A Jewish, Democratic, and Multicultural State

When we speak of Israel as a “Jewish state,” we must remember that it also has to be a liberal democracy, if only in order to provide the appropriate protections to its resident Arab minority.

Every people is entitled to self-determination in the form of a nation-state. There is a Jewish people. Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, and the people self-determines itself there. However, Zionism is an unusual national movement. It emerged outside of the national territory. When the Jewish people returned to Eretz Israel, the land was already populated. Moreover, during the first half of the 20th century Arabs immigrated to Eretz Israel from various parts of the Middle East. Consequently, a fifth of the citizens of today’s Israel belong to the Arab national minority, which is quite a large national minority, while millions of Palestinians live in the territories administered by Israel since 1967.

Some view democracy mainly as a procedure for creating the political decision-making mechanisms of states. But democracy is much more than a procedure. Because political proceedings may result in majority and minority groups, we cannot sever the “liberal democracy” pairing; a democracy that is not liberal is one in which the majority groups will trample the rights of the minority groups. The term “liberal” is thus meant to equip the minority with mechanisms for safeguarding its rights, i.e., recognition of liberal rights and the functioning of a constitutional court to defend those rights – all the more so when the minority in question is a “permanent” one such as the Arab national minority living in Israel. Therefore, when we speak of Israel as a “Jewish state,” we must remember that it also has to be a liberal democracy, if only in order to provide the appropriate protections to its resident Arab minority.

Because Israel must continue to be the nation-state of the Jewish people, the laws regarding immigration to it and naturalization in it, which give preference to Jews over Arabs, need to remain in place. Furthermore, the public realm in those parts of the country that are inhabited mainly by Jews should bear a Jewish character, e.g., national and religious holidays should be observed in accordance with the Hebrew calendar, and signage should be primarily in Hebrew.

Since the enactment of the two Basic Laws of 1992 – Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty, and Basic Law: Freedom of Occupation – the “Jewish and democratic state” formula has become a kind of official definition for Israel. But this formula, important as it is, is deficient in that it does not reflect the existence of the Arab national minority among the state’s citizens.[1] For this reason, the legal scholar Amnon Rubinstein and the historian Alexander Yakobson, as well as the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, have proposed that the state’s definition give expression to the fact that some of its citizens belong to the Arab national minority (Yakobson and Rubinstein, 2003, 195, 212, 351). I have proposed that Israel define itself as “a Jewish, democratic and multicultural state” or, alternatively, as “a Jewish and democratic state, with an Arab national minority” (Mautner, 2008, 362). In Yakobson’s words, “The aspiration should be that, in the state that actualizes the Jewish people’s right to independence, there be no citizens who feel that the state is not their state” (Yakobson, 2012, 713).

The “Jewish and democratic state” formula creates the impression that the “Jewish” component of the state’s definition has equal weight to that of the “democratic” – that is, the liberal – component. This conception indeed arises from a dispute on the issue between Justice Aharon Barak and Justice Menachem Elon after the two Basic Laws of 1992 were passed. And yet this conception of the status of the two components of the state’s definition is misleading. Because Israel is committed to realizing the national vision of the Jewish people, the actual situation is that the dominant element in Israeli life is the “Jewish” one, namely, the element of Jewish nationalism that is interwoven with Jewish religiosity in a mutually-reinforcing manner. By contrast, the “democratic” component, i.e., the state’s liberal component, can find expression only to the degree that the “Jewish” component is willing to tolerate it and make room for it. In other words: Jewish nationalism is the fundamental paradigm of Israeli existence, while the status of the liberal element in the life of the state is secondary and residual. This conclusion can readily be drawn from a long list of Supreme Court rulings concerning Israel’s actions in the territories. The Court has broadly authorized the state’s security actions in the territories (such as demolishing and sealing houses) and has consistently prevented any accommodation to those who refuse to serve in the territories on the grounds of conscientious objection. And not only that, despite the commonly held view that international law regards the settlements in the territories as illegal, the Court has consistently rejected all attempts to cause it to rule on the legality of the settlements. Had the Court done otherwise, it would have been forced to oppose the main project of Jewish nationalism over the past few decades, namely the continued retention of the territories and the strengthening and expansion of the settlement enterprise in them.

Israel does not have one specific form of Jewish existence; the modes of Jewish life are diverse. Gershom Scholem wrote that over the course of history there was no single, essentialist manifestation of Judaism, but rather different forms of Jewish existence (see Scholem, 1982, vol. 1, 29-30). And Moshe Halbertal has written that Jewishness is “a broadening of the category of family, and, as Wittgenstein maintains, there is only a familial likeness between relatives, not a singular essence of which they are different manifestations.” Halbertal adds: “The current historical manifestations of Jewishness do not facilitate an essentialist and uniform synthesis”. (Halbertal, 2002, 246-247). If we add to this reality of Jewish pluralism the fact of an Arab national minority in the state, then we can understand how important it is to safeguard liberal values in the State of Israel.

