The idea of a Jewish state is itself democratic: An interview with Tal Becker



When Israelis talk about Israel as a Jewish state, what do they mean? In 2012, in his capacity as an international fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Dr. Tal Becker (a lead Israeli negotiator during the Annapolis talks in 2008) gave a wide ranging interview for BICOM, explaining the idea of the Jewish state in legal, historical, and democratic terms. In the interview, now being re-released, he argues that Israel’s definition of itself as a Jewish state, far from being a unique case, is an expression of the universal legal right to self-determination.

Since the resumption of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in August 2013, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has continued to stress the importance of Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. Israelis debate internally whether such an explicit recognition is necessary, but almost all Jewish Israelis agree that the status Israel has today – as the nation state of the Jewish people – must be preserved by any future agreement.

The Palestinian Authority have resisted acknowledging Israel’s character as a Jewish state. Among their objection is the claim that this might adversely affect the status of Israel’s Arab minority. Many Israelis see this refusal as indicating Palestinian unwillingness to recognise Jewish national rights as part of a peace agreement based on ‘two states for two peoples’ – a recognition they feel is essential for ending the conflict. Israelis also feel the Palestinian claim for the right of return for Palestinian refugees and their descendants to Israel is an implicit threat to Israel’s Jewish majority, and therefore its very existence as a Jewish state.

But what does the Jewish state which Israelis refer to look like in practice? Some observers misinterpret the notion to mean a Jewish religious state. Others claim that Israel’s self-definition as a Jewish state must necessarily discriminate against its non-Jewish citizens.

However, most Israeli Jews see the Jewish character of the State of Israel primarily in national and cultural terms. They want Israel’s character preserved as it was conceived by Israel’s Declaration of Independence in 1948 and the UN Partition Plan of 1947. That is a Jewish majority state in which non-Jewish citizens enjoy full and equal citizenship, as befits a democracy.

In the interview, Tal Becker argues, “Israel is Jewish in the sense that it is the place where the Jewish people, as a people, express their right to self-determination. That is itself a democratic idea.” At the same time Becker goes on to stress that as in any other nation state, the principles of democracy must be paramount. According to Dr. Becker, “we get to be as Jewish as a democracy allows, not as democratic as being Jewish allows.”

For anyone wanting to understand Israel’s claim for recognition as a Jewish state, in the context of negotiations to reach a final status agreement with the Palestinians, this is vital reading.

Toby Greene, November 2013




Toby Greene: Is Israel really a democracy as it claims or is it, as some critics say, an ethnocracy, which privileges the interests of its Jewish over its Arab citizens?

Tal Becker: Every democracy struggles with the challenge of living up to its principles and ideals. Israel is not unique in that sense. It has much to be proud of, and much it struggles with. In many democratic societies, the tension between majority and minority communities raises difficult issues. In Israel, this is more complicated because of the regional context and the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But I think the charge that Israel is fundamentally not democratic because of its flaws does not stand up to scrutiny, certainly not in any comparative sense. This is not an excuse for Israel to avoid correcting where it falls short, or for Israel’s democracy not to be subject to criticism. But the labels and demagoguery that one sometimes hears are misleading and unhelpful for a serious discussion.

Greene: But how do you explain Israel’s claim to be both a Jewish state and a democracy?

Becker: Let’s start with some basics. From the outset, Israel committed itself to be both Jewish and democratic. What does that mean in practice? When we say Israel is a Jewish state, we mean that it is the national home of the Jewish people, where the Jewish people realise their right to self-determination. The Jewish people realising their right to self-determination is not a principle that is contrary to democracy. It is a universal legal principle. Many states around the world are both national homelands for a majority ethnic or racial group and democracies. In fact, I think most democracies are nation states in this way.  These states realise and express the rights of the ethnic majority to self-determination, but they are still democracies because of their systems of government and because the rights of the minority are protected in terms of equality before the law and so on.

