The State of the Jewish People, Substantive Democracy and the Republic of All Its Citizens

the state of the Jews will not enjoy stability or peace without also becoming the state of all its citizens as well; not as a substitute for, or an evasion of, Israel’s national-Jewish character, and not as a renunciation of Judaism’s important and inspirational presence in Israeli culture and in the Israeli public realm, but as a shared sphere of civic activity for the public good of Jews and non-Jews in Israel.

The State of Israel is a fact, and there is no need to justify its existence. I will go even further and say that Israeli citizens should never be required to justify the state’s existence, certainly not in a world where most states are the product of historical forces devoid of any moral dimension; and certainly not to those who question Israel’s right to exist, be it out of hypocrisy, discrimination, or the hatred of Jews.

But among ourselves, Israeli citizens, and within the discourse that exists here, it is permissible and fitting to express an ethical outlook on the desired character of the state. Here is my view: The State of the Jews certainly deserves to exist, but only if it is a substantively democratic state and a republic of all its citizens.

My discussion begins with the sad observation that the phrase “Jewish and democratic state” is a total failure.

Why so? “Jewish and democratic” is a well-intended formula, reflecting the spirit of Israel’s Declaration of Independence. The Declaration itself is fundamentally democratic, despite the absence of the word “democracy” from the final text (it did appeared in an early draft). Perhaps David Ben-Gurion, for all that he was a devoted disciple of Pericles, did not wish to introduce a Greek word into a proclamation of Jewish sovereignty. The Declaration is steeped in national-Jewish and liberal-humanistic spirit and affirms the rights of all citizens of the nascent state, as well as the state’s Jewish character.

However, the shorthand term “Jewish and democratic,” which purports to be consistent with the spirit of the Declaration, has divested the relevant discourse of its complexity. It has also readily played, and still readily plays, into the hands of extremists and manipulators. A specter of ignorance and oversimplification is haunting Israel. It seems that most Israelis alive today associate “Judaism” mainly with Orthodox belief and the rabbinical establishment, while identifying “democracy” with simple majority rule that tramples minorities.

Both of these conceptual errors are rapidly undermining the foundations of Israel’s Declaration of Independence and the intentions of the state’s founders. The errors evolved from our political system’s lack of a civil discourse worthy of the name, and from the resounding failure of our education system, which is sectorial and includes non-liberal and anti-liberal elements. Over the three decades since the “Jewish and democratic state” formula gained currency, it has not produced unity, compromise, or a flourishing marketplace of ideas. On the contrary: the formula has become, and not to the credit of those who conceived it, a source of resentment that has sprouted vain discourse and violent struggle.

There are two reasons for this: the multifaceted opacity of the concept “Jewish”, and an over-simplification of the foundations of modern democracy.

“Judaism” can be seen as having have three intertwined meanings: religion, nation, and culture. Scholars have also suggested peoplehood, a kind of Jewish ethnicity that is distinct from the other three meanings. However, Israeli public discourse often mistakes “Judaism” for religion alone. Democracy’s intricacy is similarly reduced. Scholars and intellectuals insist that substantive democracy requires equality before the law and equal civil and human rights, but numerous people prefer the simplistic and erroneous formula of mere majority rule; for in the digital world, the populists and demagogues will nearly always rout the scholars and appropriate the terminology for their own purposes. And the followers of the populists and demagogues are seduced into seeing the “Jewish state” as a place of insular ultranationalism or rabbinical Orthodoxy.

The triple meaning of “Judaism” – religion, nationality, and culture – resonates in today’s debate over the nature of the state: should it be Jewish according to Halacha; Jewish in the sense of demanding of its citizens religious faith or at least a religious public realm, forcing ritual upon them and discriminating against its non-religious inhabitants? Or should it be a Jewish-national state, the state of the Jewish people (nationality, nation), which in its most extreme, but increasingly popular version, would, not as a matter of exigency but of intrinsic value, discriminate against its non-Jewish inhabitants or even seek to expel or denationalize them? Or perhaps the state should be Jewish mostly in terms of its culture, its Hebrew language, its school curricula, its public realm, and its calendar?

Even if we assume a Jewish state based on culture or religious faith, the dilemma is replicated: A theocracy? A halachic state? Rabbinical Judaism? Masorti (traditionalist) Judaism? Modern Judaism? “Maskil” or “enlightened” Judaism? Liberal? Humanist? A Judaism oriented toward the past, a forward-looking Judaism, a Judaism that is rationalist, mystical, messianic? “A people that dwells alone,” or “a nation like all other nations,” one that belongs to the family of nations? Or an “exceptional” state, unlike all others?

