Israel – a Jewish and Democratic State, or a Democratic and Jewish State: Toward a New Framework for Jewish Existence in Israel

The basic infrastructure that gives the state its legitimacy is rooted in the democratic model itself and in the contract at its core, and not in its Jewishness. On the contrary, Israel’s democraticity is the basis for Jewish flourishing, as we shall presently see. Israel is indeed a “democratic and Jewish state.”

On the state

The term “a Jewish and democratic state” is meant to solve the problem of the relationship between two components: Jewishness and “democraticity.” This solution is the lid on a boiling pot. Analytically, the state’s democratic character precedes its Jewishness. It embraces the criterion of the exertion of force as an expression of sovereignty. The power of a democratic state is limited. It is not authorized to use that power arbitrarily, neither externally, nor internally. In the present context, the democratic state is not authorized to contravene human or civil rights without specific justification based on those very rights.

The term “state” denotes the political association of a human community living within a delimited geographic space and subject to a single sovereign authority. Those joined in association authorize the state to act on behalf of their various interests. They cede their individual autonomy in order to maximize the realization of interests important to all, or at least to most. The basic contract between citizen and state does not give the state the authority to determine the actual identity of those belonging to the social entity that grants it its legitimacy. That entity precedes the state, analytically speaking, and this reflects the foundational status of the social entity that confers legality on the state.

The social entity is not an imaginary community created by the state. But it is always an imagined entity whose members “will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion” (Anderson, 1999, 36). The recognition that the social entity is an imagined entity obligates the state to be attentive to, and constantly prepared to address, the question of the relationship between the imagined entity and the actual social entity. This preparedness is meant to constrain the exertion of force that could potentially turn the imagined entity into an imaginary one.

A citizen is, first and foremost, a member of a variety of human communities. Recognition that such memberships exist should keep the state from subjecting citizens to loyalty tests that would require them to choose between their various community affiliations and their membership in the civic-social body. The state is obligated to respect the fact that its members have identities, cultures, and communities to which they belong. The citizen is not an abstract entity, and his or her membership in the civic community thus cannot negate his or her identity and, thereby, create a flattened civic identity.


On Israel

Israel is a democratic state. In genealogical terms, Israel was founded by the Jewish people; it is not a theocracy under divine rule, nor is it a halachic state. Even if most of the country’s citizens were religiously observant and in favor of Torah rule, Israel would remain a secular state, as its legitimacy flows from the civil-social body whose role would be to determine the boundaries of Torah rule.

Israel is a liberal state, as it was founded on liberal principles centered around the concept of human freedom and rights. The state holds up no ideal that the citizen or the Jew is expected to fulfill. It is supposed to allow human beings, both citizens and non-citizens, to act as they wish, without dictating what is appropriate or good.

This set of attributes does not justify negating Israel’s national, particularist character. The opposite is true: the state is based on the Jewish people’s right to political self-definition. Exercising this right does not divest Israel of its character as a democratic state. Israel was founded as a democratic state that embraces universal humanist values, including the right to self-definition. It cannot, therefore, renounce this part of its ethical foundation. Although the state was established as the realization of the desire of Jews for self-determination, it has to function in accordance with the general rules on which its existence as a democratic and liberal state are based. Israel’s democraticity takes precedence over its Jewishness. The basic infrastructure that gives the state its legitimacy is rooted in the democratic model itself and in the contract at its core, and not in its Jewishness. On the contrary, Israel’s democraticity is the basis for Jewish flourishing, as we shall presently see. Israel is indeed a “democratic and Jewish state.”

On identity and Jewishness

Israel, as a democratic and Jewish state, is supposed to provide the conditions in which the identities of the people living in it can flourish: Jews and non-Jews, religious people spanning the spectrum of the Jewish faith, and non-religious people. Real people, and not the state, shape their own identity. Identity is a project for human beings, not for the state. State encroachment on this freedom to determine one’s identity constitutes violation of the principle of self-definition that underpins the state. The state cannot redefine the self-definition on which it is founded without toppling the basis for its legitimacy.

In light of the above, it is clear that the term “Jewish,” which appears in the state’s definition, must be given a “thin” interpretation. The State of Israel is Jewish because it is the state of the Jewish people. But it cannot decide on the Jewishness of the Jews, or even negate non-Jewish identities. No individual or institution has been endowed with the right to determine the identity of other human beings, and this applies to Jewish identity as well. If the Jewish content of the term “Jewish” outweighs its democratic content, this will seriously undermine the foundations of the State of Israel’s legitimacy. Of importance in this context is the distinction between identity and identification (Sagi, 2006, 208-245; Sagi, 2009).

Identification is an act that a person, a society, or a state performs upon a subject, whether that subject is an individual or a group. The act of identification is usually carried out for practical purposes. When the state identifies a person as a citizen or as a resident or as a tourist, it does so in order to determine his status and rights within the state. When Israel identifies someone as Jewish, it does this in order to establish that the Law of Return applies to that person. The act of identification is an act that creates a hierarchy between an identifying subject and the object of the act of identification.

