When Barack Obama referred to Israel as "a Jewish state" in his State of the Union speech, those three little words were meant to carry a very big message. In his effort to force Israelis and Palestinians to an agreement, Obama will apparently take the Israeli side on an issue that isn't get much notice but "may be even more intractable than old ones like security and settlements," as the New York Times' Jodi Rudoren recently reported: "a demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as ... 'the nation-state of the Jewish people.'”
The Palestinians are resisting the demand, fearing "that recognizing Israel as a Jewish state would disenfranchise its 1.6 million Arab citizens [and] undercut the right of return for millions of Palestinian refugees," Rudoren reports. Israeli leaders respond "that the refugee question can be resolved separately and that the status of Israel’s Arab minority can be protected."
The refugee question can probably be resolved separately. Roughly a decade ago the Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat suggested on the Times op-ed page that he would accept a token return of refugees and a huge monetary compensation for the rest. That idea has become a standard part of the settlement outline that has been assumed by most observers for years.
The money will come mainly from the United States, just as the U.S. agreed in 1978 to pay relatively huge amounts to Israel and Egypt each year as long as they keep the peace agreement they signed then. That's one reason Americans have a personal interest in the outcome of the current talks.
As for Arab rights, Israel has been abridging them throughout its history. There's little reason to think an official recognition of Israel as "the nation-state of the Jews" would change the status of Arab Israelis in any major way.
Americans have a personal responsibility in that regard, too. We've spent over two centuries telling the rest of the world that it must live up to our creed of "all are created equal." Yet we've spent billions of our tax dollars and much of our diplomatic capital supporting Israel's domination of the Palestinians. The least we can do now is to ease our hypocrisy by making sure that Israel does protect the rights of all its citizens, telling the Israelis, in effect, "We recognize the error of our ways. Do as we say, not as we have done."
But the "most important" sticking point, according to Rudoren, is the Palestinians' sense that recognition of Israel as a Jewish nation-state would "require a psychological rewriting of the story they [Palestinians] hold dear about their longtime presence in the land." And, in Rudoren's telling, Israeli Jews don't try to refute this point. They agree that the crux of the issue is the political impact of a national story and its psychological ramifications.
This is not news. While Americans generally ignore the political impact of national narratives, both Israelis and Palestinians constantly talk, hear, and read about the central role of the "competing narratives" in their political conflict.
As Rudoren notes, Palestinian leaders from President Mahmoud Abbas on down have long said that Israel can call itself whatever it wants, once it ends the occupation and accepts an internationally recognized border between its own land and that of a new Palestinian state.
All countries define themselves, Hind Khoury, a former Palestinian minister and ambassador, told Rudoren. “Why doesn’t Israel call itself at the U.N. whatever they want to call it — the Jewish whatever, Maccabean, whatever they want. Then the whole world will recognize it.” But, Khoury added, “We will never recognize Israel the way they want, I mean genuinely, from our hearts. ... Why for them to feel secure do we have to deny our most recent history?”
"For them to feel secure" -- There's the heart of the matter, as Americans should easily understand. Israeli Jews, like white Americans, have always known that their claim to the land they call their own is dubious.
Ever since the first Europeans arrived in what would become the United States, they have paraded an endless array of papers, all claiming to be treaties signed by native peoples ceding their lands to the conquerors. "You see, we have a right to this land," the whites proudly proclaimed. Never mind that most of the treaties were either coerced, signed by native peoples who did not understand them, or outright fraudulent. They gave at least the appearance of legal right.
Israel has a somewhat stronger case with UN Resolution 181, passed in 1947, providing for "independent Arab and Jewish States" in Palestine. But the right of the Jews to have their own state in Palestine has still remained a matter of contention (pardon the understatement) ever since.
Why did so many white Americans find it so important to be able to waive those pieces of paper "proving" their "legal right" to the land? Why do a sizeable majority of Israeli Jews favor the demand that Palestinians acknowledge Israel as "the nation-state of the Jewish people"? Obviously, both peoples are insecure about their right to their land. If they can get the former inhabitants to relinquish their rights, it gives the appearance, at least, that the vanquished concede to the victors a moral right to the land they have taken.
But the issue of security runs even deeper.
Yedidia Z. Stern, a vice president of the Israel Democracy Institute, told Rudoren: “We don’t know what it means to be a Jewish state. But does that mean we have to give it up? No way. I would leave. The reason I’m here is because this state is a Jewish state.”
On the face of it, this sounds shockingly illogical. Why stake your life on three words whose meaning you can't define or explain -- three words whose meaning your own people have been debating for over a century?
But the shock I got was one of recognition. So many people in the U.S. have been doing much the same thing for over three centuries: insisting that what makes us a great and exceptional people is that we are Americans, yet being unable to say exactly what it means to be "an American" and endlessly arguing about it.
