Is Israel the ‘National Home of the Jewish People’?

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A Jewish man speaks on his mobile phone in the Stamford Hill area of north London on January 19, 2011 in London, England. (Photo: Oli Scarff - Getty Images)

In a scathing commentary on the folly of the Obama Administration relying on Dennis Ross to resuscitate Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, Israeli journalist Akiva Eldar notes that Ross has been at the center of just about every failed initiative on that front over the past two decades — and that now, as ever, he is running interference for the Israelis, sustaining what he says is an illusion of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s willingness to make major concessions while restraining the U.S. from putting any significant pressure on him.

There’s nothing new about those hoping for a game-changing U.S. intervention groaning at the news of Ross — the personification of two decades of “process” without end — being put in charge. But one paragraph stood out in the exasperated Israeli’s column:

“Now Ross, the former chairman of the Jewish People Policy Institute, is trying to convince the Palestinians to give up on bringing Palestinian independence for a vote in the United Nations in September and recognize the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish people – in other words, as his country, though he was born in San Francisco, more than that of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who was born in Safed.”

The institute to which Eldar refers is a Jerusalem-based think-tank established by the Jewish Agency, a government-backed institution promoting Jewish immigration to Israel. Ross headed it up for a period between his service to the Clinton and Obama Administrations. Now, Eldar accuses him of using the bully pulpit of American power to cajole the Palestinians into heeding Netanyahu’s demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a “Jewish state” and as “the national home of the Jewish people.”

Skeptics view this demand as simply the latest red herring tossed out by an Israeli prime minister who has built his political career on opposing the Oslo peace process. It has been introduced very late in the game, and its’ purpose is largely to preempt any negotiation over the right of return for Palestinian refugees who lost their homes and land to the nascent State of Israel in 1948. After all, it’s not recognition of a Jewish theocracy that Netanyahu is demanding; rather, he insists that the state’s ethnic composition will remain predominantly Jewish.

Because of the refugees — and also because of the implications for the status of the 1 million Muslim and Christian Palestinians who are Israeli citizens — Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas demurs. The PLO has long ago recognized Israel in keeping with all the requirements of international law, he counters, and Israel’s definition of itself is a matter for its citizens to decide.

It’s hard to know how far Ross and the Obama Administration are pressing Abbas to go in accommodating this new Israeli demand, but Eldar’s observation is worth unpacking: Should the Palestinians be required to recognize Israel as Dennis Ross’ “national home”?

Of the world’s 13.5 million Jews, only 5.6 million are Israeli — the majority, free to “return” (and encouraged to do so by the Israeli government) have chosen to remain in what Israel once disparaged as the “Galut” (“Exile”). Not only that; it appears that as many as 1 million Israelis have joined them.

The idea of Israel as “the national home of the Jewish people” was at the center of modern Zionism, which emerged in the late 19th century in response to centuries of often virulent anti-Semitism and emerging nationalism in central and eastern Europe. Jews would never have a secure place in the nation states of the West and East, the argument went, because anti-Semitism was immutable and inevitable whenever Jews lived among non-Jews. Thus the need to create an ethnic-Jewish nation state in Palestine, into which Jews could be “ingathered” from their “exile” in the Diaspora.

But then, as now, the majority of the world’s Jews did not imagine themselves in “exile” from an ancestral homeland. Most chose to live elsewhere and to — naively in the minds of the Zionists — integrate themselves into other nationalities. Only a couple of hundred thousand moved to Palestine to help build a Jewish homeland.

The Holocaust changed the equation, of course, with the refugees from Nazism and survivors of the death camps more than doubling the Jewish population to some half a million at the time of Israel’s creation. It continued to swell through immigration in the intervening years, particularly with the arrival of more than half a million Jews from Arab countries driven out by nationalist regimes in the wake of Israel’s founding.

The stream of immigrants from Western countries was slower, however, and the next major boost to Israel’s Jewish population came with the collapse of the Soviet Union, when some 1 million Jews and people of Jewish origin fled the economic collapse of a notoriously anti-Semitic society.

But the former Soviet Jews may have been the last great wave of immigration to Israel. Today’s demographic trends point increasingly to a flat or even negative net balance of migration, as immigration has slowed and emigration has increased.

Today, Joseph Chamie and Barry Mirkin point out,  approximately 1 million Jewish Israelis live abroad, almost two thirds of them in North America and a further quarter in Europe. That’s close to one in five Jewish Israelis. (The figure includes some 200,000 of the million that emigrated from the former Soviet Union during the ’90s.) And it may be a growing trend.

Almost half of Israeli teenagers told researchers in a recent opinion survey that they would live abroad if given the opportunity. Chamie and Mirkin also note that an estimated half million Israelis hold U.S. passports, with a further quarter million applications pending, while an estimated 100,000 hold German passports. It has become commonplace, anecdotally, among more secular cosmopolitan Israelis to apply for or hold a foreign passport.

The prime problem facing efforts to persuade the bulk of Jews to move to Israel may be  the decline of anti-Semitism in the Western world: It seems increasingly far-fetched to suggest to third-generation Jewish Americans or Canadians, Britons or Frenchmen that theirs is a temporary, twilight existence in the countries of their birth and citizenship, a way station en route “home” to Israel.

Then-head of the Jewish Agency Sallai Meridor castigated Germany in 2004 for permissive immigration rules that, as he put it, “enticed” Jews from former Soviet territories to settle there — and, indeed, at the time, more were settling in Germany than in Israel. But the ironic moment of an Israeli leader complaining that Germany was being too kind to Jews seemed to capture a new reality: Absent a mass outbreak of anti-Semitism in some country with a significant Jewish population, migration is unlikely to shift the balance of the world’s Jewish population from the Diaspora to Israel. Allowed to choose freely, the majority of Jews — and even a growing number of Israelis — have made their homes elsewhere.

Demanding that Israel be recognized as the “national home” of a Jewish American, Canadian, South African or Argentine becomes problematic for many more liberal and secular Jews. Many Jewish Americans who’ve grown up with the melting-pot values of integration are not entirely comfortable with the idea that their religion assigns them a “national home” elsewhere – a 2007 survey of American Jewish attitudes to Israel found that only 54% of those under the age of 35 were “comfortable with the idea of a Jewish state.”

Of course there’s still overwhelming support among American Jews, and Americans more generally, for the security and well-being of Israel, which of course defines itself as a Jewish state. But while Netanyahu would insist that Israel is their “national home”, it’s far from clear that the majority of the world’s Jews see themselves as sojourning citizens of Israel, or believe that Netanyahu somehow acts on their collective behalf.

Not that any of this is likely to figure in the Obama Administration’s efforts to get  Netanyahu and Abbas back around a table. There are plenty of reason why those will likely fail — or, at best, produce a short-lived impression of progress — long before the question of Israel’s relationship with the Jewish majority that lives outside of its borders comes into play.