What Israel Means to Me

The Jewish state must remain a democratic, pluralistic one. To be Jewish but not democratic is an inherent contradiction. Nothing would betray Jewish values more than for Israel to surrender its democratic identity.

What does Israel as a Jewish state mean to me? One of the Palestinian negotiators once posed a similar question to me in a private meeting, asking: “I understand why Israel being a Jewish state is important to Israelis. But why is it important to you, a Jewish American? In response, I wondered why he was asking — and he answered, “Look, in the abstract a genuine binational, democratic state might be best for Israelis and Palestinians. But if both Israeli and non-Israeli Jews believe that there must be a Jewish state, it rules that out as an outcome.” I started by commenting that I did not see how a binational state could be anything but a guarantee for enduring conflict: there were two national movements, with two national identities, competing for the same space. Both national identities needed expression. Denying their fulfillment would not suppress them, and, ultimately, neither side would accept giving up who they were in one state. Were Palestinians really willing to live in a state without a Palestinian identity? He answered, “probably not, but I would still like to understand why a Jewish state is so important to you and to non-Israeli Jews.”

My shorthand explanation to him was that Jewish history had exposed the horrific, tragic consequences of not having a state for the Jewish people. Jews living as outsiders would always be vulnerable. Antisemitism, the world’s oldest prejudice, showed no signs of abating. Conspiracies against the Jews have never stopped; they have a life of their own and take hold even where there are no Jews. Jews had always been singled out, and tough economic times always triggered a resurgence of nativist populism — and the accompanying xenophobic nationalism always targeted Jews, the quintessential other. Jews needed a place of refuge and only a state of the Jewish people could provide that with certainty. That, I said, explained what might be described as the negative imperative of ensuring the safety and survival of the Jews. But there was also a positive imperative, and it reflected a belief that having a state in its historic homeland was necessary for the Jewish people — a people with a culture and a system of values — to fulfill their promise.

I could not help but recall this conversation as I contemplated the question of what the Jewish state means to me on the eve of Israel’s 75th birthday. I deeply believe what I said then. But that merely explains why a Jewish state must exist. It does not capture what a Jewish state means to me. To be truly a Jewish state is not to be a state like any other. It must embody a set of values, a strong moral underpinning. Ahad Ha’am, one of the most compelling Zionist philosophers, argued that the Jewish state must have a spiritual character and lead a moral renaissance. David Ben-Gurion believed that Israel must be “a light unto the nations.”

How can a state be Jewish and not aspire to fulfill that role and meet that standard? To live a Jewish life means to live a life of meaning and purpose. To act according to basic values that emphasize fairness, justice, and helping those in need. We Jews are obligated to welcome the stranger because we were once strangers in a strange land. We are called on to engage in repairing a broken world. We have an obligation not just to see what is wrong, but to act to right it. A state that is a Jewish state must be in the forefront of doing what is right.

In so many ways, Israel, the Jewish state, is doing what is right. It is the start-up nation, using technology and innovation to address humanity’s basic needs. More than any nation, it is showing how to deal with the global challenge of water shortages, and not just with desalination but also with wastewater treatment, conservation, drip irrigation, and the development of drought resistant crops. Israeli specialists are now able to grow wheat and rice — two water intensive staples — for a fraction of what was traditionally required. Think of the importance for fighting hunger internationally. Today, Israelis are active in Africa, throughout India, and elsewhere to expand agricultural production and the availability of food. Additionally, on water, the Israeli company, Watergen, has developed a line of easily transportable machines that produce drinking water by extracting humidity from the atmosphere. Its top model can produce 6000 liters daily. The UAE is now marketing Watergen units in the Middle East and Africa — and the Israeli government allowed several units to be provided to municipalities in Gaza in the past two years. These Israeli innovations can do much to deal with climate change, drought and the resulting water and food insecurity needs that plague much of the developing world. In medicine, Israel not only does cutting-edge research, it also provides remarkable care to non-Israelis, including Arab victims of the Syrian war. At Rambam Hospital in Haifa, I saw how a Syrian man’s face had been fully reconstructed after it had literally been blown off by a bomb. It was a miracle of modern Israeli medicine. The Israeli doctors who marshalled those skills, techniques, and talents did so in no small part because of what they had to learn to cope with Israeli casualties in war.

And that is a reminder that Israel, the Jewish state, lives in a tough neighborhood, not a laboratory. Throughout its entire existence as a state, its citizens have faced terror and threats to eradicate the country. In order to foster the greater good, Israel must first survive. To do so, it has had to be tough and resourceful. It has to have forces of such power that all its enemies know what their fate will be if they carry out their threats. It has had to kill so as not to be killed. It understands that it must never appear soft or weak, especially in a region where the weak do not survive.

It is no small achievement that Israel has largely maintained its character in the face of these threats. It has maintained its democracy and the rule of law in circumstances where others might have sacrificed civil liberties for the sake of security. Yes, it has its moral stains, and yes, occupation of Palestinians (and what they are often subjected to) at times betrays those values and threatens Israel’s identity. And, yes, Israel like other democracies is now facing populist forces that are challenging its very essence. But in its 75th year, Israel, the Jewish state, has not surrendered its character.

For me that means the Jewish state must remain a democratic, pluralistic one. To be Jewish but not democratic is an inherent contradiction. Nothing would betray Jewish values more than for Israel to surrender its democratic identity. By definition, a Jewish state must respect all of its citizens — whether secular, religious, Jewish, or Arab. Even as the state of the Jewish people, it must respect the civil and legal rights of its Arab citizens. Israel’s Declaration of Independence commits to that and much more, stating: “The State of Israel would be open for Jewish immigration and for the ingathering of Exiles; it will foster development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice, and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race, or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”

These words captured the moral basis of the state and the standard to which it would hold itself. Maybe Israel, like any state, does not always live up to its promise. It is, after all, made up of human beings who are imperfect. But look at the standard it created for itself and its succeeding generations. Preserving that standard, and striving to fulfill it, is what the Jewish state means to me. And, for those of us who see in the Jewish state the pursuit of the values we would like to see embraced internationally, our commitment should remain unwavering — even when some of the actions of that Jewish state may challenge our faith.

Ambassador Dennis Ross is the  Co-Chairman of the Board of the Jewish People Policy Institute.  In addition to being Bill Clinton’s envoy to the Middle East, he also served in senior national security positions for US Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H W Bush, and Barack Obama. Presently, he is Counselor for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and teaches in Center for Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University.