Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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Can Israel Be a “Jewish State?”

by Elliott Abrams
July 14, 2011

Negotiations between Israel and the PLO have been stalled for many reasons, but a central issue is the Palestinian refusal to acknowledge Israel as a “Jewish state.”

The whole idea behind the partition of the Palestine Mandate in 1947 was, in the words of U.N. General Assembly resolution 181, the creation of an “Arab state” and a “Jewish state.” The Arab rejection of Israel as a Jewish state is in fact at the heart of the Middle East conflict. It is based on the widespread refusal to accept Israel as a permanent presence in the region, but is usually couched in more acceptable terminology—indeed, the language of “rights.” As one news story put it, “Palestinian negotiators have recognized Israel’s right to exist, but not as a Jewish state, which officials say would prejudice the right of return for refugees and violate the rights of Israel’s non-Jewish residents.”

In other words, the argument is that if Israel is a “Jewish state” it will certainly, unavoidably, necessarily discriminate against non-Jews. The problem with this debating point is that those who use it apply it only to Israel; no one ever voices any concern about states based on Islam and discriminating in favor of Muslims.

There are actually four states whose very name contains a religious reference: the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, and the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. But beyond those, in every Muslim-majority country the constitution asserts a special role for Islam. The Jordanian constitution says “Islam is the religion of the State” and of course  “No person shall ascend the Throne unless he is a Moslem…of Moslem parents.” No converts! But Jordan has a Christian minority that is five to eight percent of the population (Eastern Orthodox, Circassian, Melkite, and other sects).

Egypt is about ten or even fifteen percent Christian (Copts), but its current provisional constitution states that “Islam is the religion of the state….Principles of Islamic law (Shari’a) are the principal source of legislation.” Moreover, this is unlikely to change: presidential candidate Mohammad ElBaradei, viewed as a Westernized moderate, recently released his version of a new Egyptian constitution that similarly holds “Islam shall be the religion of the state….Sharia shall be the main source of legislation.”

The constitution of Malaysia states that “Islam is the religion of the Federation,” even though the country is only about sixty percent Muslim. It is roughly twenty percent Buddhist, ten percent Christian, and six percent Hindu, among other religions.

There are many similar examples. The religion of the state is Islam in Oman, Qatar, and Kuwait (where there are estimates that fifteen percent of the population is non-Muslim)—and one could lengthen the list. In Afghanistan, the constitution holds that “The sacred religion of Islam is the religion of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan” and “No law shall contravene the tenets and provisions of the holy religion of Islam in Afghanistan.” The president must be a Muslim. The Saudis go one further, refusing even to have a constitution: “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a sovereign Arab Islamic state with Islam as its religion; God’s Book and the Sunnah of His Prophet, God’s prayers and peace be upon him, are its constitution….”

It is worth adding that Muslim states are not alone in their religious ties. The constitution of Denmark, for example, states that “The Evangelical Lutheran Church shall be the Established Church of Denmark, and, as such, it shall be supported by the State,” and unsurprisingly “The King shall be a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church.” Same for Norway: “The Evangelical-Lutheran religion shall remain the official religion of the State” and “The King shall at all times profess the Evangelical-Lutheran religion.” And of course, the Queen of England is “Defender of the Faith,” and the faith is Anglican Christianity.

So what? So the usual arguments against the acknowledgement of Israel as a Jewish state are hypocritical and specious. Every Arab state is far more Islamic than the “Jewish state” of Israel is Jewish; to take one example, Israel imposes no religious test for the offices of president or prime minister. Moreover, the treatment of religious minorities is far better than in the Muslim states, as the flat ban on building even a single church in Saudi Arabia and the repeated violence against Christians in Egypt and Pakistan remind us. If some secular professor maintains that all states should be devoid of religious identity, fair enough; that is a principled argument. But when Arab political leaders say they will never acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state, that isn’t an argument at all. It is a reminder of their continuing refusal to make peace with the Jewish state and with the very idea that the Jews can have a state in what they view as the Dar al-Islam.

Post a Comment 40 Comments

  • Posted by Theophile

    Facts always convince better than opinion, or sound bites. thanks Elliott

  • Posted by Dean A. Smallwood

    Not only MUST Israel be a “Jewish State” , it looks to remain the only real “democracy” in that part of the world for the foreseeable future .

