As both sides of the conflict calculate the death toll and find themselves reeling from a propaganda war, Israel’s own identity remains a neglected topic that must be discussed
In the hip and trendy 2012, we can say that we have witnessed war through the toaster filter of Instagram, and watched it unfold through the chauvinistic Twitter trolling between Israeli Defence Forces and the Alqassam Brigade. If there was anything positive to take away from this, then it’s that the world at least took an active interest in a conflict that usually gets neglected. In truth, the conflict that has been and will continue to be neglected is the one within the political framework of Israel’s very own internationally recognised borders.
All too often, the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people is viewed in empirical terms and incorrectly defined as a realist struggle between the so-called aggressor and the resistant stateless people, or as the nation’s right to self-determination and self-defence in a hostile part of the world. It is a socially and politically constructed struggle not based on the values of realism or ‘innate’ human greed, but on another human level, which centres on pure and unbridled confusion. This isn’t about careers or relationships, or about what kind of persona to take up on Facebook, rather Israel’s confusion is perpetuated by the conflict within its domestic, theological, and security interests. This in turn has left the Palestinian people confused (and often wrong) about which direction to take, as they try to second-guess the intentions behind Israel’s bewildering statements and intended policies.
The Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) has never recognised Israel as a Jewish state but in 1993, it did accept the right for ‘the state of Israel to exist in peace and security’. This recognition alone hasn’t been enough. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has promised a ‘far-reaching compromise’ with the Palestinian people if they just recognised Israel as a Jewish state. It sounds fairly simple but for the PLO to accede to such a request risks severely jeopardising its own interests, while for Israel, it risks instilling further uncertainty into its own state through the confusion of its newly acquired and acknowledged identity.
If Palestinians were to formally acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state, there is fear that the right of return for nearly five million Palestinian refugees and control over Jerusalem would be completely lost. However, the real obstruction to advancing the peace process lies at the heart of this request for recognition. This is because, first of all, there is no legal definition of a Jewish person. It is a term that may even be confusing to Jewish people due to being ‘Jewish’ not having exclusively religious connotations – it also includes ethnic and spiritual attributes. For instance, there are the ultra orthodox Haredi Jews who have a very strong religious attachment to their identity, while there are the ethnic Jews who consider themselves to have little connection to the religion, and may even identify as atheists. Secondly, alongside these Jews are those who converted from other religions, and, most interestingly, there is the near-20 per cent of Israeli citizens who are ethnically Arab and make up the various religious communities living in Israel, such as Islam, Christianity and Druze. The question then becomes apparent: if Israel is a Jewish state, who does it legally represent? If this is confused, then how far does this impact the Palestinian side of the peace process when required to interpret and respond to Israel’s requests?
This opens up the path for many other potential questions surrounding Israel’s ability to maintain a democracy, and whether an ethno-religious state can actually exist as a democratic modern nation-state. The notion of a nation-state being based on a single religion (or ethnicity) is problematic itself without even getting to the decision of which category “Jewish” falls into. The mainstream view of nation states contradicts a state defined by its religion or ethnicity because, in reality, states cannot be ethnically or religiously homogenous. It just isn’t possible.
As Israel’s promotion of Jewish interests within its state increases, it risks further alienating those that don’t identify with Judaism or even Israel’s brand of it. The promotion of illegal settlements and widely condemned rejection of refugees, along with the internationally unrecognised annexation of East Jerusalem have revealed that Israel is prepared to act unilaterally to progress its ethnoreligious interests, even in defiance of international Law.
Thus, what type of state rule might occur under a formally recognised Jewish state is open to interpretation, not least to Israel’s own people and to the huge Jewish diaspora that Israel claims to be the true homeland of. The truth is that only 7 per cent of the voting American Jewish population (who make up almost half of the global Jewish population) would put Israel “at the top of their list of political concerns”. Despite what this suggests about how important the Jewish identity as a whole is to Israel, the conflation of Jewish identity with the nation-state has always been strengthened when faced by a security threat. The scud missiles, suicide bombs, and increased support for Hamas further alienates the Palestinian people from the peace process and provides Israel with an even larger sense of entitlement and aggrievement.
There is the often forgotten point that the Western view of the Holocaust is hounded by the guilt of harbouring normative anti-Semitism for so long, and for not taking responsibility on the Jewish migration problem. Thus, as the West threw their support behind Israel, the Palestinians garnered their own sense of entitlement and aggrievement, which resulted in poor decisions from the PLO, such as the one to support Saddam Hussein.
If Israel did drop the Jewish state agenda, it would then cast complete doubt over the legitimacy of settler movements, and invite – much to the disdain of Israel’s influential Orthodox Jewish population – increased Palestinian presence in the Jewish homeland. On the other hand, if it were to completely support the Jewish agenda and thus reject other ethnicities living under its state, Israel would lose one of its proudest claims to regional legitimacy as a liberal democracy in the Middle East. It would be internationally condemned for potentially alienating a large proportion of its own citizens. As with asking Palestinians to recognise a Jewish state, a clarification of Israel’s own identity could harm the advancement of their own national security interests, but it still remains vital to the peace process.
The disruptions to peace – the bombing of Gaza, the illegal settlements, the antagonistic rhetoric or even suicide attacks – are decisions that have been politically and socially constructed. Social media has propelled these decisions even further into a tit for tat propaganda war that fails to debate the foundations of conflict. From the beginnings of the Zionist movement to the emotional impact of the Holocaust, and the rise of the nation determined to achieve its own statehood and secure its borders whilst isolated among Arab states, the story of Israel and the Palestinian people’s struggle for peace can best be explained through the construction of Israel’s identity.
Image from: http://www.boston.com/bigpicture/2012/03/the_festival_of_purim.html
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