That is why the Israeli government is correct to insist that the Palestinian Authority publicly recognize Israel as the Jewish state. It is the critical litmus test. "Palestinian nationalism was based on driving all Israelis out," Edward Said told an interviewer in 1999, and the best evidence that most Palestinians are still intent on eliminating Israel is the vehemence with which even supposed "moderates" like Mahmoud Abbas will not -- or dare not -- acknowledge Israel's Jewishness as a legitimate fact of life. "What is a 'Jewish state?'" Abbas ranted on Palestinian TV. "You can call yourselves whatever you want, but I will not accept it. . . . You can call yourselves the Zionist Republic, the Hebrew, the National, the Socialist [Republic]. Call it whatever you like. I don't care."
There are those who argue that Israel cannot be both a Jewish state and a democracy. When Israel's parliament decided last week to require new non-Jewish citizens to take an oath of allegiance to Israel as a "Jewish and democratic" state, some people bristled. "The phrase itself is an oxymoron," one reader wrote to the Boston Globe. "How can a state openly favor one ethnic group over all others and declare itself to be democratic?"
But there is no conflict at all between Israel's Jewish identity and its democratic values. Indeed, the UN's 1947 partition resolution not only called for subdividing Palestine into "independent Arab and Jewish states," it explicitly required each of them to "draft a democratic constitution" and to elect a government "by universal suffrage and by secret ballot." The Jews complied. The Arabs launched a war.
Many of the world's democracies have official state religions. Think of Britain, whose monarch is the supreme governor of the Church of England; or of Greece, whose constitution singles out the Eastern Orthodox Church as the country's "prevailing religion." The linking of national character with religion is a commonplace. Israel stands out only because its religion is Judaism, not Christianity, Islam, or Hinduism.
Nor is democracy incompatible with ethnic or national distinctiveness. Ireland waives its usual citizenship requirements for applicants of Irish descent. Bulgaria's constitution grants the right to "acquire Bulgarian citizenship through a facilitated procedure" to any "person of Bulgarian origin." It is not oxymoronic to describe Ireland as "Irish and democratic" or Bulgaria as "Bulgarian and democratic." Israel's flourishing little Jewish democracy is no oxymoron either.
It is something different: a beacon of decency in a dangerous and hate-filled neighborhood. If the enemies of the Jewish state could only shed their malice, what an Eden that neighborhood could become.