Something that is often not recognised is that the right of the majority to have its identity reflected in the public square, in the public culture of the state, is as much an expression of democratic principles as the need to preserve minority rights. This is true in Israel no less than any other state that has ethnic minorities, be it Britain, Germany, Italy, France or any other country.

In our case, people are often under a misapprehension, in that they think a ‘Jewish state’ means a theocracy based on the Jewish religion in the way that Iran is a Muslim state. When we talk about a ‘Jewish state’, we do not mean a theocracy and the laws in Israel make that clear. This is a misunderstanding of the peculiar character of the term ‘Jewish’ as referring both to a religion and to a people. But anyone visiting Israel will appreciate immediately that most Israelis relate to the Jewish identity primarily in national and cultural terms. Israel is Jewish in the sense that it is the place where the Jewish people, as a people, express their right to self-determination. That is itself a democratic idea, but it also must be balanced by a duty to respect minority rights both individual and collective.

Greene: How do you respond to those who suggest that the Jews are not a people?

Becker: That is a position based on ignorance. I think it is not just contrary to the historical record but, even more importantly, to the way Jews perceive themselves. We recently heard Newt Gingrich saying similar things about the Palestinians. In the past, some Israelis have unfortunately also said this. To me, the claim that either the Jews or the Palestinians are not a nation is not just offensive to those people, but it is unhelpful in finding a way forward that advances coexistence. A people is a group who sees itself as a people and who believe that their identity is expressed as part of a collective. You are not going to convince a people that conceives of itself as such that they are not in fact a collective. Once that is the case, they have a right to self–determination.  It is not an absolute right.  It is a right balanced against the rights of others. But it is both morally and practically problematic to deny the legitimacy of the right itself.

Greene: But is there something distinct in Israel’s case? Critics of Israel argue that the Jewish majority is only maintained by laws which give preference to Jews that who don’t live in Israel to immigrate under the ‘Law of Return’.

Becker: A country that has a majority of a certain ethnicity has the right to regulate its immigration policy in a way that protects that majority. That is done by many states. If you take seriously the idea that people have a right to self-determination, then a state has the right to preserve its collective identity, including through immigration policy, to ensure that there is one place on the planet where that identity is preserved. In the Israeli case, the law of return also reflects Israel’s raison d’être as a national home for the Jewish people, which ends the historical problem of Jewish persecution and statelessness.

Of course, there are limits to what you can do to preserve the demographic balance. You cannot compromise the basic rights of the minority in order to preserve that balance. I would put it this way: we get to be as Jewish as a democracy allows, not as democratic as being Jewish allows. It’s the same principle which applies to any nation state that claims to be democratic – it gets to express and preserve its national identity and culture to the extent that democracy allows. Regulating immigration is not in principle a violation of that idea, but other measures might be.



Greene: How do you respond to those who argue that the Jews never had the right to establish a country on what they consider ‘someone else’s land’, and that the state is established inherently on the dispossession of the Palestinians in 1948?

Becker: First of all, I am somewhat reluctant to go into the historical story, because I feel like we need to deal with the situation we have today, and what is best for the future of millions of Palestinians and Jews. As much as we Israelis believe in the justice of our cause and our own historical narrative, the idea of spending time convincing our neighbours that our narrative is correct doesn’t appeal to me. That’s much more a mode of trying to win theoretical arguments and I’m more interested in reconciling interests. I don’t need the Palestinian people to accept that I’m right and I don’t need to accept that the Palestinians are right. I need us to share the fact that we want a better future for our children.

But at the same time, it’s important to say from a Jewish perspective that our positions are rooted in historical and legal rights. Beyond our unbroken historical, religious and cultural connection to this land, there is a basic fact that the 1922 League of Nations Mandate turned the idea of establishing a Jewish national home from a desire of the Zionist movement and then a policy preference of the British, into an international legal obligation. The League of Nations Mandate is an international treaty that said that the Jewish national home would be established here without prejudice to the civil and religious rights of the local inhabitants who were not Jews. That in turn developed into the UN Partition Plan of 1947 that the Jews accepted and the Arabs didn’t accept. It was this Arab rejection of partition which contributed decisively to the war of 1947-8 and the Palestinian refugee problem that followed.

