Thursday, November 15, 2007

Is Israel a Jewish State?

(Cross posted by Jazz from Middle Earth Journal)

Close on the heels of our recent question about Jewgenics, Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe ponders the question, Is Israel a Jewish State?

IN ADVANCE of the upcoming diplomatic conference in Annapolis, Israel Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced the other day that he expects the Palestinian Authority to finally acknowledge Israel's existence as a Jewish state. A newly arrived visitor from Mars might wonder why this should even be an issue - after all, Israel is a Jewish state. If the more than 55 countries that make up the Organization of the Islamic Conference are entitled to recognition as Muslim states, and if the 22 members of the Arab League are universally accepted as Arab states, why should anyone balk at acknowledging Israel as the world's lone Jewish state?

Yet Olmert's demand was rebuffed. Saeb Erekat, the senior Palestinian Authority negotiator, said on Monday that Palestinians would refuse to recognize Israel's Jewish identity on the grounds that "it is not acceptable for a country to link its national character to a specific religion."

Rantings of Mr. Erekat aside, apparently, Jacoby decides to tackle the question on the basis of whether or not the dominant religion of a country can be considered the key element of that country's national identity.
In fact, there are many countries in which national identity and religion are linked. Argentinian law mandates government support for the Roman Catholic faith. Queen Elizabeth II is the supreme governor of the Church of England. In the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, the constitution proclaims Buddhism the nation's "spiritual heritage." The prevailing religion in Greece," declares Section II of the Greek Constitution, "is that of the Eastern Orthodox Church of Christ."

At this point in our discussions on the subject, I think we would be hard pressed to say that Israel is not a Jewish state. But, as discussed in the "Jewgenics" thread, is Israel a Jewish state because of the religion of most of its people or because of the ethnicity of its people? Jacoby's points sound a bit hollow to me in this regard. I had no idea Argentina mandated support of the Roman Catholic Church. Given the religious melting pot that England has become and the falling membership of the actual Church of England, it's hard to picture the Queen's place as the head of the church as anything more than a symbolic reminder of grander times past. I also find it hard to picture the Bhutanese kicking you out of their country for not being a Buddhist.

At this point in our consideration of the question, let's take a moment and consider the story of two families - the Hoffstetlers and the Koeppens. Both families lived in the Rhine Valley region of Germany, as had their ancestors as far back as anyone could remember. Like many of the people of that region, they had dark hair and deep, ruddy complexions. They were also very successful business operators, and one day both families decided to undertake a long and dangerous journey to the far off land of Ireland to expand their business horizons.

Upon arrival Mr. Hoffstetler went so far as to legally change his family name to McCoy (all the better to blend in socially and to enhance his business prospects with the locals) and soon both families were established and flourishing.

Time passed, and the children of both families grew to adulthood. Mr. Hoffstetler's son (now a McCoy) married one of the Koeppen daughters and they began a family of their own. By the time their children were grown, they were clearly Irish. They had an Irish name, spoke the local language as natives, and were born and bred in the land. And yet, they still had dark hair and olive complexions. They in no way resembled the predominantly red haired, light skinned neighbors. So were they Irish? Or were they Germans living in Ireland? Just as we have so many "hyphenated" people in the United States, (e.g. German-Americans, Polish-Americans) it might be fair to say they were "Irish of German descent."

Perhaps Jeff Jacoby could have made a more convincing argument if he asked what percentage of the current residents of Israel are actually genetically distinct descendants of the Tribe of Judah? Until recently I would have thought consideration of such a question to be impossible, but now I'm pretty much coming around 180 degrees and I suspect it's possible that recognizing Israel as a "Jewish State" is not only appropriate, but might be based more in ethnicity than some assumption about the religious beliefs of their people.

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