And if we are to be exceptional and unlike all others, again we confront a full spectrum of questions, like a series of mirrors reflecting each other: Is Israel an exceptional state because it is the only state in the world identified with the Jewish religion and nationality, or because it is the state of the people chosen from among all others? The state for which a divine plan has mapped out a unique past, present, and future: “the Redeemer of Israel, his Holy One, to him who is despised of men, to him who is abhorred of nations, to a servant of rulers: kings shall see and arise, princes, and they shall prostrate themselves; because of the Lord that is faithful, even the Holy One of Israel, who hath chosen thee” (Isaiah 49:7)? Or perhaps a Jewish state that institutes Jewish primacy, in the malignant ultranationalist sense, toward the non-Jews in its midst? Already the Nation-State Law enacted in 2018 (Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People) walked a thin line between moderate nationalism and malignant ultranationalism. Benjamin Netanyahu’s ultra-Right government of 2022 stretched the nation-state in the dangerous direction of ethnocentric supremacy, while undermining substantive democracy by dramatically weakening the independence of the Supreme Court.

The “democratic” component of the Israeli formula has long suffered from blurred boundaries, the ruinous result of the inadequacy of teaching of history, political thought and civics. I fear that the conception of democracy shared by most Israelis, including alumni of the general state education system, is detached from the liberal foundations on which modern democracy stands. Even those who proclaim “majority rule with protection of minority rights” misunderstand the situation. The condition for democracy is not “protection of minority rights” alone, but rather full civil equality, presupposing that the country’s minority groups are full partners in civil life, not just wards of the state. (“So who is Tawfik Toubi? He’s a Knesset member / An Arab communist in Israel’s parliament / Sitting there by right and not by favor … / Time perhaps to remember that, my friends.” (Natan Alterman, “The Reprimand to Tawfik Toubi,” Davar, 18 November 1949)).

The potential manipulations of “Jewish” and “democratic” are endless. Extremists identify Judaism with Halacha, race, or malignant ultranationalism; self-appointed philosophers expound upon “non-liberal democracy” and self-righteous “protection” of the rights of the majority, no less – the foremost of those rights being freedom of expression, as understood to include terrorization and racist statements. Also dangerous is the claim, voiced occasionally on both the right and the left, that there is an inherent contradiction between Israel’s Jewishness and its democratic character. This claim brings Israel to the brink of an abyss, as in the Judgment of Solomon: either Jewish, or democratic. Slice the infant in half! As though the founding fathers of democratic Zionism had not drawn deeply from the well of Jewish scripture – from the commandment to love the stranger, to the moral teachings of the prophets, and the democratic nature of Jewish argument and debate. As though the founding fathers of Western liberalism hadn’t cast their net into the depths of Torah and Talmud, and extracted from them such gems as the rule of law, the entitlements of the orphan, the widow, and the stranger, and the tribal federation subject to a single “constitution.” In my own scholarship I have shown that liberalism, the keystone of modern democracy, that preceded it by a century, drew inspiration from the Jewish bookshelf, as evidenced in the writings of its pioneers, Baruch Spinoza and John Locke and the American Founding Fathers. I have shown this strong affinity in my research, as have colleagues of mine, including Eric Nelson and Eran Shalev, in theirs. The findings of this line of scholarship are relatively new, and the Israeli public needs to be made aware that the liberal-democratic tradition is rooted in Hebrew and Jewish sources, and that there is, therefore, no contradiction in principle between Judaism’s human-ethical and globalist heritage, including its laws pertaining to the stranger and its prophetic vision, and modern liberal democracy.

It would have been right, and possible, for Israel to be richly grounded in both traditions. That is what Ben-Gurion wanted, even when he made the error – a grave one, in my view – of turning solely to male, mostly Orthodox rabbis on the “Who is a Jew” question, and not to intellectuals and thinkers and writers and historians. It would have been right for the humanistic parts of Judaism, its argumentative, forward-looking elements, those elements attentive to the non-Jewish world and oriented toward innovation and reinterpretation, to sit at a single table with the various forms of democracy and to come up with a formula that would offer a light unto the nations. To date, this has not happened.

It is worth noting, after all, that in order to emphasize his choice of the moderate liberal-national alternative, Binyamin Ze’ev Herzl coined the term “state of the Jews” – Judenstaat in the original, and not Der jüdische Staat. The choice that he made is good and correct in my view. Books can be Jewish, gestures and expressions can be Jewish, moral values can be Jewish. But in a political context it is more correct to speak in the language of the Declaration of Independence: a state for the Jewish people; a state for Jewish people exercising their right to political self-definition. We didn’t listen to Herzl. The attachment of so complex an adjective as “Jewish,” an adjective of such myriad meanings, to the official name of the state, has come at the high price of a degraded public discourse.