It is on the strength of the Jewish people’s right to self-determination, which was also acknowledged by the world, that Israel established a state here. We are not saying there should be the Jewish people’s right to self-determination to the exclusion of Palestinian self-determination. But I cannot see the moral basis for arguing vehemently for Palestinian rights without arguing for Jewish rights in parallel.

Now whether or not people agree that the international decisions which affirmed the Jewish people’s right to establish a national home here were justified is frankly irrelevant at this point. The Jewish people acted on those international decisions. In their multiple hundreds of thousands, they invested their energies – in many cases gave their lives – to build a Jewish and democratic nation state that is, for all its imperfections, an extraordinary success against the odds. The Jewish people are here, they have a state it is not going away, and people just have to come to terms with it.

If you are on a university campus you can imagine how you undo history and everyone can choose to goes back in time, until you get to Adam and Eve. But in practical terms, there is no way to move forward on the basis that every wronged individual, on either side, should be able to undo everything that was done in history. There is no way to fundamentally undo the historical dispossession of Jews from this land and their yearning for it for thousands of years, or the dispossession of Palestinians. Similarly, we cannot undo the Arab rejection of the UN Partition Plan in 1947, or the expulsion of Jews from Arab lands following 1948. What we can do is imagine how we create a better reality for both peoples than the one we now know.

Greene: This forward-looking approach seems different to the emphasis on the idea of ‘historical justice’ that we often hear spoken of in relation to a peace agreement.

Becker: I think the idea of justice in its complete and absolute sense is an illusion when it comes to conflict resolution. It is not going to be possible to reach absolute justice because Israeli and Palestinian conceptions of justice are founded on historical narratives that are not reconcilable. Therefore, the idea that there is no peace without justice, when conceived in absolutist terms, is a recipe for never having peace in any meaningful sense.

I think instead we should aspire to an agreement that resonates with fairness, and that aspires to give both peoples as much dignity and security and respect as possible. Each people must feel they are better off as a result of the agreement. They may not have reached all of their expectations but they must feel like an agreement respects their rights and their dignity in a fair way. It will come with costs to both sides. No agreement that feels like victory only for one side is going to last. If a two-state agreement is ever reached, Israel will be asked out of necessity to cut itself off in some way from much of Judaea and Samaria, the areas where its history as a people was created. The Palestinian people will need to irreversibly come to terms with the fact that places where they lived, the Palestinian villages before 1948, are not places where their sovereignty will extend to.



Greene: Does Israel in practice preserve the rights of the minority?

Becker: There are standards set out in international treaties and in Israel’s internal legal system for the protection of national minorities. One of the most advanced, for example, is the Council of Europe’s ‘Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities’. In some areas, Israel goes beyond what is required in this convention. On education, for instance, the Arab minority gets state funding for separate education. In terms of the right to vote, to formal equality before the law, and to freedom of assembly, expression, conscience and religion, Arabs have equal rights.

In other areas, Israel falls short and it’s an ongoing exercise in Israel as elsewhere to balance majority and minority rights and improve the standards of equality. Fortunately, Israel has mechanisms that, while certainly not perfect, do enable improvements. There is an independent court system allowing appeals, and there is an electoral system that enables governments to change and coalitions to change.

It is also worth pointing out that Israel’s challenges regarding minorities go beyond the question of the Palestinian Arab minority. There are other minority groups in Israel, including Ethiopians and Russians, as well as other non-Jewish minorities, and we face an ongoing obligation to confront the discrimination that these groups can face.

