Why the Palestine solidarity movement must reject the demand to recognize Israel as a ‘Jewish state’

Rains Rouner

Mondoweiss  /  June 11, 2023

To ensure justice and equal rights for all anti-Zionist activists must challenge Zionism’s ethnoreligious exclusivity by embracing the Palestinian rejection of Israel as a “Jewish state.”

I was an International Solidarity Movement activist in Jenin camp in 2002 when an Israeli soldier, who realized I was American, said to me, “You did this to the American Indians. What are you complaining about?” admitting Israel’s intention to follow American precedent and continue to expand, take over the whole West Bank, never end the occupation, and never allow for a sovereign, viable Palestinian state and a two-state solution.

I told the soldier he was right about America’s crimes, and I was here as an activist to try to prevent the repetition of those same crimes of ethnic cleansing, apartheid, and slow genocide.

Now, twenty-one years later, we Western anti-Zionists are failing. Despite the growth of Palestine solidarity and successes of the BDS movement, conditions for Palestinians on the ground are worsening, sowing despair as Israeli impunity and Jewish ethnic supremacy become entrenched, more than ever with the reelection of Netanyahu and ascendence of Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich. In a 2022 article titled “Biden signs the Palestinians’ death certificate,” Gideon Levy lamented the plight of the Palestinian freedom struggle and the hypocrisy of the West, and alluded to the same analogy of downtrodden defeat the soldier in Jenin camp alluded to me: 

“The two-state solution died a long time ago, and now so has the Palestinians’ strategic choice of relying on the West in their struggle for their national rights…. With the laws against BDS and the new and distorted definitions of antisemitism, the United States and Europe are lost as far as the Palestinians are concerned. The battle has been decided, Israel has all but beaten them, and their fate might be the same as that of the indigenous peoples in the United States.”

 Facing this bleak reality, the death of the two-state solution, and Western hypocrisy in espousing democracy while supporting Israeli apartheid acknowledged by Human Rights Watch, B’Tselem and Amnesty International, Palestinians, and anti-Zionist activists recognize the urgent need for an alternative solution to establish justice and equal rights for all throughout historic Palestine. 

If anti-Zionists agree that rejecting ethnoreligious “exclusivity” is a core political principle necessary to ensure justice and equal rights for all, then we need to resist Zionism’s exclusivity by enacting a political strategy and tactic for Palestinian liberation, decolonization, and dismantling Israeli apartheid not yet enacted in the West: Palestine solidarity groups must stand with all Palestinians and embrace and defend the unanimous, principled Palestinian rejection of Israel’s demand that it be recognized as an exclusivist “Jewish state.”

Palestine solidarity groups have the untapped power to take collective action in solidarity with the avowed political stand of all Palestinians, but we haven’t done this yet. We should take collective action and endorse the Palestinian political stand now, as solidarity groups currently endorse the Palestinian call for BDS, before Palestinian political power is further undermined by Israel’s new, right-wing government and the rise of Jewish supremacy.

Israel’s “Jewish state” demand    

Perhaps surprisingly, the Israeli demand that the country be formally recognized as the “Jewish state” is relatively new. In 2014, when Netanyahu demanded that Palestinians recognize Israel as a “Jewish state,” and President Obama agreed (as Trump and Biden have since agreed), while all Palestinian leaders, – Mahmoud Abbas, Saeb Erekat, Hanan Ashrawi, Riyad Mansour, etc. – Palestinian activists, and most if not all Palestinians worldwide adamantly rejected Israel’s new, exclusivist demand. 

Hanan Ashrawi declared: “This is like telling the Palestinians they did not exist all these hundreds and thousands of years…. Palestine historically has been diverse. There have been many tribes here. Our history is not going to be something we can deny.” 

Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh declared: “Netanyahu’s request for (our recognition of) a Jewish state is a waste of time and is meant to evade a true and just peace,” and former Israeli national security advisor Giora Eiland admitted Israel’s subversive intent, noting: “Palestinian recognition of Israel as the Jewish state will make it hard to promote ideas of turning the State of Israel into a state of all its citizens.”

Ashrawi acknowledged that if Palestinians were to accept Israel’s exclusivist demand, “it will become perfectly acceptable to discriminate against non-Jews because this will be a Jewish state,” and in an article titled Why Palestinians can’t recognize a Jewish state, Hassan Jabareen asserted: “For Palestinians to recognize the Jewish state is to declare their surrender, to waive their group dignity.”

Palestinian Chief Negotiator Saeb Erekat proclaimed: “I will never recognize Israel as a Jewish state… No force on earth will make me change my narrative… I speak on behalf of 11 million Palestinians.” Palestinian-American commentator Yousef Munayyer published Why ‘Jewish state’ demand is a non-starter, and declared: “Palestinians shouldn’t stand for this, neither should anyone else.”