  • Posted by Shayne

    While I agree with the Author’s recognition of hypocrisy in the Muslim world, and selectivism in the Western world, I think he missed the mark. It’s very important to remember that Jews are an ethnic group. “Jewish” refers just as much to a people and a culture as it does to a religion. Judaism is the religion of the Jewish people…an ethno-religious group. Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people. Israel is the Jewish State in culture, and values, and Nationality…not in religion. I think the stronger comparison would be to other nation states: Japan is the nation-state of the Japanese, Portugal of the Portugese, etc. This is specifically why the UN said “Arab state” and a “Jewish state”, rather than “Muslim state” and a “Jewish state.” Two states for two ethnic groups.

  • Posted by Roland

    I think once the borders are settled of the Jewish state it shouldn’t be an obstacle.
    But the problem is that Israel doesn’t want to give up the West bank and the settlements.
    It prefers a permanent state of war to withdrawing it’s forces and settlers.
    Soon it will demand the Palestinians apologize for killing of Jewish settlers,then it will demand Abbas recognizes the Holocaust, then it demands he learns the Talmud by heart. I mean it’s ridiculous and not serious.

  • Posted by עזמי בשרה

    תשמע, אנחנו חיים בעולם מודרני גלובלי דמוקרטי, וכי בדמוקרטיה הרוב קובע, רוב העולם הוא מוסלמי ולכן אתה לא יכול להכריח אנשים לאהוב אותך כי הם שונאים אותך בהיותך יהודי באם זה צודק או לא .

  • Posted by Larry D. Nachman

    There is something missing in Mr. Abrams’ essay and it goes back to the central issue of what defines Jewish. It is interesting that in the UN resolution with which he begins the contrast is “Jew” and “Arab”. Then, without any modulation, the rest of the essay concerns the contrast of “Jew” and “Muslim”. What falls away from consideration is any notion that “Jew” might have an ethnic rather than a religious meaning. Surely, there are many Jews, like myself, who are fiercely Jewish and respectful of observant Jews without having a religious bone in their bodies. Long ago, I wrote about this, in my “The Question of the Jew,” , Spring/Summer 1979

  • Posted by Larry D. Nachman

    Correction: The essay appeared in

  • Posted by MIK

    Is France a “French” state? Is Germany a “German” state? Judaism is not just a religion; it is a nationality. Of course it is a Jewish state. It is Jewish by peoplehood. That does not mean that non-Jews cannot live there or be citizens. In that sense, it is no different than France or Germany or Britain or Spain or Holland etc. etc. (except for Belgium which has less business being a state than does Israel, but that’s for a different discussion). In these countries (and most horribly in Germany where the term for peoplehood is “volk,” one is a member of the nation [or that which is left of a nation after the EU has managed to do peacefully what Germany tried by force of arms — conquest]), nationality and peoplehood are tied to the land. Jews are no different. In fact, the Bible is our deed to the land — no other nation can demonstrate that their tie to the land is as old as that of the Jews.

    The only country in the world that has surmounted the notion of peoplehood tied to the land of its forefathers is the United States. Citizens of the United States are not tied to their country by generation upon generation having lived upon the land

    In the end, this, in some ways, boils down to the question of whether there really is a polity known as “the Palestinians.” Of course there is not. Jews in pre-state Israel were called Palestinian Jews. The Jerusalem Post was called the Palestine Post.

  • Posted by Brad Brzezinski

    Your arguments are perfectly sound but I’d start with the fact that right off the bat, the P.A. is planning a Jew-free state. They’ve said so and in any case were it not the case there would be no need to make a fuss about “settlement” building while negotiations go on.

    This argument extends further than the Palestinians and encompasses Israel’s Western critics as well. The “solution that everyone knows” also assumes a Jew-free Palestine while contemplating adding more Arabs to Israel. In fact the world at large has since 1948, made an enormous fuss over dislocated Palestinians but largely ignored displaced Jews in the same conflict.

    A final argument to be made concerns creeping antisemitism in the west. I’m particularly noticing when it arises at government level and in mainstream media. There have been disturbing incidents and/or trends in Hungary, Greece, Norway, Sweden, Britain, Canada and South Africa – just to name some countries off the top of my head. (I’m not sure South Africa qualifies as western any longer.)

    The original need for a Jewish state has not disappeared.

