As a new Israeli government takes shape, the Biden administration must rethink its messaging about Israel and the Palestinians, especially in the absence of a clear path to ending their conflict. Beyond offering humanitarian aid to Gaza and dispatching Secretary of State Antony Blinken to the Middle East to solidify the Israel-Hamas ceasefire, President Joe Biden offered two principles: that both Palestinians and Israelis “deserve equal measures of freedom, prosperity, and democracy”; and that the region must “acknowledge the right of Israel to exist as an independent Jewish state.”
What is remarkable is that commentators saw the advocacy of equal rights for Palestinians as unusual — but not Washington’s unique advocacy of Israel’s Jewishness, which has become second nature. The latter went practically unnoticed, as did the inherent contradictions in advocating for democracy and equality, on the one hand, and the Jewishness of Israel, on the other — which, by definition (and law), provides lesser rights to its non-Jewish citizens. As Americans have shifted their own attention to addressing systemic racism and inequality here at home, the deep inherent contradictions of our policy toward Israel are coming to a head.
It may seem at first glance that the American stance on Israel’s Jewishness isn’t unusual. States often define themselves in ethno-religious nationalist terms; as a Jewish state, Israel is not an exception in that way. There is the Syrian Arab Republic, despite the presence of many non-Arabs, such as Kurds, and the Islamic Republic of Iran, despite the presence of many non-Muslim Iranians. Historically, the United States has backed non-democracies, even ruthless dictatorships, for reasons of expediency, and has accepted ethno-nationalist states in the context of conflict-resolution arrangements. Much as we may not like how states define themselves, we reluctantly go along, based on their membership in the United Nations and a degree of realism. But there is no case except Israel’s in which the United States specifically and actively advocates for a form of an ethno-nationalist state that discounts a large portion of its population and demands that others do the same.
When thinking about American backing for Israel, the focus usually turns to military, political, and financial aid, of which Israel is the largest cumulative recipient since World War II. But America’s championing of Israel’s “Jewishness” as a goal of American foreign policy is often ignored. This advocacy, present across the American political spectrum, has distorted our discourse on Israel/Palestine, and, inadvertently, emboldened Jewish supremacy in Israel. It has also exposed the limits of speaking of both democracy and Jewishness. With a new government in Israel about to be confirmed by Israel’s Knesset — without long-time Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — the Biden administration must rethink its messaging.
Advocating for Israel specifically as a Jewish state directly and indirectly conflicts with the notion that states should represent and treat all their citizens equally, which is at the heart of democracy, an issue that Biden has made central for his administration and its foreign policy. First, there is the obvious issue of a citizen’s sense of belonging to a state defined in terms that exclude them. More centrally, this formulation privileges Jewishness — even of non-citizens — over citizenship of non-Jews in some important ways. For example, a Jew who is a non-citizen, with no relatives in Israel, and no direct connection to the state or to the land, has the automatic right to citizenship, and to assets bestowed by the state to go along with it, while a relative — even a spouse — of a non-Jewish citizen of Israel does not have a similar right.
America’s active embrace of this notion has had the consequence of reinforcing a sense of entitlement in Israel that has affected public attitudes and failed to halt a slippery slope toward Jewish supremacy. This goes beyond the rise of the Jewish far-right groups, now represented in the Knesset, that actively advocate for expelling Palestinians — including those who are citizens — from Israel. Consider the 2018 nation-state law that was passed during the Trump administration, without American protest, which makes no reference to democracy and proclaims that only Jews have the right to self-determination in Israel. And consider that 79% of Israeli Jews, according to a major 2016 Pew Research Center poll, say that Jews in Israel are entitled to privileges over non-Jews, and that 48% agree that “Arabs should be expelled or transferred” from Israel.
With unending occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the line between citizen and non-citizen Palestinians was bound to be blurred, both because of rising Jewish fear of losing their demographic majority in Israel/Palestine and due to active provocation by the Jewish far right, as was made clear in the eruption that followed Israeli attempts to expel Palestinians from their homes in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. Israeli cities known for their amicable Arab-Jewish coexistence, such as Haifa, swiftly faced violent confrontations. Suddenly, it is not hard to imagine the path of structural inequality leading to something even worse.
Much of American political discourse portrays Israel’s Jewishness as something sacred to protect. Even among those who want to see Israel withdraw from the occupied territories, the arguments are often less connected to Israel’s obligations under international law, the inherent rights of Palestinians, or human rights, and more connected to the threat to Israel as a Jewish state. Under this mindset, which has been exhibited even by some progressive politicians, non-Jewish citizens of Israel — let alone Palestinians under occupation — are a “demographic threat” to Israel’s Jewishness that must be preempted or controlled. This has only reinforced — or at least failed to stop — the slippery slope of an Israeli discourse anchored in a biblical narrative about the “promised land,” including widespread convictions about Jewish privilege and broad political support for Israeli sovereignty over a “complete and united” Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. But if Jerusalem, why not Hebron, Nablus, or Bethlehem? If the land belongs to the Jews, where does that leave non-Jews? This core basis of legitimacy is implicitly and explicitly built into most Jewish Israelis’ own sense of rights and legitimacy, which has inevitably opened space to the expansion of Israeli Jewish supremacy. And rather than work to head off this dangerous trend, America’s projected enthusiasm for Israel’s Jewishness was bound to face the kind of contradictions that, inadvertently, gave room to militant Jewish supremacists.
Let’s be clear. Many states in the Middle East, including undemocratic ones, that are now accepted as sovereign entities — Jordan, Israel, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, to mention but a few — did not exist as such in early 20th century. In international eyes, their current legitimacy as sovereign entities is strictly a function of their admittance to the United Nations, not of their own narratives about their creation. In the American discourse, the line between anchoring policy toward Israel in international laws and norms, and anchoring it in the Jewish narrative about Israel, has been blurred. This was the case long before the Trump presidency, which relied on the support of evangelical Christians who backed a religious narrative about Israel, sent an envoy to Israel who openly affirmed that narrative, and rewarded that evangelical support with recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. (Though support for Israel among young American evangelicals is declining, as I recently wrote).
Everyone is entitled to their own national and religious narrative, but those narratives cannot serve as the basis of sovereignty in relations among states — and certainly not for American foreign policy. As a sovereign state, Israel can define itself as it likes. But the United States — especially under the Biden administration which prioritizes the fight for democracy — must not embrace and advocate what inherently contradicts the cherished values of democracy and equality it wants to defend and promote. In that vein, we must stand for states that belong to all their citizens equally, not ones that belong to one group of citizens at the expense of others.