The Jewish State We Should Be Hoping For

What is a Jewish state? It is a state with a Jewish majority, which treats its minorities the way Diaspora Jews throughout the world demand to be treated. It is a state that is faithful to the historical experience of exilic Jewry – ending the exile but also remembering and learning from it. And finally, it is a state that provides a protected space within which every version of Jewishness and every kind of Jew can flourish.

In line with the Zionist commitment to “normality,” I want to argue that we need to put the question “What is a Jewish state?” alongside many others: What is a French state? A Japanese state? A Norwegian state? A Nigerian state? A Ukrainian state? An Egyptian state? An American state? – and so on until we reach 180 or so. All these questions have complicated answers, different but not entirely different answers, and our question should not be considered as if it is unique. Certainly, we have our own complications. One of them is the adjective “Jewish,” which describes both a people and a religion and invites confusion: is it a national or a religious state that we are talking about? Even there we can find similarities: English and Anglican are close, as are Greek and Greek Orthodox. Across international society, however, most peoples have their own name, and their religions have a different name, and the state takes its name and its political character from the name of the people. So, for normality’s sake again, the word Jewish in “the Jewish state” refers to the people, not to the religion. The relation of the two, Jewish to Jewish, people to creed, has to be determined just like the relation of Norwegian to Lutheran, Egyptian to Muslim, or American to Christian.

So Israel is, let’s say it tentatively, “the state of the Jewish people.” And since a significant number of the Jewish people are not religious, and since those who are religious are divided into several distinct denominations, the relation of state and religion is, as they say, “up for grabs” – a matter for political debate and decision. But before we talk about the politics of religion, we need to talk about the politics of peoplehood. How can Israel be “the state of the Jewish people” when Jews like me, members of the people but living in the Diaspora, are not citizens of the state and cannot vote in state elections? It’s not only that religion and state don’t hang together, people and state also don’t hang together – a condition that is true of other states with large diasporas, like Armenia, Lebanon, and Ukraine. Some Diaspora Jews are loyal to the Jewish state (though not in the same way that citizens are supposed to be), but the greater number by far are loyal to the states in which they live, where they are citizens and often actively engaged in local politics.

The Jewish state, however, is loyal to Diaspora Jewry, and this may be the most important way that it is a Jewish state. It is the critical agency, the only agency with sovereign power, that provides relief and rescue for Jews in trouble anywhere in the world. It isn’t the state of the Jewish people so much as it is the state for the Jewish people. Again, comparisons are useful: France is not the state of the French people; the Quebecois French are not part of it. But when Charles de Gaulle visited Montreal and shouted “Vive Quebec libre!” he was acting for the French people – or, at least, the French speaking people. He thought that was the appropriate role for the president of France (many people, Canadian and also French, disagreed). An Israeli leader who calls out antisemitism in some other country and urges state action against it is acting in a similar, and probably more appropriate, way. The Law of Return may be the key provision of a state that acts for the Jews, but taking people in is not the only thing that such a state can and should do; for many Diaspora Jews “return” is a last resort.


This stage of Jewish history is marked by two political formations: (1) state sovereignty and democratic citizenship in the Middle East; and (2) emancipation and democratic citizenship in (most of) the Diaspora. Each of these formations is a close continuation of Jewish history, but in very different ways. The emancipated Diaspora continues the history of exilic Jewry, though without its corporate organization: Diaspora Jews are no longer capable of autonomy or self-government; they are citizens of democratic states in which they make up a small minority. The State of Israel is the continuation of Jewish self-government but without the homogeneity, the all-Jewish character, of the exilic communities. The Jewish state includes a large minority of non-Jews, and it is responsible for the well-being of Jews and non-Jews alike: it is the state of and for all the men and women who vote in its elections.

The Jewish kingdoms of biblical times and the post-biblical Hasmonean principality must have included non-Jews or non-Israelites, but in those days there was no developed idea of state responsibility. Later on, in the exilic kehillot, there were no non-Jews and no need to worry about their well-being. For roughly two thousand years, Jews were never in a position where they had to make decisions about the life and welfare of non-Jews. Rather, non-Jews made critical decisions about the life and welfare of the Jews. In this sense, Israeli statehood represents a great reversal of the political character of Jewish history. The reversal isn’t simple, however, since in a democracy citizens make decisions together about their collective life and welfare. But the existence of a Jewish majority committed to a Jewish nation-state in which non-Jews are citizens – this is something entirely new.

Entirely new in Jewish history, but not entirely new: the world is full of nation-states with minority populations, and we judge these nation-states, in part, by the quality of life of the minorities. For Diaspora Jews, this is a very large part of the judgements we make. We ask: Are the members of minorities (like us) accorded all the rights that go with citizenship? Do they live free of repression and discrimination? I think of these as Jewish questions or, at least, Diaspora Jewish questions, and right now in the Jewish state, they don’t get Jewish answers. But Israel in its Declaration of Independence and its basic laws is committed to Jewish answers, that is, to full equality, and insofar as it treats, or when it comes to treat, its minorities the way Jewish minorities in the Diaspora demand to be treated, it might actually be called the state of the Jewish people. For then its practices would be in line with the aspirations of world Jewry.


Equal treatment is the obligation of the national majority in every nation-state. It is a Jewish obligation only so long as there is a Jewish majority in the State of Israel – a majority of citizens shaping, along with the others, the life of the state through democratic debate and decision. Absent a majority, without the authority and legitimacy that comes with majority rule in a democracy, there is no Jewish state, only a kind of diaspora community oddly located in the old homeland. Does this mean that democracy takes precedence over Jewishness? The question is badly posed. A Jewish majority is indeed the formal requirement of Jewish statehood. But the Zionist vision wasn’t a matter of demography alone: it encompassed a free people in its own space engaged not only in political self-determination but also in cultural, intellectual, artistic, and religious creation. And since the Jewish people are radically diverse, self-determination and creativity are only possible in a free and democratic political community. Any restraints on democratic freedom would actually deny Jewish statehood. Imagine a state that enforced religious orthodoxy – this would no longer be a Jewish state. You would need to add another adjective: an Orthodox Jewish state – which would exclude large parts of the Jewish people.

