Israel is the State of the Jewish People – Not a Jewish State

Israel is the national manifestation of our current Jewish civilization – though not its only manifestation. To characterize Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people is to recognize its diversity as well as its commonality.

Several years ago, I attended a small diner party with Mahmoud Abbas and Saeb Erekat. The subject under discussion was the prospect for a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Abbas said he could never recognize Israel as a “Jewish state” because that would undercut the status of Islam in Israel as well as of Israeli Arabs and Palestinian refugees. I asked him whether he could accept Israel as “the nation state of the Jewish people.” He smiled and said, “perhaps someday.” Erekat was not happy. I told him that Israeli leaders were using the latter term more frequently.

The difference between the two formulations may be subtle but it is important. A Jewish state – like a Muslim or Christian state – has a religious connotation. The nation state of the Jewish people is more descriptive of peoplehood. The majority of Israelis, like the majority of Jews around the world, do not define their Jewishness in strictly religious terms. Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan aptly described Judaism as a civilization. To be sure it is a civilization whose origins are rooted in religion. Back in the days of the Torah and prophets, there was scant separation between religion and the civilization in which it was practiced. Religion, broadly defined, determined lifestyle, culture, and most other aspects of the civilization. Today the Jewish civilization is broader and more encompassing than the Jewish religion.

Israel is the national manifestation of our current Jewish civilization – though not its only manifestation. To characterize Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people is to recognize its diversity as well as its commonality. Just as the Jewish people are diverse – religiously, ethnically, ideologically, politically, biologically, sexually, and in so many other ways – so too is its nation state. The Israeli people are comprised of secular and religious Zionists, Haredim, Ashkenazim, Sephardim, peaceniks, militarists, anti-Zionists, socialists, capitalists, anti-religious activists and many other “ists.” Their geographic roots traverse the planet. And this is only its Jewish population. Its Arab citizens are diverse as well, including Sunni and Shia Muslims, Christians, Druse, and others. Its Russian and Ukrainian speaking populations include a large number of Christians, both Catholic and Eastern Orthodox. Its Ethiopian citizens are not only different racially but culturally as well. And an increasing number of Israelis are of mixed heritage.

Despite, or perhaps because of these differences, Israel remains the nation state of the Jewish people not only as a result of its secular Zionist origin and Jewish symbols, but because a large majority of its people identify with the Jewish civilization in all of its marvelous, if challenging diversity.

The modern founder of Zionism, Theodore Herzl, named his great book The Jewish State (Der Judenstaat), but its content and his other writings are more consistent with the concept of a nation state of the Jewish people. He lived and wrote at a time of growing nationalism (as well as colonialism), but also at a time of decreasing religious influence. He saw his Jewish state as a national project, not a religious one. He sought to limit the role of religious functionaries and of religion in matters of state and governance. Israel’s founding fathers and mothers were secular nationalists whose Jewishness was based less on the Jewish religion than on its peoplehood. The establishment of Israel went beyond its necessary function as a reaction to antisemitism, especially the unwillingness or inability of Europe to deal with “the Jewish question.” This “negative” Zionism played an important role in the thinking of Herzl and the early Zionists. Although antisemitism was an important impetus for moving Jews from Europe to what would become the Jewish state, Zionism soon took a more positive nation-building focus. The Shoah and the events leading up to that immense tragedy succeeded in moving large elements of Europe’s Jewish population to Palestine and then Israel. And the Arab and Muslim world’s reaction to the establishment of Israel played a dominant role in moving Sephardic Jews from North Africa and elsewhere in the Middle East to Israel.

None of these important developments were focused as much on the Jewish religion as on the Jewish civilization and peoplehood. Earlier on in history, the focus of hatred against the Jews was based on Christian theological opposition to the Jewish religion (and to a lesser degree on Muslim theological considerations) but by the end of the 19th century, especially with the growth of nationalism, the focus shifted to hatred of the Jewish civilization and peoplehood. That was the historical context that gave rise to political Zionism, the establishment of Israel, and the Aliah of much of its Jewish population.

Today more than ever, Israel is the state of the Jewish people more than it is a Jewish state. Its connections with the Jewish religion have been fraught from the beginning and are now more controversial than ever. There is no consensus about the role or even the nature of the Jewish religion – or more realistically religions. Some Israelis – a small minority – want Israel to be a Jewish nation that is a theocracy based on Halacha. Even within that group there is much disagreement. There are halachot (roads), not Halacha (one single road defined by an agreed upon authority like the Pope). There are Modern Orthodox Jews of both Ashkenazi and Sephardic backgrounds that observe somewhat differently. There are Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist Jews. There are atheist, agnostic, and simply secular Jews who don’t identify with the Jewish religion at all.

