In the conflict studies courses I teach, I expose my students to theories that claim state-sanctioned inequality is a source of perpetual conflict. I know this to be true not only from my academic research, but from personal experience: I also run a small research institution in the northern Israeli city of Haifa that focuses on the status of the Palestinian citizens in Israel and their relationship with the state. This population, with the silent complicity of the United States, has long been the target of official state policies of discrimination.
In spite of America's professed commitment to equality, the U.S. government makes an exception when it comes to Israel's insistence on being recognized as a Jewish state, which in theory and practice means privileging Jewish citizens over all other citizens. U.S. President Barack Obama declared his support at the United Nations last September for "two states living side by side in peace and security -- a Jewish state of Israel, with true security for all Israelis, and a viable, independent Palestinian state." Similarly, Vice President Joe Biden told an audience at Tel Aviv University in March that negotiations should lead to "a Jewish state with secure and recognized borders." It appears that affirmation of Israel's identity as a "Jewish state" is becoming a routine part of U.S. discourse on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
But it would be politically and morally wrong for the United States to support recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. Israel's Palestinian minority makes up between 16 to 20 percent of the population, depending on whether the Palestinians in East Jerusalem are counted -- a larger percentage than the African-American population in the United States. The total percentage of non-Jews in Israel -- Muslims, Christians, and others -- reaches approximately 25 percent. To recognize Israel as a Jewish state excludes this sizable minority from full and equal participation in Israel's political and civic life. This is a recipe for enduring social strife and conflict.
There are few honest observers in Israel who dispute that a Jewish state, by definition, privileges one group of citizens over another. This inequality is expressed in various ways, including in Israel's Basic Laws and its laws of land control, immigration, and resource distribution. The modern Israeli state belongs only to its Jewish citizens -- and even to non-citizen Jews in the diaspora -- but not to its Palestinian citizens. As a result, a sizable minority of Israel's citizens have no state to call their own. Israel's Basic Laws stipulate that "a candidates list shall not participate in elections to the Knesset ... if the goals or actions of the list ... expressly or by implication" negates Israel as a Jewish state. Thus a party that explicitly requires Israel to become a state for all its citizens and not a Jewish state runs the risk of disqualification.
Is this really what Obama wants? Has he contemplated the built-in inequality that accompanies a "Jewish state"?
The U.S. government's ironclad commitment to Israel's security is the result of international politics, on which there can be differing views. However, supporting Israel's continued privileging of one group of citizens over another on the basis of national identity or religious affiliation is neither morally defensible nor harmonious with America's founding principles. The concept of a "Jewish state" is not equivalent to the still-objectionable term "Christian state" used by some groups in the United States. Rather, it is akin, in the eyes of Israel's non-Jewish citizens, to the concept of a "white state" -- a notion that is completely unthinkable in the West.
The United States has previously overlooked Israel's settlement policy for reasons related to its national interests and domestic political considerations. Now Israel is confronting the grave consequences of these policies: Difficult political choices over West Bank settlements have precipitated increasingly sharp divisions within Israeli society. Similarly, the diplomatic support the United States lends to Israel's ambition to be recognized as a "Jewish state" does not serve either country's long-term interests. Israel's welfare is best ensured by a system that guarantees real equality for all its citizens and national groups, rather than state-sanctioned ethnic discrimination.