The Mission of the Jewish State

what is Israel’s mission as a Jewish state? To provide Jews with security in their national home, to strengthen Jewish existence around the world while aspiring to bring Jews abroad to Israel, and to set an example for other nations by demonstrating how a moral Jewish state takes an intelligent and inventive approach to the challenges posed by the complex world in which we all live.

For me, as a son of olim, the Jewish state is a miracle – not a fact to be taken for granted.

I remember trips around the country in which my mother and my late father would gush over everything they saw: “What beautiful road!” “Look at that impressive factory!” “Soldiers in a Jewish state, who’d have believed it?!” “What a lovely stream!” (the Israeli “stream” in question would barely have been considered a brook in the States). This is the reason why the importance of Israel’s existence and continued strengthening is deeply ingrained in my consciousness. Over the years I’ve thought a great deal about the character of the state. I’ve asked myself what its mission is. Today, any commercial company or organization that takes itself seriously will draw up a mission statement of its own. What, then, is the State of Israel’s mission?

Binyamin Ze’ev Herzl, the visionary of the state, provided the answer to this question at the most basic level: he called it the “state of the Jews” – the state where Jews can live in security, without fear of the antisemitism that pursued them over two millennia of exile. Yet many of Zionism’s founding fathers, and certainly the founders of the state, David Ben-Gurion in particular, also saw Israel’s mission as one of restoring to the Jewish people the Israeli spirit, an ethos of heroism and initiative, after centuries of wretched life in the Diaspora that instilled in us a passive exilic mentality. The founding fathers saw Zionism as a tool by means of which the Jews would return to the heroism of our forefathers and foremothers, from Abraham, Gideon, Deborah and David to the Maccabees and Bar Kokhba. In a state of our own, we would cease to be dependent on the goodwill of this or that nobleman, whether in Poland or Spain, Morocco or Germany, Iraq or Russia.

These two goals – to establish a secure Jewish state and to restore the ethos of Jewish heroism to our people – were achieved by the Zionist movement in an impressive manner.

We have returned to our ancient tongue, Hebrew – itself a unique occurrence in the history of the world’s peoples; we have built an independent defensive force – the IDF, the Mossad, the Shabak – that is stronger than those of our enemies; we have rid ourselves of our galutiyut or exilic mentality; and heroes have arisen from among us who perpetuate the legacy of our forefathers and foremothers – as exemplified by Sarah Aaronson, Meir Har-Zion, and Emmanuel Moreno; and we have created an advanced, tech-based economy driven by the entrepreneurial impulse that surges within us.

But is this our only mission – to be a strong country where Jews live securely and an active and confident Israeli ethos holds sway? Anyone who knows our heritage knows that our mission is greater than that.

The State of Israel’s mission is to actualize in the real world – at the national level and at the political level – the values of Judaism.

What exactly does this mean? In order to understand, let’s first ask ourselves what makes Judaism, the Torah, unique among the world’s religions.

In my view, Judaism is, above all, a philosophy of life. That is, Judaism celebrates connection to living reality. For example, while other faiths call for detachment from the material world and from society, by living abstemiously in isolated places or through celibacy (as with Catholic priests), Judaism takes the opposite approach: it rejects monasticism, seclusion from the world, and asceticism. It applies its values to life. Overall, Judaism is concerned less with feeling than with action. That is an approach in which I strongly believe. The vast majority of mitzvot or religious commandments are concerned with what we should “do” or “not do”; they do not tell us what to “feel” or what “not to feel.” Over the years, I, too, have come to apply the following rule to myself and to my surroundings: Focus on the outcomes of our actions, and not on the lofty intentions that we had before those actions.

Judaism, then, focuses on action in the real world. It regulates such things as how we get up in the morning and how we eat; it mandates respect for others and their property, enjoins us from speaking ill of others, demands that we care for the weakest members of society, and stipulates our physical connection to Eretz Israel. When a Jew harms another, he cannot atone for this by praying to God. No! He must make amends to the victim himself, even if – or precisely because – the act of making amends is not very pleasant.

When the children of Israel were offered the Torah at Mount Sinai, their resounding response was: “We will do and we will hear” – in the words of our Sages: “After the actions, the emotions follow.” First we act, then we listen and understand. Judaism challenges us and demands of us that we conduct ourselves appropriately and morally within a real world of family, business, war, and interpersonal relations.

What is true at the personal level of each individual Jew is true at the national level of the Jewish state. The State of Israel is not a theoretical concept. It is a real state, located in a difficult and hostile environment, on land that is not abundant with resources; it must operate within a tough world that is very often hypocritical and cynical. Thus we, the Jewish people, situated in Eretz Israel, have to put the Jewish value system into practice in our national life within a difficult reality. A “light unto the nations,” as the prophet put it, and an am segula – a “treasured nation” – as God said to Moshe at Mount Sinai. Rav Kook, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, and David Ben-Gurion also embraced this worldview as the nation’s supreme mission.

In my capacity as Prime Minister of Israel, I further distilled this mission for myself: Israel’s mission is structured like Maslow’s hierarchy, that is, only when one layer has been established can we proceed to the next.

