Posted by: azizabusarah | October 12, 2009

Should the Palestinians Accept Israel as a Jewish State? A Constructive Debate.


In Haaretz, my fruitful exchange/debate with Israeli writer Roi Ben-Yehuda on whether the Palestinians should accept Israel as a Jewish state.

Should the Palestinians Accept Israel as a Jewish State?
By Roi Ben-Yehuda and Aziz Abu Sarah

Ever since his June speech at Bar-Ilan University, Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu has made it clear that peace with the Palestinians is conditioned on the latter accepting Israel as a Jewish state.

During his much-lauded address at the United Nations, Netanyahu reiterated his position:

“We ask the Palestinians to finally do what they have refused to do for 62 years: Say yes to a Jewish state. As simple, as clear, as elementary as that. Just as we are asked to recognize a nation-state for the Palestinian people, the Palestinians must be asked to recognize the nation-state of the Jewish people.”

The Palestinians, for their part, have rejected Netanyahu’s position. Their claim rests on three assertions: It is not the business of Palestinians to recognize the Jewish nature of Israel. Such recognition would endanger the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel. Acknowledging the Jewish state would negate the Palestinian right of return.

So, should the Palestinians accept a Jewish State? Israeli and Palestinian writers Roi Ben-Yehuda and Aziz Abu Sarah got together to explore the topic. The following is their exchange.

Ben-Yehuda: Aziz, I am happy to have the opportunity for this exchange with you. I will start off this discussion by stating that I think Netanyahu’s position (which was first articulated by Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni) is a good one.

I support this position because it provides the Palestinians a real opportunity to put their cards on the table: To state in an unequivocal fashion that they are ready to make peace with Israel, i.e. to renounce the right of return which is incompatible with a two-state solution.

I also support this position because recognizing Israel as a Jewish state will go a long way toward allaying some of the basic existential fears of the Israeli people. In so doing, it will enable the government to conduct negotiations without fearing that concessions will lead to loss of identity or security (not to mention loss of political power back home).

I say this as an unapologetic Zionist and peacenik – as someone who believes that both the Jews and the Palestinians by virtue of being a people with deep historic ties to the land have a right to a state in part of Israel/Palestine.

Abu Sarah: Roi, you are right that recognition is important to allay the fears of Israelis, but Netanyahu’s demand is not a fair request. Palestinians still don’t even have a state as a direct result of Israel’s creation and the subsequent occupation of the West Bank. Equal recognition means the Palestinian recognition of Israel’s right to existence and Israeli recognition of Palestinians’ right to a state.

Recognizing Israel as a Jewish state would require a change of the Palestinian narrative and identity and would affect the rights of Palestinians citizens of Israel. Furthermore, such recognition before a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem would dishonor the suffering of these refugees. Palestinians would be accepting the right of return of Jews who never lived in the land over those who were expelled from it.

Israel has peace agreements with Jordan and Egypt, yet neither of them had to recognize Israel as a Jewish State. These agreements have been successful regardless.

To read read the rest of the debate click here. As always, if the spirit moves you, please share your thoughts and repost.



  1. While your comments make a good argument as to why the Palestinians should not recognize Israel as a jewish state, the mere fact of having this conversation/debate helps Israel achieve this racist driven goal by bringing the issue more and more to the surface and either forcing the Palestinians to accept, or hand Israel a powerful bargaining chip to use against Palestinian demands.

    Since the debate has taken place and has been already published, I think it would be a great idea to now invite Roi Ben-Yehuda to a debate on the right of return. Let’s see if he has any argument other than that the RoR would “damage the jewish nature of Israel”.

  2. I read the exchange on Ha’aretz and I loved reading your comments. You truly safeguarded the rights of Palestine.

    I think before Palestinians are forced to make any more recognitions it’s Israels turn to recognize the undeniable right for Palestine to exist in peace, sovereignty and dignity as a homeland to the Palestinian people. We’ve been waiting for such a recognition for 62 years. We’re not the occupiers, we’re the occupied.

    I’m glad I found your blog, I’ll be reading it regularly!

    A Palestinian from Sweden.

  3. I found your discussion fascinating and your responses reasonable and a demonstration of a true flexibility and spirit of compromise. I commend you.