Liberalism’s point of departure is that of a multiplicity of goodness, i.e., an abundance of possible ways of life, and it works to ensure the continued existence of these ways of life. In fact, elements of multicultural thinking, an offshoot of liberalism, should be incorporated into Israeli liberalism, instilling in Israelis an understanding of the need to treat different cultures with respect. Such respect is entailed by the foundational role that cultures play in people’s lives, and by a recognition of the need to display tolerance toward cultures, of the incompleteness of cultures, and of the potential for enrichment embodied by the multicultural condition. As part of its multicultural approach, the state should adopt the principle of decentralization in a way that will allow different groups to live in accordance with their cultures at the sub-state level (e.g., the municipal level). Unfortunately, the “culture war” that marked Jewish life since the rise of Jewish Enlightenment (the Haskalah) in late-18th-century Berlin reignited at high intensity in 1970s Israel. Not only that, but one side in this war, the religious side, is only partly committed, and sometimes is not committed at all, to the values of liberalism and multiculturalism.

Zionism, like any other nationalist movement, aimed to unite (1) a group of people with a common bond of ethnicity, historical memory, language, culture, and religion (2) in the group’s historical territory (3) for the purpose of achieving political sovereignty in that territory. During the first half of the 20th century, Jewish nationalism – Zionism – featured two additional components: (4) the ideal of building a model society (“a light unto the nations”), that is, a society based on social justice, personal responsibility, and non-exploitation of the other; and (5) the elevation of man – Zionism aspired to create people who develop their intellectual and spiritual abilities, display responsibility toward the collective, and are prepared to contribute and to sacrifice for the general good.

Over the decades since the Six-Day War, the internal components of Jewish nationalism have changed. The Jewish political-sovereignty component has been realized, while those of building a new society and the elevation of man have atrophied (among other things, because neoliberalism has become the prevailing economic-social-political ideology among the group I refer to as “the liberal former hegemons”). The territorial component has thus become dominant and taken over Jewish nationalism. Over the five-and-a-half decades since the Six-Day War, the objective of continued territorial control in Judea and Samaria and the strengthening and expansion of the settlement project there has become the central objective of Jewish nationalism.

And yet the occupation regime is diametrically opposed to the main values of liberalism, as it subjugates human beings to military authority, deprives them of their political rights (i.e., the ability to engage in a political process whereby they determine the regime that will govern them based on their preferences and on their repeated choices), and denies them fundamental liberal rights. Moreover, the actions of settler activists in the territories are driven by three main religious theologies: the messianic theology of Rav Avraham Yitzhak HaKohen Kook and his son Rav Zvi Yehuda HaKohen Kook, according to which continued control over Judea and Samaria is the supreme religious imperative, so that not even one inch of the territory may be relinquished; the theology of Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh, according to which the present state institutions should be replaced by institutions based on halacha, to be headed by the “King Messiah,” and no non-Jew should be allowed to live in Eretz Israel; and the theology of Rabbi Meir Kahane, which also holds that no Gentile should be permitted to live in Eretz Israel. The first theology guided the actions of Gush Emunim, while the second and third theologies direct those of the “Hilltop Youth” (Noar Ha-Gvaot). Just as Gush Emunim received logistical aid from the state institutions, and even military and police protection, so do the Hilltop Youth. Much of the state’s agenda, and much of its Jewish character, are thus determined in the territories by groups of activist settlers working under the inspiration of religious theologies – one of which is messianic, one of which is messianic and extremist, and one of which is racist and violent.

The occupation is also undermining the continued existence of liberalism in Israel, as opposition to it is sparking a backlash by state political authorities and civil-society organizations. The aim of this backlash is to undermine human rights organizations, freedom of expression, artistic freedom, academic freedom, artists, as well as restriction of the freedom of action of journalists, Arab Knesset members, and the Supreme Court. Furthermore, the occupation exposes Jewish nationalism to the accusation that what one sees in the occupation existed in Jewish nationalism from the outset, i.e., that Jewish nationalism was not an enterprise motivated by the just aim of relieving a people from persecution, but rather a colonialist settlement project aimed at the taking over of an already-populated territory and excluding its indigenous population from it. In other words, the occupation portrays the Zionist enterprise from its outset as unjust. If Jewish nationalism does not change – if it persists in its current territory-centric form characterized by occupation and settlement – it will continue to erode the principles of Israeli liberalism and undermine the continued existence of Israel’s current regime.