  • Posted by Arad

    Abrams equates Israel to the Muslim states, as if the definition of “Jewish state” is a religious definition. But the definition of “Jewish state” has absolutely nothing to do with the Jewish religion. Judaism is first and foremost a nationality, and the “Jewish state” definition is a national one. Like many Israelis, I am an atheist Jew, and I know some Jews who are Christians. But we are all part of the Jewish nation. We want Israel to be a Jewish state, in the same way that England is the English state, and Holland is the Dutch state.

    It so happens that the Jewish nation has a unique religion of its own, just like the English nation has the Anglican religion.
    But Israel has even less to do with the Jewish religion than England has to do with the Anglican religion.

    So the question addressed to anyone claiming that the the definition of Israel as a Jewish state would lead to discrimination should be: why aren’t you claiming the same thing about the French state of France, the Italian state of Italy, the American state of the USA, etc?

  • Posted by Binyamin in Orangeburg

    Why should the Palestinians be required to “recognize” anything, if by recognize what you mean is “accept the legitimacy of.” When the IRA signed the peace deal with the British, it refused to “recognize” the legitimacy of British rule over Northern Ireland. While Ganhdi, and the Indian independence movement, acceded to the fact of a UN-imposed partition, he, and they, never accepted its legitimacy.

    Why should the Palestinians have to “recognize” anything in order to obtain human rights? Are they not endowed with (meaning born with) those rights, and are those rights not inalienable? Or does such a proclamation only apply to the Judeo-Christian world.

    The whole “right to exist as a Jewish state” mantra is merely a pretext to maintain the apartheid conditions under which the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza live. As for “recognition” of Moslem theocracies, of course the U.S. properly has diplomatic and commercial relations with such states. We do not give them the same moral sanction (or free weaponry) that we give to Israel, and with good reason. As Israel spirals down into a Judeo-fascist and apartheid state, it will be increasingly hard for the pro-Israel lobby in this country to maintain that Israel is a democracy and thus deserves American support.

  • Posted by Veelo

    Shorter Elliott Abrams: I want Israel to be more like Saudi Arabia

  • Posted by Ian Lustick

    It is fair to point out that other states refer to themselves with religious adjectives, such as Islamic; and that Israel is not alone in that regard. But notice how Abrams dodges what he calls “the debating point” that being a “Jewish state” in the Israeli case does involve significant discrimination. Indeed Abrams does not deny the discrimination. He just says that asking this question should lead one to remember that Afghanistan and Malaysia are Islamic States. Well are we to infer that the amount of discrimination against non-titulars (non-Muslims) in these states is acceptable or should be an acceptable level of discrimination against non-Jews in Israel? Abrams doesn’t say. The amount of discrimination in Israel is actually very significant, though concealed. The single biggest aspect of it is the use of dozens of laws to confiscate most private land of non-Jews in Israel and then to render them, as non-Jews, ineligibile to receive long-term leases to live on or cultivate the lands that were confiscated from them. If this were done by an “Islamic” state to the lands of Jews or Christians, I can assume Abrams would object.

    (I am the author of a book on this subject, ARABS IN THE JEWISH STATE)

  • Posted by David

    Very good point. Am Israel chai.

  • Posted by Rod C. Silvestre

    I fully agree with Elliot Abram’s analogy. It is indeed hypocritical for Arabs/Muslims to be asking Israel not be a Jewish State when all around it, Muslim dominated countries have openly called themselves an Islamic Republic or have made it clear in their constitution that Islam is their state religion. Furthermore, in Middle East, Israel is the only democratic country whose Muslim citizens probably live even better than their religious brethren in Egypt, Jordan, Syria, etc. So enough of this Muslim bigotry and hypocrisy. Allow Israel to call itself a Jewish State or whatever it wish. It is for them to decide their destiny, not for Muslims/Arabs, around them who can’t even make up their minds on how to improve their economy and alleviate the squalid living conditions they subject their citizens into.

  • Posted by Paul Winter

    Elliot Abrams makes several good points. One point that he misses is that to be Jewish is more than being just an adherent to a religion. Jews are a people by virtue of language, history and archeology, common experience and group values, religion and recently genetics. As a people, Jews along with all other people, are entitiled to self-determination. Jews have a state for themselves in Israel and none should attempt to deprive them of it in favour of a group concocted for political purposes with an invented history and a cobbled together peoplehood for those that migrated or were transported to that part of the Ottoman empire.