To “establish” one type of Judaism as the “official” religion of Israel would be to impose it on unwilling dissenters. Even to establish “Judaism,” without further specification or definition, would create more problems than it solves. The flag, whose design derives from a prayer-shawl (tallit), and the national anthem, which refers to the Jewish soul, are generally unifying symbols, but among some even those symbols are divisive. I own a wonderful handwritten letter dated October 1963 from David Ben-Gurion to David Snir, in which Israel’s first prime minister muses about the complex role of religion in a Jewish state:

“There is no doubt the feelings of a religious man are to be respected, but religious people must respect the freedom of choice of a fellow man and no coercion is to be exercised for or against religious conduct.”

Striking an appropriate balance has been a daunting work in progress. Changing Israel’s “subtitle” from “Jewish state” to “state of the Jewish people” will recognize the diversity of its Jewish population and will be a step, perhaps only a small one, in a positive direction. So would changing the English translation of medinat leumi from “nation state” to “state.” The word “state” is more appropriate to a sovereign country boasting a total population of nearly 10 million, which is larger than many other countries that are referred to as states or countries, including several European countries. On its 75th birthday Israel should be promoted from nation state to “state of the Jewish people”!

But what about the approximately 20 percent of Israel that is not Jewish in any way – Arabs, Muslims, Christians, and others? Israel’s Declaration of Independence promised to “uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of race, creed, or sex ….” Its basic laws declare Israel to be “a Jewish and democratic state.”

So, the eternal and essentially unanswerable questions remain: Can all Israeli citizens really have full equality in a nation of the Jewish people? Are they destined to be second class citizens despite the parchment promises and generous guarantees? Variations on these questions have impacted “wondering” Jews since the Jewish people were essentially expelled from their original homeland – biblical Eretz Yisrael. Since that time, Jewish residents and citizens of other countries have sought equality in the nations of other peoples: Russian, Polish, Moroccan, English. Even in America, which is not a nation of any particular “people,” the promise of full equality has still not been completely fulfilled. President George Washington wrote to the Jews of Newport Rhode Island:

“All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”

This was a monumental break with England, which only 37 years earlier had enacted, and then quickly rescinded, the “Jew Law” that had permitted those of the Jewish faith to serve in government.

Yet there has never been Jewish president, chief justice, speaker of the house or even vice president (Joe Lieberman came close and the current majority leader of the senate is Jewish). in my book Chutzpah, written in 1990, I demanded that we not be treated, or treat ourselves, as “guests” in another people’s nation:

“This book reflects my concern that despite the unmistakable contributions of Jews to the American success story, we seem willing to accept less than first-class status. We still seem fearful of offending the “real” Americans – in the face of the reality that we are no longer guests in someone else’s America. Jews are still regarded as pariahs in many other parts of the world, and Israel remains an outcast nation within much of the third world. It is for these reasons, among others, that American Jews must insist on first-class treatment, as Americans and Jews. We must not accept the status of second-class Americans, just because we are Jewish rather than Protestant or Catholic.”

We have come a long way since Jews were discriminated against by Wall Street law firms in the early 1960s. So have Diaspora Jews in other nations. But we and they have not achieved full equality in every sense of that ultimately undefinable term. Even in Israel, full equality has not been achieved by all Jews, and certainly not for all non-Jews.

Full equality in the terms of Martin Luther King – all people judged by their quality, not their identity – will always be more of an aspiration than a reality. The Torah commands judges not to recognize faces (lo takir panim), hence the blindfold on the Lady Justice statue. But every society peeks under the blindfold and puts thumbs on the scales of justice. Nations should be judged by the sincere efforts they make to move closer to justice. There are too many variables at play – especially the heterogeneity of the populations – to judge only by results. As in Olympic diving, those making the judgment must consider the difficulty of the task. It is far easier to achieve equality in Iceland or Norway than in Israel or the United States. Judged by its standard of difficulty, Israel has done quite well in it 75 years and with its history and challenges. But there is much left to accomplish.

One step in the right direction would be for Israel to commemorate its 75 remarkable years as a sovereign state by formally changing its subtitle from “The Jewish State” (despite Herzl and the Declaration of Independence) to “The State of the Jewish People.”

Professor Alan Dershowitz, an American-Jewish legal scholar, is Professor Emeritus at Harvard Law School.