Greene: Some people today claim that Israel’s democratic character is diminishing, following various recent attempts by some members of the Knesset to pass legislation that has been described as illiberal and undemocratic.

Becker: I find that it’s not helpful to have these discussions in the abstract. You have to really pick apart every piece of legislation and draft legislation and examine it, rather than speak in generalisations. Some of the draft laws that have made international headlines were indeed problematic; others I think have been misunderstood. There are members of the Knesset, not unlike parliaments in other parts of the world, who have views which do cross the line, and who have proposed legislation that in my view is harmful to Israel’s democracy.

But most of these draft laws have not and will not be adopted. Most generated a lot of noise but were actually blocked at different stages of the legislative process, which is itself evidence that Israel is not quite the ‘failed democracy’ that some critics suggest. In general, legislation that contravenes basic democratic rights will not pass in the Knesset, or will be struck down by the Supreme Court. We do not have a fully written constitution but we do have the Basic Laws, including the Basic Law of Human Dignity and Liberty which enshrines Israel’s status as a Jewish and democratic state. In addition, we have one of the most respected and renowned supreme courts in the world. That court has not been shy to strike down legislation that crosses that line. Just recently, it struck down the Tal Law, which it found to be unequal in the nature of the exemption from army service it established for the ultra-orthodox.

Israel is a democracy and we should be proud of the fact that we open ourselves up to scrutiny. We need to constantly be vigilant against any efforts to weaken Israel’s democratic character, but the extreme terms one often hears are often disconnected from the reality of what is actually taking place.

Greene: Is there more that Israel can or should be doing to improve the equality of its Arab minority?

Becker: Undoubtedly, especially at the level of social integration, distribution of resources and combating acts of violence and discrimination. But understanding the context is important. When you talk about the status of minorities in any country, there is a difference between their status legally – whether they have equality before the law and so on – and then the social dynamic within a country. The state first and foremost is responsible for the formal, legal status of the minority, but there are limits to what the state can do to actively create and encourage a fully integrated society, to encourage equality and tolerance at the societal level. At this level, too, the state has responsibilities, but there is a context in which these efforts are made that needs to be taken into account.

The social dynamic in Israel between the majority and minority is made problematic by a few factors. The first is the conflict. It is very hard to imagine how attitudes can change in a dramatic way when many within the Arab minority feel so connected to a people with whom the state is in conflict and to a region which is largely hostile to Israel. It’s important to understand that from a Jewish Israeli perspective, the Arabs are a minority in Israel but they are an overwhelming majority in the region. That affects the mindset of Jews and Arabs in Israel. It makes things much more complicated and impacts the psyche of both communities quite deeply.

Second, part of the leadership of Israel’s Arab minority is really quite radical. Important elements of it sided with Hamas and Hezbollah in wars against Israel and that has understandably angered many among the Jewish majority.

The third aspect is that there are elements within Jewish Israeli society who fuel a discriminatory mindset for populist political gains. We have to be very vigilant not to allow our admittedly complex security situation to justify unequal treatment or inflammatory rhetoric against the Arab minority as a collective inside Israel.

Greene: It is unfortunate that there are individuals in both Jewish and Arab populations that seem to play to the script for each other so conveniently. The anti-Arab rhetoric of some elements in Jewish Israeli society helps justify [Arab Knesset Member] Haneen Zoabi’s claim that the Jews are all racist and Zoabi’s support for Hamas helps them in return to justify their claim that the Arabs are disloyal and a fifth column. It seems in that sense that each helps provide the justification for the other.

Becker: A lot of Jewish Israelis, when they hear Arab Knesset members express support for Hamas or say that Israel shouldn’t be a Jewish state, are outraged. They can’t understand how we allow this. But I am actually quite proud that we have such an open and vibrant society where a member of the Knesset can stand against everything the majority believes in, in such an outrageous way. To me, that is one of our greatest badges of honour as a democracy – even if the sentiments expressed are unfortunate.



