WASHINGTON – Eleven years ago, I carried my infant daughter into a synagogue basement and plunged her tiny body, head to toe, underwater.
She emerged sputtering and coughing, then wailing, and the procedure, immersion in a Jewish ritual bath called mikvah, felt barbaric. But it was for an important reason: Her mother isn’t Jewish, and by Jewish custom – and Israeli law – the faith is passed on by matrilineal descent, so I converted my daughter. Making sure she is Jewish in the eyes of the Jewish state gives me peace of mind. If the Gestapo ever comes again, she and her descendants will have a place to go.
Such a threat seems unimaginable now. There probably never has been a better time or place to be a Jew than in 21st-century America. Yet there remains a deep sense of anxiety – some might say paranoia – hard-wired into Jews by centuries of persecution.
Israel, the Jewish state, is the antidote to this fear. The Law of Return, enacted by David Ben-Gurion’s government in 1950, guarantees Israeli citizenship to all Jews who move to Israel. This was meant to guarantee that Israel would remain Jewish (Palestinians, controversially, are not granted this right). But it also meant that, after the Holocaust, and thousands of years of wandering, there was finally a place to which all Jews could go, and defend ourselves, if nowhere else was safe.
This is why Benjamin Netanyahu’s actions on the eve of last week’s Israeli elections were so monstrous. In a successful bid to take votes from far-right parties, the prime minister vowed that there would be no Palestinian state as long as he’s in charge.
Netanyahu backed off that position after the election, assuring American outlets NBC, NPR and Fox News on Thursday that he still backs a two-state solution, in theory. His backtracking seemed nominal and insincere but even that gesture is reassuring, for abandoning the idea of a Palestinian state will destroy the Jewish state just as surely, if not as swiftly, as an Iranian nuclear bomb.
This is not a matter of ideology but of arithmetic. Without a Palestinian state, Israel can be either a Jewish state or a democracy, but not both. If it annexes the Palestinian territories and remains democratic, it will be roughly evenly split between Jews and Arabs; if it annexes the territories and suppresses the rights of Arabs, it ceases to be democratic.
There are roughly 4.4 million Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, and another 1.4 million living inside Israel. That puts them in rough parity with Jews, who number just over 6 million. Higher Palestinian population growth and fertility rates indicate Jews will be a minority between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean in a few years.
Some right-wing outfits contest these numbers and try to make the dubious case that Israel can annex the Palestinian territories and still survive as a democratic Jewish state. Those were the type of voters Netanyahu was fishing for when he said he would not allow a Palestinian state – and when he warned on Election Day that “Arab voters are coming out in droves.” But in the end there can be no democratic Jewish state unless there is also a Palestinian state.
My friend Jeffrey Goldberg, in a powerful new article in The Atlantic on the tenuous future of Europe’s Jews, recalled an event he attended in the fall with American Jewish leaders at Vice President Biden’s residence. Biden, Goldberg recalled, told the story of a long-ago visit with Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, who told him that Israel’s “secret weapon” was that the Jews “have no place else to go.”
“Folks,” Goldberg quoted Biden as saying to the American Jews, “there is no place else to go, and you understand that in your bones. You understand in your bones that no matter how hospitable, no matter how consequential, no matter how engaged, no matter how deeply involved you are in the United States … there’s only one guarantee. There is really only one absolute guarantee, and that’s the state of Israel.”
Goldberg thought Biden had “antiquated notions about Jewish anxiety.” And it’s true that Jews are safe and happy in the United States today – but that could change. This is why I plunged my baby in the mikvah. And this is why I was appalled by Netanyahu’s disavowal of a two-state solution.
Without two states, there won’t be even one Jewish state if – God forbid – my daughter or her progeny someday have no place else to go.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.