Review: Israel and the Family of Nations: The Jewish Nation-State and Human Rights

Alexander Yakobson and Amnon Rubinstein, Israel and the Family of Nations: The Jewish Nation-State and Human Rights (Routledge: London, 2008).

Israel and the Family of Nations: The Jewish Nation-State and Human RightsOn November 24th, 2014 Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proposed a bill to his cabinet that would define Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people”. This bill proved so acrimonious that Netanyahu dismissed two important cabinet members over its content and ultimately decided to dissolve the Knesset in favour of elections. The debate is not new; the question of “Jewish and democratic” has long been a divisive one in Israeli history. Following the 1967 war, there has been a controversial debate about the future of Israel. Its future is debated in both practical and existential terms usually framed with reference to ‘the Palestinian Question.’ This is usually phrased as to what extent can, and should, Israel maintain its status as a simultaneously Jewish and democratic state. Alexander Yakobson and Amnon Rubinstein have attempted to settle this debate by arguing that Israel can and must be both Jewish and democratic. They ultimately conclude that a failure to view Israel as such denies its legitimacy as a nation-state. The authors seek to contextualize the case of Israel in a world of modern nations and liberal democracies and to ultimately contest the concept that Israel’s very existence needs re-examining.

Alexander Yakobson is an Israeli historian and current senior lecturer in history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Secondly, Amnon Rubenstein is a former Knesset member, currently the Dean of the Interdisciplinary Center at Herzilya. Both are contributors to Israeli newspapers and have stated the mission of the book is to simply treat Israel as another case in the international system. As such, this book reads as much as a polemic as it does an academic work. Therefore, it has been written for an international audience. This is not to say that this book lacks comprehensive detail nor a sizeable scope of investigation, in fact it has attempted to take on many issues concurrently, however, the book reads more so as a justification of Israel’s state building project than it does an analytical assessment of Israel in international law.

To begin, the book is organized in six chapters, each focusing on one principle of the authors’ argument that Israel can be successfully considered as both Jewish and democratic. They begin with an overview of the 1947 United Nations’ Partition Plan and conclude that by using the precise definition of “Jewish state” in its decision, Israel’s foundation does not clash with the principles of liberal democracy (15). Second, they contest the premise that Zionism was and remains a colonialist phenomenon, mostly by explaining that Zionism had no official links to European powers, and that there is a strong degree of historic continuity between Zionism and historic Jewish nationalism (67, 76,79). Third, they discuss the connection between Herzl’s Zionism and international norms of liberal democracy, specifically the plan to treat all minorities in what would become Israel equally (91). Fourth, they argue that a state for Jews is one of self-determination and does not give Jews a dominant religious status or deny the right of religious minorities within Israel (97). Most importantly, in the fifth chapter the main argument is that the Law of Return in Israel is not a unique case and is inherently connected to the right to self-determination of the Jewish people (140). Finally, the last chapter examines the definition of a “neutral state” and the assumption that democratic nation-states must be neutral. It provides another comparative perspective and finds no unifying definition of neutrality as applied to these states. They argue that what is often meant by neutrality is “complete equality of civil rights” and posit that Israel fulfills this condition of democracy (188). Ultimately, their argument is based on concepts of statehood and nations states, and their main method of investigation relies on comparing these principles across the international system.

Despite the wide-ranging scope of this book, several valid points are raised throughout. The first point raised is that they have not attempted to unequivocally defend Israel, but repeatedly state that it has fallen short of guaranteeing civil rights of its minorities and Arabs generally. This is an important attribute of the book that provides it with credibility. Additionally, the authors raise the connection between nationalist diaspora movements (Armenian and the American Irish for example) and their relationships with the international community. They argue that Israel and American Jewry are not alone in having a politicized connection nor are they unique in the international scope of their relationship (81). Finally, their discussion of neutrality is a poignant one, in that they make a clear distinction between secularism (la laïcité) and the state protecting religious rights of all its citizens. These terms have come to be used interchangeably, with many academics and state policies confounding the right to religious expression with preserving the perceived neutrality of the state. Finally, its overarching strength has been its success in demonstrating how subjective the notion of democracy actually is – how Israel can be condemned for an action that is well received from a different state. In this sense, they have achieved their goal of demonstrating that Israel is not unique in many respects.

However, because the discussion is wide in scope and attempts to grapple with complex concepts their analysis is often left superfluous. This book has attempted to conclusively answer issues of minority rights, citizenship, nation-states, nationalism, self-determination, secession norms and the definition of liberal democracy in one book. It set out to do so in a normative legal standpoint, yet instead has convoluted case studies, theoretical frameworks, and historical examples without sufficiently describing any of these. Unfortunately, none of these discussions are given the proper weight and space to explore fully. Another issue is their theoretical framework, in which they state, “we intend to concentrate mainly on the practice, rather than the theory, of the contemporary liberal nation state,” yet fail to consistently do so throughout the book. This is the case in their examination of Herzl’s Zionism and not the application of Zionist policy under Israel as a state (5). Further, they confound issues of political practice, theory, and morality using them interchangeably to justify their conclusions. Additionally, the main empirical flaw is their inability to analytically counter current issues that pose a threat to Israel’s Jewish and democratic character. The rising popularity of annexation policies for the West Bank has been ignored, and the often-cited demographic threat of 1948 Palestinians brushed aside. Also, the use of the military to impose an occupation on Palestinians has been quoted as a side effect of war, as has been the refusal to grant a Palestinian right of return (156). Yet they offer no explanation for how the morality of war differs from that of peacetime nor do they qualify what war means.

Ultimately, Israel and the Family of Nations is an ambitious project that has sought to do too much without serious analytical rigour behind it. Although it successfully introduces the reader to the many issues at play in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and within Israeli domestic politics, it is not convincing in its demonstration that a Jewish and democratic state are fully compatible for the future of Israel.


Ania Gaboune

Ania Gaboune holds an MSc in International Relations of the Middle East with Arabic from the University of Edinburgh.

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