In solidarity with the 2014 Palestinian rejection of Israel’s “Jewish state” demand, the Arab League took collective political action and promptly endorsed the Palestinian rejection, and many individuals spoke out. However, Palestine solidarity groups, who hold collective power in the West, have, for the past nine years, remained silent on the question of “Jewish state” recognition, enacting no collective political resistance to this supremacist concept, leaving Palestinians without Western group allies willing to oppose ethnoreligious statehood, isolated, powerless, and alone in their rejection of Israel’s “Jewish state” demand, which Netanyahu reiterated on the American TV show Real Time with Bill Maher on October 14th, 2022, deflecting criticism of Israel’s illegal settlements by declaring: “The main problem with Israel and the Palestinians is not the settlements but the persistent Palestinian refusal to recognize a ‘Jewish state’ in any boundary.” 

Palestinians recognized the State of Israel in 1988, and again in 1993, but do not recognize Israel as an ethnoreligious “Jewish state,” and, as Saeb Erekat declared, never will. Therefore, to mitigate Palestinian political isolation and empower the Palestinian equal rights struggle in the West, solidarity groups should take a strategic, political stand in solidarity with all Palestinians and endorse and defend the Palestinian rejection of Israel’s exclusivist “Jewish state” demand, as we endorse and defend BDS.

Resisting Zionism’s roots

Taking this long-overdue, collective political stance would reflect the game-changing strategy of resisting Zionism’s “roots,” not just its “manifestations,” as Toufic Haddad advises in his 2012 article The Strategic Significance of the “Jewish state” in the Struggle for Palestinian Rights

“The ascendant demand that Israel be recognized as a Jewish state… opens up a strategic… entrance for a potential Palestinian counter-strategy. This is because the indefensibility of a Jewish state within liberal values exposes lines of attack which can be exploited to undermine the legitimacy of the Zionist project…. Palestinian activists need to be engaged in a plan for the purpose of exploiting this strategic weakness…. Delegitimizing Israel as the manifestation of the ‘Jewish State’ – the heart of political Zionism — is exactly what is needed today. All other strategies address the conflict’s manifestations, but not its roots.”

This has been attempted in the U.S. political arena before. Palestinian American delegates to the 2020 Democratic National Convention proposed an amendment to the DNC platform “to support Israel as a state for all its citizens rather than an ethnically exclusive ‘Jewish state,’” which Huwaida Arraf and otheres declared “is an endorsement of institutionalized racism.” Arraf quired: “Would we ask that the United States be recognized as a White, Christian country?” 

No, we would not! So why, by contrast, is recognizing Israel as “an ethnically exclusive ‘Jewish state’” deemed acceptable? And if ethnoreligious exclusivity is inherently undemocratic, and therefore not okay, why aren’t solidarity groups modeling leadership for the DNC and the U.S. Congress by taking a strategic, political stand in solidarity with all Palestinians and leveraging our collective power to oppose and delegitimize Israel’s exclusivist “Jewish state” demand?

Regrettably, the Palestinian American amendment was not even considered by the 2020 DNC, which is not surprising. Leveraging political power requires a grassroots political movement, and a grassroots movement to transform Israel and its occupied territories – i.e. all of historic Palestine — into “a state for all its citizens rather than an ethnically exclusive ‘Jewish state,’” like the democratization of South Africa (notwithstanding SA’s incomplete dismantling of settler colonialism), does not yet exist in the United States. Solidarity endorsement of the Palestinian rejection of Israel’s “Jewish state” demand would create this grassroots political movement, and could bring collective pressure to bear on U.S. politicians. This, in turn, could support advocates, such as Arraf and Palestinian members of the 2018 Israeli Knesset, who are calling for Israel/Palestine to become “a state of all its citizens.”

Endorsing the Palestinian political stand  

In 2018, following the passage of Israel’s supremacist Jewish Nation-State Law, Palestinian activist and scholar Lubnah Shomali of Badil welcomed advocacy for and solidarity endorsement of the Palestinian political stand when she spoke at Tufts University in Boston. During Q & A, I asked: “To build support for Badil’s mission to implement the Palestinian Right of Return, would it be helpful if solidarity groups were to endorse the Palestinian rejection of Israel’s ‘Jewish state’ demand?”

“Yes,” Lubnah replied, “that’s really listening to Palestinians!” 

To collectively resist Zionism solidarity groups should repudiate Israel as a “Jewish state” and declare: We don’t believe in a politically “Jewish state,” and Israel has no right to demand “Jewish state” recognition from Palestinians whom it expelled from their homeland or to whom it denies equal rights because they’re not Jewish.

For the past nine years, Palestine solidarity groups have disregarded the issue and have enacted no collective Western resistance to Israel’s “Jewish state” demand even though it is clear Palestinians cannot be equal if Israel remains a “Jewish state.” 

To build Western political support for Palestinian liberation and equal rights for all in one secular democratic state throughout historic Palestine, solidarity groups should take a strategic, political stand in solidarity with all Palestinians and endorse and defend the Palestinian rejection of Israel’s exclusivist “Jewish state” demand, before it’s too late, and the fascist hope of the soldier in Jenin camp comes true.

Rains Rouner is a social worker and co-founder of the Palestine solidarity group Common Ground and singer/songwriter for the solidarity band Nablus Road