Greene: You were heavily involved as one of Israel’s lead negotiators in the Annapolis process in 2007-2008. What is the relation between the two-state model and Israel’s character as a Jewish state? Is Israel’s right to define itself as a Jewish state and a democracy dependent on reaching a two-state agreement with the Palestinians?

Becker: What lies at the heart of the two-state model is that this conflict is about two peoples, each with rights to self-determination in this place, and that the only way to balance those demands is through partition. This proposal began with the Peel Commission in 1937 and then the UN Partition Plan in 1947.

This is what makes it paradoxical that Israel’s claim to be recognised as the Jewish state by the Palestinians in a final agreement is so controversial. The UN Partition Plan, which both Israelis and Palestinians cite today as part of their claims to statehood, says the term ‘Jewish state’ over 30 times. This doesn’t mean that such recognition has to be a precondition for negotiations: even those who advocate for this recognition generally accept that it would need to be part a comprehensive agreement, not a precondition for it. The idea, I think, is that in the context of an agreement that would resolve all of the issues, establish a Palestinian state and resolve the refugee issue, it would make sense to include recognition of both Jewish and Palestinian rights to self-determination, each in a state of their own without prejudice to the rights of all citizens and minority groups. If it could be reached, this would be an important message that each side recognises the other’s legitimacy and that the conflict was resolved. I think it is also important for the international community, from its perspective, to insist on recognising the legitimacy of the Jewish and Palestinian connection to this land and their respective rights to self-determination at this stage as well.

However, I do not think that the legitimacy of a Jewish state depends on the establishment of a Palestinian state. On the one hand, sovereign Israel has a responsibility, according to its own laws and founding instruments, to be both Jewish and democratic. Alongside that, I believe we have an obligation to do everything we can to enable the responsible realisation of Palestinian self-determination. But the government of Israel also has a clear responsibility to its citizens to do that in a way that is not suicidal for Israel and that doesn’t create a failed state or a terrorist state on our border. Reaching an outcome that accommodates both Jewish and Palestinian rights is a shared obligation of the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships – neither can do it alone.

Greene: Some argue that in the absence of a peace agreement, Israel is required just to withdraw unilaterally.

Becker: Yes, you sometimes hear that view, especially in Europe. But this ignores the moral and legal obligation Israel has to its own people to preserve the basic security of the state. The idea of just getting out of the West Bank and throwing away the key may lead to the same kind of aggression against us which brought us to be there in the first place. The consequences of Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza unfortunately illustrate that simply ‘ending the occupation’ does not end the problem or bring peace.

So ‘just getting out’ is not an obligation that we have either morally or legally. Our presence in the West Bank is the consequence of a defensive war in 1967. We have an obligation to bring an end to that presence, but in a way that negotiates a secure and defensible border and doesn’t fundamentally jeopardise our future. This is part of UN Security Council Resolution 242, which both sides have accepted as a guiding principle in a negotiated settlement. We have a moral responsibility to the Palestinian people, but they have a moral responsibility to us as well. We are at the moment stuck with a situation we don’t want, but we Israelis cannot end it on our own.  Overcoming this deadlock in the current regional environment is very complicated. But any chance to do so will begin with both sides genuinely coming to terms with the legitimacy of the other’s collective rights. Both sides, Israeli and Palestinian, will need to see the fair realisation of the other side’s rights, not as something they should undermine if possible, or tolerate if necessary, but as something which is actually in their enlightened self-interest.


Dr. Tal Becker gave this interview in 2012 in his capacity as an international fellow of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He served as senior policy advisor to Israel’s minister of foreign affairs from 2006 to 2009 and was a lead negotiator during Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that took place under the auspices of the Annapolis peace process. He has served as a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and as a Senior Visiting Fellow at BICOM. This interview was first published by BICOM in March 2012.


© BICOM 2012 All rights reserved. The opinions expressed in this report are those of the authors and not necessarily those of BICOM.


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