B. Michael: A Pravoslavic and republican tomato

B. Michael

A Pravoslavic and republican tomato

Prof. Shlomo Avineri (Haaretz, August 13, 2010) debates Salman Masalha, who ridiculed the expression “a Jewish and democratic state” and compared it to the expression “a Muslim and democratic state” (Haaretz, August 8, 2010).

Avineri decides to learn from this barb that Masalha has supposedly denied the existence of a Jewish people and its right to self-definition, and charges ahead full tilt to defend the people, the state and the expression “a Jewish and democratic state.”

But Avineri is making life easy for himself. With convenient and useful consistency he ignores one crucial and fundamental fact: The state of Israel is the only country in the world where the exclusive authority to determine who belongs to its people is in the hands of the clergy of some transcendental, mythical entity, which does not participate much in the public discourse and is not subordinate to any mortal (except those who serve it…).

Avineri also tries to compare the Jewish people in Israel to other peoples in the world. As he sees it, “a Jewish state” is like a Palestinian state, a Dutch state, a Polish state, an English state. Every state has its people. But this comparison is baseless. It’s not a qadi who decides who is Palestinian. It’s not the Archbishop of Canterbury who decides who is English. It’s not a cardinal in Warsaw who decides who is Polish and it isn’t the ayatollahs in Iran who decide who is Persian. Only here, only in Israel, have all the usual tests of ethnic and national affiliation been abolished. Not culture, not language, not birthplace, not historical background, not a common fate … none of these decide. Only the seal of the clerical bureaucrats determines whether or not a person belongs to the people and the nation.

The result is a rather absurd paradox: Instead of the state of Israel realizing the right of Jews to self-definition, it has become the only place in the universe that denies them their right to define themselves. Everywhere else in the world a person is allowed to define himself as a Jew, and Jewish communities are able to embrace him to their bosom in any way they choose. No law prevents them from doing this. Only in Israel has this right been outlawed.

And the paradox redoubles when we realize that while the Jewish people everywhere in the world is indeed a people in every respect, it is only in Israel that it has once again become solely a religious community, a cult the definition of which has been given over entirely to clerics and their certifications of ritual fitness.

It can be said this is the worst failure of what Avineri calls “the Zionist revolution.” It intended to transform a people into a nation and it has ended up turning part of that people into a religious community.

Therefore until such time as the state of Israel comes to its senses and takes away from the clerics the exclusive authority to decide who belongs to that people whose right to self-definition it purports to realize – Salman Masalha is right: “A Jewish and democratic state” is a ridiculous phrase, just like “a Muslim and democratic state.”

And if this comparison is insulting to Prof. Avineri, he is invited to ponder the following equation: “A Jewish and democratic state” is a logical and very meaningful concept much like “a Pravoslavic and republican tomato.”

Jerusalem, August 15, 2010
Salman Masalha, "A Jewish and democratic restaurant"
Shlomo Avineri, "A Palestinian people, yes, a Jewish people, no?"

Alexander Yakobson, "What's in the name?"
Uri Avnery, "Poisonous Mushrooms"
Lev Grinberg, "You can't be a Jewish Muslim"


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