Out of this labyrinth, two major obstacles have emerged. One is a growing identification of the “Jewish state” with the “state of the Jewish religion” (and hence the idea that a believing Jew is a better Jew, and thus a better Israeli, than a secular Jew). Another and worse obstacle is a growing identification of “Jewish state” with “state of the Jewish nation,” with a heavy ultranationalist emphasis entailing legal and substantive primacy for Israel’s Jewish citizens over its non-Jews. A related vision, once confined to the camp’s far fringes but now present in less-remote locations, is that of Israel’s non-Jewish citizens someday disappearing, or going completely silent. “Deportation,” “encouraging emigration,” and “declaration of loyalty” are terms that have gained currency.

Thus, two of the strongest current interpretations of the term “Jewish state” distance Israel from democracy, whose fundamental demand is for civil equality. The political parties and the organizations most closely identified with these interpretations – Orthodox-religious exclusivism and civil exclusivism – have adopted two different tactics toward democracy: either the bending of its values to serve the Jewish majority, or a growing denial of its necessity for the Jewish state.

Instead of the “Jewish” strengthening the “democratic” and the “democratic” enriching and diversifying the “Jewish,” these adjectives tend to erode and weaken each other, thereby weakening and diminishing the spirit of the state. Not a few Jews view “democracy” as Hellenization or as ethical failure, while a fair number of democrats see “Judaism” or “Jewishness” as an obstacle to their freedom. Neither approach is in any way inevitable.

Supporters of the “democratic” are perpetually on the defensive and are also trapped. The higher they wave the banner of civil equality, the more they are accused of being “Arab lovers” and of betraying their people, their faith, or their homeland. And the more they try to distance themselves from the “Jewish” in its halachic or ultranationalist meanings, the more they strengthen the opinion, mistaken in my view, that the two cannot coexist.


In 2012 Professor Ruth Gavison invited me to collaborate with her on an article that would offer a new conceptual pairing with regard to the state’s character: no longer Jewish and democratic, but rather national and liberal (Gavison and Oz-Salzberger, 2012). My aim here is not to answer on the late Professor Gavison’s behalf the question that lies at the heart of this collection of essays. I will be presenting my own view as it has developed since that time. However, I would like to gratefully acknowledge the inspiration I drew from her in our discussions and debates. The main impetus for our collaboration – a collaboration that we undertook despite our differences of opinion on certain issues – was our shared view that both the adjective “Jewish” and the adjective “democratic” have been worn thin in Israeli public discourse.

Israel, we agreed, is the nation-state of the Jewish people, but it is all the more so,, by the mere fact of its existence, the realization of the human rights of millions of Jews. “Self-definition,” we wrote, “is a human right, a collective right […] The endowment of peoples with the right to self-definition – nationalism – is in fact a positive value recognized by the international community and by international law. Nationalism does not contradict human rights; the opposite, rather, is true: the particular[ist] nationalism of each person is itself a human right – one cannot fully achieve self-realization if one is not also able to live in freedom and security as part of a national-cultural reference group of one’s own” (p. 309).

Furthermore, a historical perspective shows that most modern democracies, in Europe and elsewhere, are the products of a nationalism consistent with liberalism and its basic components – the rule of law and human and civil rights. As Isaiah Berlin showed, and as his student Yuli Tamir further demonstrated, there is no essential contradiction between a nation state and civil liberalism, either in practice or in theory. Here it should be emphasized that we are talking about civil liberalism, not economic liberalism. The Lockean liberal tradition, as developed by John Stuart Mill and condensed by John Rawls, confers full civil equality and equal opportunity for personal prosperity and political participation. This, as I noted at the outset, is the keystone of modern democracy. And there is nothing to prevent this tradition from being upheld in a nation state. Nor is there anything to prevent it from being upheld in a social-democratic system, or in a free-market liberal economic system, so long as these basic conditions are met.

“One advantage of talking about a ‘national’ state rather than about a ‘Jewish’ state,” we wrote, “is that it establishes from the outset that the Jewishness of the state to which we are referring is not Jewishness as religion, but rather Jewishness as a national-cultural affinity. The view that Israel’s ‘Jewishness’ means that Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people […] is also the ideological nucleus of Israel’s Declaration of Independence. Clearly, the nation-state sense of ‘Jewish’ explicitly eschews the religious-state, theocracy sense of “Jewish” (p. 310).

But it must also, of course, eschew malignant racist ultranationalism. The mistaken assumption prevalent among the left – that it is the fate of any national sentiment, national exaltation, or national pride to be dragged down the slippery slope of ultranationalism on the way to fascism – may be gaining traction in contemporary Israeli politics, but it is a dangerous assumption born of lazy thinking. Among the Enlightenment thinkers, there were certain outstanding figures such Giambattista Vico, Adam Ferguson, and Johann Gottfried Herder who understood, as the modern philosopher Isaiah Berlin further clarified, that in an age of individualism people need group affiliations. In the modern era there is no group affiliation stronger than nationality, not even religion. The nation-state is, at its best, a fusion of the nineteenth century’s two most important movements – nationalism and liberalism – and it will remain with us for at least another generation or two. The reports of its death in the late 20th century were greatly exaggerated.

