By Shlomo Sand
A Jewish state or an Israeli democracy? In the talks that appear to be taking place between Israel and the Palestinians, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has asked his negotiating partner to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. One can understand the prime minister: A man so little observant of the Jewish religious tradition is unsure of his Jewish identity, hence his insecurity about the identity of his state - and the need to seek validation from our neighbors.
There's far too little criticism in Israel of this latest whim, which until recently was absent from Israeli diplomacy. For years, Israel struggled to be recognized by the Arab world. But in March 2002, when the Arab League and the Muslim world took up the Saudi initiative to recognize Israel within its 1967 borders, a new threat appeared: peace, which can fragment the Jewish character of the state from within, and rightfully so.
There's a wall-to-wall consensus, from Yisrael Beiteinu to Meretz, from enlightened journalists to learned professors, on Israel's definition as a Jewish state. But this definition strikingly resembles the definition of Iran as an Islamic republic or the United States as a Christian country. True, some American evangelists believe that the United States' Christian character is at risk and seek to cement it in legislation. But the United States, like the rest of the enlightened world, still sees itself as belonging to all its citizens, regardless of religion and creed.
Most Israelis would respond to this by saying Judaism and Jewishness represent not a religion but a people, so Israel must belong not to all its citizens but to the Jews of the world, who, as we know, prefer not to live here.
Strange, I didn't know you could only join a people via religious conversion and not by taking part in its day-to-day culture. But perhaps there's a secular Jewish people-culture I'm not aware of? Maybe Woody Allen, Philip Roth and others are secretly well-versed in the Hebrew language, cinema, literature and theater? For me, the best definition of belonging to a people is the ability to recognize the name of at least one soccer team competing in the local leagues.