  • Posted by frank w brecher

    There is an obvious rebuttal which you need to address for your argument to be fully satisfying: the Arabs are not opposed to a “Jewish State,” per se, just not in their own backyard.

  • Posted by frank w brecher

    See my response to your “Jewish State” piece.

  • Posted by Professor P. C. Salzman

    This is obvious and undeniable, which does not interfere with most all commentators ignoring it.

    Underlying this Arab and Muslim double standard (endorsed by the Western left), is the Sharia principle that land once part of the Dar al Islam is holy waqf and must never be lost. This is part of Islamic supremacism that requires domination over infidels. For well over a thousand years, Jews were despised as the lowest of the dhimma. The idea of granting Jews dominance, even over the tiny sliver of the region that is Israel, is unbearable to Muslims.

  • Posted by Yonatan-ben-Eliezer:amarcol

    If Elliot Abrams is truly interested in supporting the movement for a true “Jewish State” governed as a Republic based upon Torah principles of rule by the People, he should investigate the efforts of Neemnei Aretz and the Sanhedrin project in Jerusalem. A translation of the core principles may be found here: http://tzibur.org/amarcol/Sovereignty.htm

  • Posted by Zaramart-kippot

    Jewish life is a commitment to the unity of the Jewish people worldwide. The State of Israel creates that unity–that support for Israel is the thing that unites all Jewish people
    We must maintain our engagement with and commitment to a safe and secure Israel. We must find additional ways to live our connections to Judaism and to other Jews worldwide.

  • Posted by Kevin

    Interesting points. Israeli is not just a state, but a country unto itself. it would be nice if the arabs accepted jews, and people killed each other less. Fighting over religious beliefs seems silly. Israel has a right to exist and to defend its people……Israeli does not treat the muslim people as equals and the arabs treat christians and jews similiarly bad or worse…..

    arabs not allowing religious freedom for their people is barbaric. killing their people over slight differences of opinion in religion shows their uncivilized nature.

    Too many arabic states/countries think that the jews are invaders that have to leave, and aren’t really willing to negotiate unless its along those lines…….

    except in the case of Eqypt….it would be nice if a truce could be had where Arabs accept the fact that the war was fought, they lost, and lets get a truce and move forward so that people dying needlessly stops……more fighting won’t change the fact that they will lose again and again if need be……the Allies have guaranteed they lose, Axis lost…..lets move towards peace and then the Arabs can prosper in a more cooperative environment, less warlike……
    Israel has USA and USA allies backing it up.
    Israel needs no one’s permission to protect its borders and retaliate when attacked….
    All Arabs would be better off in a more peaceful environment…

  • Posted by Judy Git

    There’s a bit of equivocation going on in the world today – specifically in regards to what is meant by a “Jewish state.” The suggestion that this implies that Israel is a theocracy in any sense of the word is facetious in the extreme. If Israel is a “theocracy” because holidays such as Yom Kippur are considered national holidays, then the US is a theocracy for declaring Christmas a national holiday. Both contentions are absurd.

    Most Israeli Jews are not religious in the traditional sense of the word. The lynchpin of religious observance is keeping the Sabbath, and, to quote a Wikipedia article: “In 2007, a poll by the Israeli Democracy Institute found that 27% of Israeli Jews say that they keep the Sabbath, while 53% said they do not keep it at all.”

    What many people around the world fail to understand and others choose to ignore in order to further their political agenda is that “Jewish” implies both a religion and a nationality, and that insofar as it designates a nationality, any given Jewish individual can opt not to follow the religion or to follow only portions of it; this is what a friend of mine once referred to as “cafeteria style Judaism.” Even from the perspective of religious Jews, secular Jews are still considered Jews.

    Mr. Abrams’ article makes some very important and pertinent points. Theocracies are, indeed, most apparent and “in your face” in the Muslim world. No houses of worship other than mosques are even allowed to exist in Saudi Arabia. Because so many throughout the world seemingly are buying into the “Israel as a theocracy” argument, it’s crucial to make the points he made. However, it is equally important to make the world understand the simple fact that Lord Balfour understood in 1917 when he wrote “His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a NATIONAL home for the Jewish PEOPLE.” (empahsis mine – JG).