Or imagine Greater Israel as it might one day be if the logic of occupation takes precedence over the logic of separation: a Jewish minority ruling over a non-Jewish majority. This would not be a Jewish state; again, another adjective would be necessary: it would be an authoritarian Jewish state, and it would rapidly lose any Jewish distinctiveness. Authoritarian states are much alike: repressive and discriminatory laws, compliant courts, brutal police, overcrowded prisons, persecuted dissidents, outlawed political parties and movements. Zionism would not be saved if the secret police speak Hebrew.

I know that writers and artists have worked and prospered in feudal, monarchic, and oligarchic states and in non-democratic times – which make up, after all, most of human history. I know that Jewish philosophers and rabbis wrote important treatises and commentaries and sustained a legal tradition even when Jewish life was in every way radically constricted. But what Zionism envisioned was something more than this and different from it: a full political and cultural flowering, where every shade of opinion, every heretical idea, every mystical fantasy, every artistic tendency, every literary school, every ideological project, found full and free expression within a Jewish world – a world, remember, that had been opened up by emancipation-in-exile and in which a new mixed multitude of Jews now exists. The Jewish state has to take in all of this, and make room for all of it, if it is to be a Jewish state rather than the state of some Jews. And this is only possible, again, under conditions of democratic freedom.


In these conditions, what will be, or what should be, the relation of Jewish to Jewish, the people to the religion? Certainly, the two have been entangled throughout Jewish history and most deeply entangled in the centuries of exile. The medieval kahal was a Jewish polity in both senses of the word. Though the rabbis and the tovei ha-ir, the good men of the city, were distinct groups, they did not have distinct jurisdictions. Worldly and religious affairs were understood to be different, but religious law, interpreted and applied by the rabbis, was dominant everywhere, at least in principle. In order to separate the business of peoplehood from the business of religion, you need a political space more substantial, more secure, and more free than exilic Jewry possessed. To say this more directly: in order to separate state and religion, you need a state.

Separation has not won out in the Jewish state. Instead, a version of religious pluralism derived from the Ottoman millet system is legally established. This might be described as equality for religious establishments but not for religious denominations or individuals. For the Jewish majority, family law is religious law interpreted by Orthodox rabbis and imposed not only on willing but also on unwilling Jews. So far as this aspect of Jewish statehood is concerned, Conservative, Reform, and secular Jews are unrepresented, denied any legal presence. An inclusive Jewish state would have to allow many different versions of religious marriage and divorce and also a full civil law system. Then individual Jews and Muslims and Christians too – all the citizens – would be able to choose freely between distinct secular and religious jurisdictions.

This form of separation may be difficult to achieve, but it is easy to imagine; some version of it, with local variations, already exists in all the Western democracies. Other aspects of religious/political entanglement may be harder to disentangle, but I think that it is possible for non-Jews and secular Jews to live with them, so long as political equality and a non-discriminatory economy are secure. Consider, for example, the state calendar, which in pretty much all nation states reflects the history and religion of the national majority. Or, consider the symbols and expressions of political identity, like the flag and the national anthem, which are also, everywhere, the products of the majority culture. It is possible, however, with good will, to find symbolic and material ways to incorporate minority populations. I assume that a Jewish state need not be different in these regards; it should be what every nation-state should be.

Given its greater immediacy, I need to focus in a little more detail on the entanglements of Israel’s immigration and naturalization policies, whose religious exclusiveness is hotly contested, as it should be. The Law of Return is the key expression of the Jewish state’s commitment to Diaspora Jewry, but this isn’t a whole-hearted commitment: it applies only to halachic Jews, who meet Orthodox rabbinic requirements. Many Jews, I mean men and women who have only Jewish fathers; men and women converted by non-Orthodox rabbis; men and women who say, like Ruth in the Bible, “Your people shall be my people” but not, like Ruth, “Your God shall be my God”; and even men and women who have been persecuted as Jews, called Jews by the antisemites but not recognized as Jews by the supposedly philo-Semitic rabbis – all these are not invited to “return.” On the other hand, non-Jewish relatives of halachic Jews are taken in – and become the subjects of rabbinic anxiety and suspicion when they want to marry. It is a strange fact that the United States between 1880 and 1920, though it wasn’t exactly welcoming, was more ready to take in every possible kind of Jew than the Jewish state is today. The religious adjective gets in the way of the people adjective. And what about non-Jewish refugees, who look so much like the Jews of yesteryear – and more recent years, too? They are viewed with the same kind of fear and trembling, prejudice and anxiety, that Jews commonly met with in the years of exilic wandering.


So, what is Jewish state? It is a state with a Jewish majority, which treats its minorities the way Diaspora Jews throughout the world demand to be treated. It is a state that is faithful to the historical experience of exilic Jewry – ending the exile but also remembering and learning from it. And, finally, it is a state that provides a protected space within which every version of Jewishness and every kind of Jew can flourish. Is Israel, then, a Jewish state? Well, it’s somewhat Jewish, on the way, but not yet the Jewish state we should be hoping for.

Michael Walzer has taught at Princeton and Harvard, and worked for 40 years at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. He edited the political magazine Dissent from 1993 to 2014 and has written books on war, social justice, and nationalism.