The book that has cleared up this mystery for me, more than any other, is David Campbell's Writing Security. To oversimplify a sophisticated theory, Campbell argues that, as Khoury says, every nation creates a label for itself: "the Jewish state," "the American people," whatever. But no one in the nation can ever say exactly what that term means in any clear, substantive way. Nations are far too complicated for any essentialist definition. And they're always changing, to boot.
Yet in the modern world we are urged, perhaps in many nations almost required, to define ourselves primarily by our national identity: "I may not know what else I am, but I know for damn sure that I'm an American, and damn proud of it!"
So we build our identities on constantly shifting sands, knowing (however unconsciously) that this means our identity might be washed away at any moment. Talk about being insecure! Israel is steeped in its myth of insecurity, as are we Americans.
To gain at least a shred of security, we must find some answer to one of the great questions -- perhaps the greatest question -- of the modern world: How to give our national, and thus personal, identity some firm foundation?
That's the question Israeli Jews, like Americans, have been grappling with throughout their national history. And the Jews have come up with much the same answer that Campbell says Americans -- especially white Euro-Americans -- have always relied on: We may never be able to say what we are or what positive qualities mark us as a distinctive group. But we can certainly say what we are not: We are not "them"!
"Them," in American history, has been a very fluid category. Native peoples, Africans, Irish, southern Europeans, Latinos, communists, terrorists, and so many others have filled that slot. In the future, no doubt there will be others.
Right now, the dominant "them" in American political life is the undocumented immigrant. Conservatives insist that the undocumented must never become citizens; they must always remain the alien other. The dominant liberal compromise is that a path to citizenship should be opened, but the border with Mexico must remain tightly sealed. Either way, the line between "us" and "them" must be strictly drawn. Those white Americans who don't see any pressing need for such line remain a sadly small minority.
For Israelis, the "them" slot has always been filled by the single word, Arabs. But the principle remains the same in Jewish Israel as in white America. It doesn't matter who "they" are. All that matters is that "they" are not "us." So we know we are "us" -- "one nation, indivisible" -- only because we are not "them." And that knowledge, in a perversely logical way, breeds a sense of security.
"National security" rests squarely on a story about the difference between "our" nation, despite all its internal variegation, and "them." If we can get "them" to tell the same story -- to confirm the difference between "us" and "them" -- how much more secure we would be!
Americans got something like that from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus whenit endorsed "smart and reasonable enforcement that protects our borders ... by targeting serious criminals and real threats at our northern and southern borders" as part of its immigration reform plan.
For many Israeli Jews, a Palestinian recognition of Israel as "the nation-state of the Jewish people" would do the trick. So, if Rudoren is right, the Israelis are blocking the path to a peace settlement that is finally -- perhaps -- in sight, primarily because they demand that the Palestinians ease Jewish Israeli insecurity.
The question for the American people is: Will we let them do it? Will we let Israelis go on oppressing Palestinians, occupying their lands, destroying their homes and fields, jailing their people, even on occasion killing their children, simply because Israeli Jews feel insecure and insist that only their long-time enemies can, and must, take away their insecurity?
Make no mistake: The American people hold the trump card in this situation, just as the U.S. has always held the upper hand. The Palestinians depend on U.S. money and the leash the U.S. can keep on the Israelis. The Israelis are stuck on that leash, whether they like it or not, as has been proven many times in the past.
U.S. administrations have let Israel get away with all sorts of injustices, with only a murmur of protest heard from Washington, because those administrations feared the domestic political repercussions if they pressed Israel too hard -- repercussions not so much from Jewish-Americans as from conservatives of every stripe.
It's hardly a coincidence that conservatives who demand beefing up the Mexican-American border also tend to support Israeli right-wingers against Obama's push for a two-state solution. Conservatismis always marked by a quest for security and clearly defined boundaries; conservatives, more than others, need a clearly defined "them." The bigger and more (supposedly) threatening the "them," the more they reassure "us" that we are "us." How convenient, then, for conservatives to lump Latinos together with Palestinians as supposed "threats" to be resisted, while embracing "our best friend" Israel as if it were part of "us."
Despite the continuing pressure from the right, Obama and his political advisors are now estimating that they can get away with pressing Israel harder. The latest push for Israeli-Palestinian talks began right after Obama's re-election, when he no longer had to worry so much about the political fallout that might come from forcing the two opposing sides to the negotiating table.
But those three little words in the State of the Union speech were a signal to right-wingers in the U.S. that Obama wants to strike a bargain with them: He'll recognize Israel as "the nation-state of the Jewish people." In return he expects support for an independent Palestinian state, which will end Israel's occupation of the West Bank.
This is a tragic bargain. Why should we let the Israelis hold up the peace process until the Palestinians cave in on this crucial issue, simply because so many Israelis and American are riddled with insecurity?
Justice demands that we tell the Israeli Jews they must stop their persecution, end the occupation, agree to an independent Palestinian state, and work out their insecurities on their own.
Honesty demands that we see the root of this tragedy -- the millions of Americans who can't stop obsessing about "threats at the border" because they won't work out their insecurities on their own.