  • Posted by Faraoh

    Nice article Elliott. Ive been wondering lately how Israel can be a “Jewish State” and a “democracy” at the same time.
    You tried to explain this contradiction, but comparing Israel to Islamic governments that are dictatorships is not a convincing argument.
    Pakistan is a failed democracy.
    Is Israel a failed democracy? If it wants to be a Jewish state, it is a failed democracy.

  • Posted by Brad Brzezinski

    Ian Lustick: The situation regarding discrimination by the Israeli government might be as you say but the question is whether you are on the side of problem solving or simply determined to stick labels on Israel, as are so many of her critics.

    In judging the actions of a nation, factors peculiar to the situation must be considered. E.g. Germany’s anti-Nazi laws fall afoul of US free-speech provisions but one should consider that perhaps for Germany, they’re necessary.

    I’ll observe that in Israel, Arabs are exempt from military service; the Arab leadership insists on this and pressure is brought to bear on kids that volunteer.

    More important is Israel’s unique position as the world’s only country whose very existence is under constant examination. This goes hand-in-hand with some very tough geographic and demographic factors and hostile population both Gentile and Jewish.

    I wonder how fair your criticism really is? Good luck with the new book. I’m sure it’ll be a great hit.

  • Posted by Elliott Abrams

    I am grateful to all those who have commented. To Frank Brecher, I would only say that there is but one Jewish State and it is not moving. His comment suggests a thought experiment that cannot produce a useful result. Mr. Lustick has long been a vociferous critic of Israel and continues that criticism here.

  • Posted by Steve Coplan

    So is this the core thrust of this essay that since the countries that are the most critical of Israel are hypocritical and deal in specious arguments, Israel can do the same?

    Also, I am struggling to pinpoint what the definition of Jewish is in this context?

    Finally, some of the commenters seemed to have strayed into the question of the role halachah plays in Israeli. Wouldn’t Israel’s case for being a western democracy be strengthened by a constitutional separation of church and state (or shul and school, as I refer to it).

  • Posted by Beatrix

    Great article!

  • Posted by Binyamin in Orangeburg

    A note the readers. A posted a (civil) criticism of Mr. Abram’s views (supported by references to historical events, a week ago. It is still “awaiting moderation.” I suspect that it will do so until the Messiah comes.

  • Posted by jerome

    muslims 1.6 billion
    jews 15 million

    opinions do not count for much when you are outnumbered
    like this.

  • Posted by jerome

    there is and always will be a uniqueness about the jews
    that attracts hatred and envy , and and it seems to be a catalyst afflicting almost every race on earth to some extent.
    the establishment of Israel on a miniscule peace of land in 1948
    ensured that the focus was multiplied a hundred fold.
    no one expected them to survive, but they did , and not only survived but thrived!
    old hat reds die hard and the muslim world will never forgive or forget the Isaac/ishmael thing and nor will they forget their humiliating defeats in all the wars they say they won.
    sharia is not going to change and the talmud is not going to change and never the two shall meet again….

  • Posted by Richard Kampel

    reply to Frank Brecher: The fact is that many of these Muslim states are against a Jewish state existing, anywhere. Many of them are against Jewish people even existing.

    If the argument had to be reversed and Israel was ‘Palestine’, then would it be fair to say that the Palestinians should leave because the Jews don’t like the fact that there are Arabs living in their (religious and national) home-land?
    Of course not!
    so why should the argument work the other way?!

    This is exactly why it is so important that the state of Israel exists; because ALL human beings have rights and the rights of the Jews must be addressed!

  • Posted by kurdish

    isreal together with kurds have all rights to have thier own state. both of them were repressed and terrorized by islam throughout the history.

  • Posted by Basil Yacoub

    Mr Ellit Abrans is a Zionist man who is well known for his staunch support of Israel. The falacey of his argument is this, Israel is occupied Palestine and therefore he is trying to confuse the issue. The issue here is not describing the country as Jewish but as occupation. All the free men in the world will not accept occupation to their land. It is well known fact that Israel did not exist in Palestine pre 1948. It came to being not by God’s will but by dislodging the native inhabitants from their home and bringing in Jewish immigrants from Europe and elswhere.
    I know this response will not stay long because it contradicts the blogs intended line. But the truth has to be said. If Mr Abrams is so worried about the Jewish state in Palestine then he can devout his energy in establishing a Jewish state in the heart of America where he lives.

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