Identity is a life project of the human subjects themselves; no one can change the identity of another, or establish it for him. In this sense, identity can contradict identification, as identity is the negation of the “gaze” of the other who establishes the object of his gaze by means of identification. Identity is an ongoing project in the course of which individuals and society shape their lives. This project has two structural contexts: a synchronic context – the context of the present; and a diachronic context – that concerning the relationship between present and past. The synchronic context includes the range of an individual’s or a society’s present attachments: family, friends, value system and norms; the diachronic context includes deep ties to the past, to tradition, to history. People, individuals, and societies, build their lives on the basis of attachment to the past. No one arises from spontaneous generation, or starts his life from zero. But neither does anyone shape his life solely on the basis of the past. Human beings are free; they build and shape their lives in light of the future. The identity of individuals and of societies is woven in a complex back-and-forth between different life contexts; identity emerges as a point of friction between the synchronic and diachronic axes. No one can construct the identity of another. Identity is the ongoing life story of human beings. Indeed, Jewish history is the story of how different and diverse Jewish cultures and identities were constructed. Some of them have been lost, while others have survived. These various cultures shaped, and continue to shape, different lifestyles. The lively Jewish identity discourse one finds in Israel and abroad attests to the fruitful creative expression of the Jewish identities that, together, make up the Jewish identity family (see Sagi, 2006; Sagi, 2016, 2-90).

A state is supposed to ensure the flourishing of the identities of those who live within its sovereign territory, but not to determine them. Israel, as the state of the Jews, is meant to allow the flourishing of the Jewish identities of individuals and of societies, as they themselves understand it, and not as the sovereign authority may understand it. The state is not the agent of “Jewish identity.” Identity has no emissaries. It is the personal affair of the human subject. Israel is the only place where the public realm is required to facilitate the realization of the various Jewish identities and the encounter between them. That is Israel’s obvious advantage; it allows identities to go beyond the boundaries of the private realm and into the public realm, where people meet each other and form a variety of Jewish identities.

Israel as the Jewish nation state has no authority to establish the Jewish nationality, which is pre-sovereign and independent of the state. Israel was founded by a part of the Jewish people that wished to realize sovereign Jewish existence. This historical fact delineates the relationship between the Jewish people and the State of Israel. The Jewish people historically and analytically precedes the state. Historically – because the state was founded by the Jewish people and did not create the Jewish people; analytically – because Israel is the realization of the Jewish people’s right to political self-definition. This precedence manifests practically in the state’s obligation to refrain from establishing a particular identity, including a Jewish identity. Political sovereignty in this context is realized precisely in the obligation to avoid having one Jewish way of life overpower another, and to sustain a thin definition of the term “Jewishness.” Israel is the state of the Jews, and they are entitled to celebrate the full range of their identities within the public space. A state that encroaches on this space and hinders people from realizing their Jewish identities within it undermines the basis of its legitimacy. Were the state to appropriate for itself the authority to determine Jewish nationality and that nationality’s concrete meaning in people’s lives, it would lose its legitimacy as a democratic state and become a totalitarian state. By such an act, Israel would sever itself from the Jewish people and establish a new Jewish people. The transformation of open Jewish identity via formal identification by the state would be a violent act that would undercut people’s actual identity. Furthermore, such an act would constitute embracing an “imaginary Jewish identity” that effectively seeks formal-legal identification. This could bring Israel to the edge of an abyss.


Between religion and Jewishness

From Israel’s character as a democratic and Jewish state derives the fact that the Jewish religion, whether in its Orthodox or its non-Orthodox manifestations, cannot have foundational status within the political framework, as religion, including the Jewish religion, is the affair of those who believe in it. This argument is valid even in the view of those religious Jews who hold that the Jewish people cannot exist without the Jewish religion in its Orthodox form. The religious faith of certain specific people, however many they may be, cannot lead to the conclusion that the state should interfere with the Jewish identity of its Jewish citizens. The state is meant to ensure freedom of religion for its Jewish and non-Jewish citizens, and this encompasses freedom from religion, the Jewish religion included. The state is meant to allow the Jewish religion to flourish and thrive, but in the diversity of its forms, not at the expense of a flourishing secular Jewish existence in any form.

The Jewish religion is a major part of the Jewish heritage, as a key component of the diachronic axis of Jewish identity. But it cannot be the foundational element of that identity. Its status has been and will be determined by people, as individuals and as societies. Some choose to realize that identity in the form of religion, as for them religion is a core component of their synchronic identity. Others see religion as an important historical heritage and source of inspiration, but not as an authoritative foundation, while still others reject it and do not want it as an element in the construction of their identity. These differing approaches are subject to discussion and fierce disagreement, but the resonance space in which such disagreement ought to be accorded recognition and expression is the public space, not the political space. As the state of the Jewish people, Israel is supposed to facilitate the flourishing of an open public Jewish identity discourse. When enacting legislation, the legislator must refrain from attempting to establish a hierarchy or from being the party that grants legitimacy to, or withholds legitimacy from, viewpoints within the identity discourse that arise in the framework of public discourse.


[In Hebrew]

Anderson, Benedict (1999). Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (Dan Maor, translator). The Open University.

Sagi Avi (2006). The Jewish-Israeli Voyage: Questions of Identity and Culture. The Shalom Hartman Institute.

[In English]

Sagi, Avi (2009). Society and law in Israel: Between a rights discourse and identity discourse. In Avi Sagi & Ohad Nachtomy (eds.). The multicultural challenge in Israel (pp. 129–149). Academic Studies Press.

Sagi, Avi (2016). Reflections on identity: The Jewish case. Academic Studies Press.

Professor Avi Sagi has taught at Bar-Ilan University and is a [Senior] Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. He has published numerous books and articles in the fields of philosophy, Jewish thought, discourse criticism, and Halacha research.