Israeli liberals should therefore strive first and foremost to alter the present internal balance between the components of Jewish nationalism. They must act to nullify the territorial component that has dominated Jewish nationalism for over five decades. In short, they must work toward a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian people’s political representatives that would bring an end to the occupation. At the same time, Israeli liberals should work to ensure that Jewish nationalism revives its former ideals of building a model society and the elevation of man – two ideals which have atrophied in recent decades.

The state should cultivate a “high” strata of its national culture, i.e., the artistic creation generated within the bounds of the national culture (e.g., literature, theater, cinema, music, and dance). The state should also cultivate the national language and the national historical memory. Likewise, the state should work to preserve and disseminate the finest artistic and cultural works produced by the daughters and sons of the nation over the centuries (writers, poets, playwrights, painters, musicians/composers, architects, philosophers, halachists and theologians who reached great heights in their fields of endeavor). The state should not pursue such efforts based on the idea that the heritage artifacts of its national culture are loftier than those of any other culture. That is a mistaken approach. As Charles Taylor (2003, 51-52) has written, one can find in any culture elements worthy of admiration and respect alongside elements that merit abhorrence and rejection. The state must nurture the national cultural heritage because the artifacts of that heritage are almost always dear to the people immersed in it: In other words, people simply love the heritage artifacts of their culture. However, the state also needs to make accessible to its citizens the artistic and cultural treasures created outside of the national culture. It must do this by, for instance, supporting the translation of foreign literature into the national language, bringing plastic arts exhibitions to the country, and encouraging orchestras and theatrical and dance troupes to perform abroad.

It is true that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, but this does not mean that the state institutions should deal solely with the development, cultivation, and dissemination of the Jewish national culture. Rather, it should engage in similar processes with regard to Arab national culture. As Ruth Gavison noted: “Education in the Arab sector […] should not only allow reinforcement of the students’ Arab identity, it should encourage it. It should aim to increase the self-confidence of Israeli Arabs and ease their fear that living in a Jewish state could weaken their connection to their heritage and their people.” Gavison also wrote: “It should be emphasized that recognition of Israeli Arabs’ national-cultural rights does not constitute a renunciation of the state’s Jewish distinctiveness. Israel’s Arab citizens are a minority, and in a democratic country they are entitled to have their rights safeguarded, but not to full realization of their preferences” (Gavison, 2001, 44).

In light of the above, it is important that the state reinforce the Israeliness component – the identity element shared by all citizens, both Jewish and Arab – with regard to the ways in which citizens perceive themselves and each other. The state must relate to its citizens first and foremost on the basis of that shared identity component, or at least recognize the existence of that component alongside other elements. Because every person has ten or so main identity characteristics (such as national affiliation, religious affiliation, gender identity, age, occupation, etc.), there is no problem with the “Israeli” identity component being added to the “Jewish” or “Arab” identity components.

The state should also develop a liberal republican outlook that will emphasize the common good of all of its citizens, regardless of their national affiliation, Jews and Arabs alike. It is true that Israel’s Arab citizens cannot share in the national common good of its Jewish citizens, but there are other types of common good that are shared by all citizens of the state, both Jews and Arabs, such as economic and cultural flourishing, personal security, a reduction in traffic accidents, civil rights, reduced corruption, a fair and professional bureaucracy, and environmental protection. As part of this, the state should instill in all of its citizens loyalty to its liberal-democratic political system, political culture, and legal system, while also cultivating Israeliness as the shared identity of all citizens of the state.


Gavison, Ruth (2001). “Zionism in Israel? In the Wake of the Ka’adan Ruling.” Mishpat Umimshal [Law and Government] 6(1), 25-51. (In Hebrew)

Halbertal, Moshe (2002). “Who Is a Jew?” in Avi Sagi and Nahem Ilan (eds.). Jewish Culture in the Eye of the Storm: A Jubilee Book in Honor of Yosef Ahituv (pp. 233-247). Hakibbutz Hameuchad and the Yaacov Herzog Center for Jewish Studies. (In Hebrew)

Taylor, Charles (1992). Multiculturalism and “The Politics of Recognition”, Princeton University Press.

Yakobson, Alexander (2012). “Zionism and Multiculturalism.” Mishpat v’Asakim [Law and Business], 14, 677-721. (In Hebrew)

Yakobson, Alexander, and Amnon Rubinstein (2003). Israel and the Family of Nations: The Jewish Nation-State and Human Rights. Schocken.

Mautner, Menachem (2008). Law and Culture in Israel at the Threshold of the Twenty-First Century. Am Oved. (In Hebrew)

Scholem, Gershom (1982). Explications and Implications. Am Oved.

Professor Menachem Mautner is Professor Emeritus in Tel Aviv University’s Faculty of Law.

[1] Culture studies and identity politics illuminate the degree to which cultural categories shape people’s everyday lives, and the degree to which exclusionary categories have the power to harm people, for instance by limiting their life options or by blocking their access to material resources.