Meeting at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva last month, a committee of independent experts called into question the Jewish character of the State of Israel…and hardly anyone noticed.

Analysis: On 15-16 May, the U.N. Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights met to evaluate the extent to which Israel was in compliance with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. As one of the 146 states parties to the International Covenant, Israel is obligated to submit periodic reports to the Committee on how it is implementing the provisions of the treaty. The Committee is formed by so-called independent experts from 18 different countries.

Committee members asked the Israeli delegation about a myriad of issues. They wanted to know about the impact of closures on the movement of people, passage at checkpoints for medical staff, and adequacy of water supplies in Palestinian communities. They requested data about the number of settlements in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and the country’s budget allocated to them. Experts asked about underdevelopment in the Arab sector, housing construction for Jews and non-Jews in Jerusalem, the number of houses demolished, and whether compensation was provided. They also wanted information regarding the protection of Islamic holy places and the rights of Arab-Israelis to preserve their cultural identity.

While this kind of query/criticism of Israel is not unusual at the U.N. or elsewhere, the questions concerning the very Jewish character of Israel that ensued were nothing but disquieting.

The Committee wondered how the concept of a Jewish country might deny the rights of other communities living in the country. Could Israel be both Jewish and Democratic? Experts asked. They stated that Israel’s Law of Return discriminated against Palestinians in the diaspora, making it almost impossible for them to return to their land of birth. Furthermore, the Committee suggested that the Law of Return should be placed on an equal footing with the Palestinians’ own right of return.

The Israeli delegation answered that the expression “Jewish State” resulted from a philosophical evolution of religious and secular connotations, and that the Jewish and democratic nature of the state implied tension between these two terms, but not necessarily a contradiction. Israel was a true representative democracy that guaranteed the enjoyment of rights by all of its citizens and residents, the delegation said. The delegates explained that the Law of Return was enacted in 1950, following the establishment of Israel in the aftermath of WWII, to give expression to three central elements of Jewish nationalism: the creation of a Jewish State in the Land of Israel, the ingathering of the Jewish exiles, and the preservation of a strong bond between the State and the Jewish diaspora.

Thus Israeli diplomats found themselves discussing core aspects of the Zionist ethos at the U.N.

The Israelis added that the Law of Return and the Nationality Law provide a right to Jews to immigrate to the country and automatically acquire Israeli nationality. They emphasized that non-Jews are not prevented from immigrating to Israel and can apply for citizenship. The delegation concluded that in this respect Israel is no different from most other States which granted preference concerning nationality to persons with certain ethnic, social, or cultural links to the State.

It seems that complex issues touching on the very essence of Jewish statehood are no longer the exclusive, parochial domain of Israeli thinkers, academics, and political and religious figures. Experts at U.N. Committees seem to feel at least equally passionate about them. We wonder, though, whether these Experts will ever show similar interest in the Islamic character of Saudi Arabia or the Catholic nature of Spain.

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