Yesterday, Jonathan ably fisked a leftist attempt to dismiss the statement this week by the PLO’s ambassador to the United States that Jews would not be
allowed to live in a future state of Palestine.
But there is another important point to be made about the comments that ambassador and other Palestinian officials later made to try to clarify that he really didn’t mean what he had said. At least one American news outlet sees their words as sufficient cause to headline an article, “Jews Welcome.” Still, these newer comments demonstrate, perhaps even more clearly, that Palestinian officials remain incapable of the basic understanding and acknowledgement of the Zionist proposition a true peace will require.
In particular, Mahmoud Habash, minister of religious affairs, said, “The future Palestinian state will be open to all its citizens, regardless of their religion,” while the PLO ambassador said, “We have never said this is a religious conflict.”
But of course, the Zionist idea has always been framed by the conviction, as I had the privilege of hearing Ruth Gavison, a professor at Hebrew University and 2011 winner of the Israel Prize for legal research, explain this past summer, that Jewishness is not “exhausted” by religion. From the devoutly secular pioneers of the Second Aliyah through, in their way, to the Tel Aviv hipsters of today and expressed most honorably by thinkers like Gavison herself, there have always been Zionists who view their Jewish identity in strictly secular terms. Even for religious Zionists, the national character of Jewish identity is similarly of equal importance to the religious. This is, of course, the basic nature of what it means to be Zionist: to believe the Jewish people are not a religious group only, comparable in basically equal terms to Muslims, Christians, or other confessional faiths, but a living people, a nation, with therefore the same natural right to self-determination as any other.
This can and should be taken a further step. The idea of a bifurcation between a religious and a national identity is itself one entirely foreign to traditional Jewish identity. The very notion of a “religious” self that can be bracketed out from the national one is relatively easily traced to 19th century Christian scholarship, which was then used, unsuccessfully, to define the Jews as well. Classic Reform attempts to make Judaism mimic the Christian distinction between faith and peoplehood notwithstanding, the idea a Jew can be talked about as a religious person only has little resonance in Jewish thought from any era. Indeed, Reform’s formal subscription to Zionism in 1937, to say nothing of the lived history of that movement, says much about the level of acceptance by Jews of this idea.
In short, it is not nearly good enough for Palestinians to claim, as they long have, Jews would be welcome in their state as a religious group. They must also accept that we are a living people, acknowledging our national as well as our religious identity, if the conflict between us is ever to come to a just and true conclusion.