Civil liberalism – a liberalism of the rule of law and human and civil rights – is the leash that reins in the nation state; it limits the nation state and keeps it from deteriorating into ultranationalism. That is why Gavison and I, as humanist-Zionists, viewed that form of liberalism as a basic condition not only for modern democracy in general, not only for honorable nation states in general, but in particular, and especially, for the nation state of the Jews.

A liberal nation state is also well able to encompass the other sphere of conceptual tension, that embodied in the term “Zionism.” It offers a political framework founded on Judaism as nationality and culture, but without theocratic features (as per the current arrangements for freedom of religion in Israel and for religious rights, including recognition of the Jewish religion as the majority faith, and with the added recognition of secular Judaism). It is consistent with humanistic Zionism, which is the worldview of a large segment of Israel’s Jewish left. It is compatible with the philosophy of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, who noted the potential duality between “In the beginning was the nation” and “In the beginning was the individual.” And the liberal component, that pertaining to human and civil rights and a new horizon for the rights of cultural groups, is capable of fortifying the national component against radicalization into ultranationalist chauvinism or racism.

“Israel must not forgo its Jewish national distinctiveness,” we wrote, “and it must be liberal because that is the only way it can maintain the correct balance between recognition of the multiplicity of groups living there and its need to promote cohesion at both the civil level, regardless of nationality or religion, and at the Jewish national level” (p. 324). It should be noted, however, that although the “national and liberal” formula is appropriate both for Israel’s political philosophy and for its public discourse, nevertheless – and here I write on behalf of Ruth Gavison – the judicial system must not forget its role as the stronghold and support of the individual vis-à-vis the authorities and the civil sphere, and not as the arbiter of state philosophy or as the entity responsible for Israel’s political doctrine. I therefore see the phrase “national and liberal” – so long as it is possible to incorporate it into our educational and public discourse with sufficient detail and with the necessary restrictions – as a suitable conceptual basis for Israel as the state of the Jews and of all its citizens.


To the phrase “national and liberal” I would like to add another element that, in my view, was missing from Ruth Gavison’s outlook and that is also absent from the worldview of many in the “democratic” camp: the republican element. This is an element that is lacking in Israeli discourse because it was never added to Zionism’s intellectual family tree. Zionism sprang from the soil of Central and Eastern Europe; the Enlightenment influence to which it was subject was devoid of the republican component present in Western Europe and North America. The activism of Israel’s founding fathers and founding mothers carried revolutionary, not republican, DNA.

“Republic” is only partly synonymous with “democracy.” Both terms refer to “the rule of the many,” but “republic,” in contrast to modern democracy, adds to the rule of law and equality of civil rights a sense of civic belonging and civic activism, i.e., discussion and cooperation reflecting a multiplicity of opinions, for the public good or the common interest – res publicum. Alongside the term’s Roman origins, its revivers in the early modern era wrote much about De Republica Hebraeorum, the Hebrew Republic, and drew inspiration from the Hebrew Bible.

There is republicanism in Ben-Gurion’s ideal of mamlachtiyut or “statism with civic consciousness;” there is a hint of republicanism in the collective and social-democratic ethos; there is also an intimation of republicanism in Jabotinsky’s revisionism. But apart from Chaim Weizmann and a few others like him who had first-hand knowledge of the Hellenistic-Roman republican ethos and its modern incarnation, Israel’s founding fathers did not include active citizenship in their state building vocabulary. But this, as seen by the most recent rise of civil society protest against the Netanyahu government’s legislation in 2023, is a value capable of reclaiming substantive democracy.

Simply put: the state of the Jews will not enjoy stability or peace without also becoming the state of all its citizens as well; not as a substitute for, or an evasion of, Israel’s national-Jewish character, and not as a renunciation of Judaism’s important and inspirational presence in Israeli culture and in the Israeli public realm, but as a shared sphere of civic activity for the public good of Jews and non-Jews in Israel. Hence: the state of the Jews, a substantive democracy and a republic of all its citizens.

Work cited

Gavison, Ruth, and Fania Oz-Salzberger (2012). “Israel as a National and Liberal State.” Law and Business, 14, 293-328. (In Hebrew)


Dedicated to the memory of Professor Ruth Gavison

Professor Fania Oz-Salzberger, a historian, is Professor Emerita at the University of Haifa School of Law and the Haifa Center for German and European Studies. Her books include Translating the Enlightenment (Oxford, 1995) and, with Amos Oz, Jews and Words (Yale, 2012).