egypt as part of the Camp David peace accords of 1978, and Jordan waived its claims to the West Bank in 1988 and signed a peace agreement with Israel in 1994. The peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan only exacerbated the conflict between Jews and Palestinians over the fate of the strip of land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River–what Jews call the “land of Israel” and Palestinians call “historic Palestine.” On both sides there are advocates of a unified sovereignty over the entire area, with each side claiming the right to total control. Others call for division of the land into “two states for two peoples,” and still others seek the creation of a single binational, democratic state for the entire area.19 None of this, however, undermines the basic justification for having a Jewish state in that part of the land in which the Jews constitute a large and stable majority.
In the final analysis, it is impossible to ignore the profound changes that have occurred in the last hundred years with respect to the balance of Jewish and Arab interests in the land of Israel. True, both moral and practical considerations suggest that Israel should give up on maximalist claims to sovereignty over the entire area west of the Jordan River. A situation in which both Jews and Palestinians can enjoy national self-determination in part of their historic homeland is better than the present asymmetry between them.20 At the same time, however, justification for the existence of a Jewish state in part of that land is stronger now than it was in 1947. This is not because of Jewish suffering during the Holocaust or the guilt of the nations of the world, but rather because Israel today hosts a large and diverse Jewish community with the right to national self-determination and the benefits that it can bring. The need to recognize the trauma of Palestinian refugees does not justify a massive uprooting of these Jews, nor does it justify the restoration of the demographic status quo ante between Jews and Arabs, or otherwise restoring the state of vulnerability which both communities endured.
While we cannot ignore the history of the conflict, neither can we ignore the reality that has taken hold in the intervening years. Nowhere is this more important than in considering one of the basic Palestinian claims, according to which hundreds of thousands of Palestinians should be allowed to relocate to Israel through recognition of what is known as the Palestinian “right of return.” In evaluating this claim, one must first recall that a necessary condition for the existence of a Jewish state is the maintenance of a Jewish majority within its borders. It follows that Israel must not extend its sovereignty over a sizable Palestinian population, and that it must continue to maintain control over immigration into it. This control, and the Jewish majority in Israel, will both be undermined by recognition of a “right of return.” It is therefore crucial to see that behind all the talk about rights and justice, the “right of return” necessarily means undoing the developments in the region since 1947, and undermining the existence of a Jewish state.21
A Palestinian state alongside Israel, however, would help address the claims of Arab Israelis to the effect that Israel must give up its national identity because only then would Arab citizens enjoy full equality within it. It is true that Arabs cannot enjoy a sense of full membership in a state whose public culture is Jewish. This is especially the case so long as there is a violent, unresolved conflict between their people and their state. At the same time, however, the sense of not being full partners in the national enterprise is the lot of national minorities in all nation states. This complaint should be distinguished from demands for civic and political non-discrimination for Arabs as individuals, and recognition of their collective cultural, religious, and national interests, which Israel should provide.
It is undoubtedly true that in Israel a significant gap exists between the welfare and political participation of Jews on the one hand and Arabs on the other. This is, in part at least, the result of various forms of discrimination. But does this fact undermine the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state? Again, differences between Jews and Arabs in Israel are no greater than between majority and minority nationalities in other countries.22 And while it is true that any comparison of the status of Israeli Arabs will principally be with that of Israeli Jews, it is worth bearing in mind that their situation is in many respects far better than it would be in an Arab state. This is most evident in the areas of education, health, and political freedom. Even their level of personal security is relatively high: Cases of physical abuse by the state authorities are quite rare.23 It is therefore not surprising that despite the real difficulties of life in Israel, the majority of Israeli Arabs do not want their homes to become a part of an eventual Palestinian state.
The life offered Israeli Arabs by the Jewish state does indeed limit their ability to develop their culture and exercise their right to self-determination, but this is far from being sufficient grounds for abolishing the Jewish state. As we have seen, the Jewish state fulfills an important set of aims for Jews and for the Jewish people–aims that the Jews have a right to pursue, and which could not be realized without a state. It is possible, then, to justify the limited harm done to the individual and communal interests of Arabs in light of the mortal blow Israel’s absence would be to the Jewish people’s rights. The reasoning for this is straightforward: There is a great difference between preferring the interests of one group over those of another and the denial of rights: As human beings, we all have a right to life, security, and dignity, as well as to national self-determination. We cannot, however, demand that the government protect all our interests and preferences at all times. The state is justified in weighing the interests and preferences of different parties, and the resulting arrangements, although always to the detriment of one group or another, do not in themselves constitute a violation of rights. In a democracy, these arrangements are made primarily by elected representatives, and as a result they usually reflect the interests and preferences of the majority. It is therefore a fundamental principle of democracy that no minority has the right to prevent the majority from advancing its interests, so long as the minority’s basic rights are respected.24
In other words, so long as the Jewish character of the state does not infringe on the basic human rights of those Arabs living within Israel, and the state is the only guarantee of certain Jewish rights--both individual and communal--then the continued existence of a Jewish state is justified. Palestinian self-determination, therefore, should be recognized if it concedes the right of Jews to self-determination. At the same time, a Palestinian nation state living in peace alongside Israel is preferable to the present situation, for this would mean that the rights of both Jews and Arabs to self-determination are honored.
In the abstract, a binational state between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River might be easier for many people to justify than a two-state solution. However, the logic of partition seems only to have strengthened since1947. Those who advocate the creation of a Palestinian nation state alongside Israel cannot in good faith argue that Israel should give up its Jewish identity.