    One thing I can’t help but notice after seeing your blog and Roi’s are the comments posted on your blog and his.

    While he has a few more comments than you do, in my reading of them some of them are quite critical of the Palestinian position while others are critical of his position and the Israeli one. Here, I find that at least one of your commentors seems to imply you should not have been having any discussion with an Israeli at all.

    I think the types of discussions like the ones in this post are critical if ever two states are to exist side by side. They’re critical not only because they tackle critical issues, but also because they take palce between ordinary, private individuals, in public.

    States will make peace with one another, but ultimatley, it’s people that have to make the peace real. You set a bold example and I encourage you to continue your helpful efforts.

    • The comment was meant to make the point that asking the Palestinians to define Israel as a Jewish state should not even be on the table as it is a racist motivated issue and has nothing to do with solving the problem. Contrary to your claim that I don’t support conversation with Israelis, if you read my comment again you will find that I was actually suggesting having another conversation, one that discusses the right of return of the Palestinians.

  4. I second Faris. The basis of this discussion was flawed. Palestinians should not and cannot accept ‘Israel’ as a Jewish state. It does the Palestinians a major disservice to even speculate on what could or should or might be offered in exchange for Zionist Israel’s recognition as Jewish state – especially from an Arab.

    Unfortunately, it takes Israelis like Amira Hass to be voices of conscience on the matter, as we have Arab intellectuals who betray their own by having such nonsensical debates. On DemocracyNow!, Ms Hass, whom I have much respect for, brought up an important topic Mr Abu Sarah has glossed over: occupation.

    How can we even speak of the Israelis and Palestinians as though there is not a clear and demonstrated asymmetrical relationship between the two, between occupier and occupied? First things first.

  5. Thank you, Charlie, Faris and Ryan for your comments.

    Faris, I agree with you that we should have this discussion regarding other issues such as right of return. Roi and I discuss these kind of things all the time which is how the idea for this discussion was born.

    Our goal of this discussion is to encourage these kind of engagements and to set a model of how to do it. We didn’t agree on everything but we were able to make this discussion a constructive one.

    Charlie, I believe it would be a mistake to not talk to the Israelis and to the Jewish communities around the world.

    I grew up being one of those people, refusing to even know an Israeli, and eventually I came to realize that my position was wrong. Engagement is much better than unilateralism, and relationships are much more powerful than politics.

  6. Aziz, I agree with you wholeheartedly. I take no issue with your willingness to engage on any issue and your demonstrated willingness to understand those who, to you, are the other.

    I disagree with Faris, however. To slap the label of racist on a Jewish desire to have their nation state recognized as what it is, the world’s only Nation state for the Jewish people is to forclose any meaningful discussion of issues that are truly important to the Israelis and to show disregard for the Israeli narrative.

    Israel is the manifestation of a 2000 year old Jewish aspiration to have a state of their own. Palestinians could recognize this with the caveat that though this is a Jewish state, all minorities in the country deserve equal treatment and ought to have it. There is no criticism of Germany as a German state and the Nation state of the Saxons, for example. Israel is the Nation state of the Jews. This is fact and it would put Israelis at ease and instill trust between the parties for them to hear Palestinians say this.

  7. Charlie,
    I just looked up your blog and checked the links you provided at the end of the article. I agree with much of your points. I saw that one of the links targetted the issue of nazi calling!
    am so disapointed with how simple and easy it has become to call someone a Nazi.

    I was presenting yesterday at J-Street conference and outside there were few protestors who held signs that J-Street is Nazisim. How Crazy?

  8. Aziz,
    First, thanks for visiting my blog. I hope you’ll become a regular!

    I must admit to not knowing much about J-street. That being said, I can say with confidence, that J-street are not Nazis.

    It’s a real “pet peeve” of mine to see how people use the term Nazi, or call people Hitler and other similar things so lightly.

    I think that as we pull away from the Holocaust, chronologically, that people forget the impact and the horror of those events.

    I always take comfort in knowing that as soon as someone makes a comparison between what they are opposing and the Nazis, they have lsot their argument if for no other reason than that they have proven their ignorance.

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