At the base of the pyramid is a strong and secure Jewish state capable of defending itself on its own. The state rests on economic, military, technological, social, political, and ethical foundations. Without these foundations, we have nothing.

The next layer is the relationship with the entire Jewish people in all its dispersions. The ideal: ingathering of the exiles – bringing all Jews home to us. The reality: understanding that many Jews will continue to live elsewhere in the world, and that we have an obligation to strengthen our relationship with them while also reinforcing their connection to Judaism and to Israel.

At the top of the pyramid: once we’ve ensured our existence and our strength, and once we’ve seen to our relationship with our Jewish brothers and sisters around the world, we can aspire to be a “light unto the nations.” Israel is a kind of ethical and physical model showing the world how a nation guided by Jewish morality should conduct itself in the face of real-world challenges.

There can be no doubt that our geographical location has presented us with a set of unusually weighty challenges. It’s much easier, under the neon lights of Norway, San Francisco, or Brussels, to discuss how counterterrorism should be conducted and to click one’s tongue over Israel’s actions vis-à-vis Hamas. For us, it’s not a theoretical exercise. It’s our daily routine.

Here are a few examples: How does a desert country without water manage to exist in so dry an environment? How does so tiny a country absorb Jewish refugees from dozens of places of dispersion that differ so widely from each other? On what should Israel’s economy be based – capitalism? Socialism?

For many years I experienced these challenges personally, on a practical, everyday level, as the commander of a combat unit, as the CEO of a commercial firm, as Minister of Economy, as Minister of Education, and as Minister of Defense. I was privileged to serve the state as Prime Minister of Israel for a little over a year, during one of the most difficult periods the country has endured. I discovered, at the day-to-day level, that many people around the world observe Israel and try to understand how we cope with these myriad challenges.

One small example of how Israel manages its affairs: during the COVID-19 pandemic’s Delta wave, as the number of those infected grew, I faced a difficult dilemma: how to provide Israelis with a third immunization or booster when the FDA had yet to approve the booster in the US. I took into account all of the considerations I could think of – at the individual level, pertaining to each citizen, and at the national level, pertaining to the country’s economy and political functioning. Only after verifying that the drug was completely safe did I make the decision that no other country’s leader had made: to go for it! From that moment, my phone never stopped ringing. Leaders from across the globe consulted with me on this specific matter – but also on the best way of managing the campaign.

An Israeli prime minister has to make dozens, or even hundreds, of very difficult decisions. How should we deal with asymmetrical terrorism, in which our enemies fire on our citizens from schools and hospitals? In my view, non-response in such situations is itself the immoral act. True morality says that you have to protect your citizens first. Turning the other cheek – a moral precept of other religions – is in my view obviously immoral.

How do we handle the situation in the Gaza Strip so that the residents of southern Israel can enjoy sustainable security and peace of mind? To ensure security, we forged a new path in this case. For the first time in years, an Israeli prime minister – I myself – decided to allow thousands of workers to enter Israel from Gaza each day. This put pressure on Hamas to exercise restraint in its behavior toward us. At the same time, I decided that that we wouldn’t tolerate so much as “one more arson balloon!” And for the first time we responded harshly to all breaches in that area by the other side, however minor. The outcome was a period of greater quiet and security than the children of Sderot and the residents of the Gaza Envelope had ever experienced.

How do we cope with a situation where there is a large Arab minority, many of whom want to integrate in Israeli society, while another subgroup within that minority sees Israel as an enemy to be eliminated? What is the right balance between individual rights and the national interest, when the two clash? What is the right course of action vis-à-vis two million Palestinians in Judea and Samaria whose lives we have no interest in controlling, when, however, we oppose the establishment of a Palestinian state in the middle of our land? When an international confrontation such as the war in Ukraine takes places, how should we decide between Israeli’s security interests and the majority view among Israelis, i.e., opposition to the Russian aggression?

What is Israel’s role in the struggle to ensure the planet’s future in the face of global warming? The American businessman and philanthropist Bill Gates spoke with me about this, conveying his unequivocal opinion: that the world will need technologies that have yet to be invented if we are to win this battle, and that the world needs Israel to lead in the development of such technologies. You, Israel, he said, have a crucial and central role to play!

In my view, Israel is coping well with many of the aforementioned challenges, but we have yet to determine the path we need to take in order to achieve optimal results, and this task, it seems, will never be fully accomplished.

That being the case, what is Israel’s mission as a Jewish state?

My answer: To provide Jews with security in their national home, to strengthen Jewish existence around the world while aspiring to bring Jews abroad to Israel, and to set an example for other nations by demonstrating how a moral Jewish state takes an intelligent and inventive approach to the challenges posed by the complex world in which we all live.

I believe that we, the Jewish people, have been faced with these challenges because we are prepared to contend with them, and capable of doing so. And this being so, we have the ability to pave the way for the other nations of the world.

Naftali Bennett served as the State of Israel’s 13th prime minister in 2021-2022.