What is a Jewish State?

 Countless layers of Jewish-Israeli existence accumulated during the seventy-five years of the state’s independence, and in fact began to form years before its establishment. Every moment of Israel’s happening contains all the DNA of the twisted, vibrant and turbulent expression of the Jewish state known as the State of Israel.

The answer to the complicated question in the title of this piece seems plain: the entity in which Israeli citizens – both Jews and Arabs – live today, is a Jewish state. It contains a decisive Jewish majority that mostly perceives the state as the Jewish people’s national home. It is largely organized by the Jewish calendar (the national day of rest is Saturday—the Jewish Sabbath; Jewish holy days and memorial days are national holidays). The dominant language is Hebrew, the language of the Bible, in which the Jewish people’s identity is couched.

Countless layers of Jewish-Israeli existence have amassed over the state’s seventy-five years of independence, and in fact began to form years before its establishment. They include, of course, the complex relationship between the Jewish-Israeli majority and the Arab-Israeli minority. Each moment of Israel’s occurrence contains the entire DNA of the convoluted, vibrant, turbulent manifestation of the Jewish state known as the State of Israel.


But wait, haven’t we forgotten something?

The almost complete indifference of most Israelis to the occupation of the Palestinian people and its land, an occupation that has lasted for over fifty-five years, is a substantial component in the formation of Israel’s identity. To be clear: Israel does not bear sole responsibility for the absence of any true and courageous effort to resolve the conflict over the past few decades. Serious errors on the part of both the Palestinians and the Israelis have led to what now seems like a dead-end. But today, as we celebrate Israel’s 75th year, an occasion that invites both marveling and reckoning, we must examine whether the term “Jewish state” can, and may, disregard the occupation. Furthermore, we must question whether the enormity of ignoring the occupation and erasing it from Israeli consciousness can itself be disregarded.


“The situation.” That, as many readers know, is what we Israelis call our relationship with the Palestinians. It is our name for the decades-long bloodshed, the wars and “operations” whose hunger is never sated, the occupation, the resistance to it, the construction of settlements, the trespassing—in every sense of the word—and the terrorism.

Most people who were born into “the situation” and have lived their whole lives in it have long given up hope that it may ever be resolved. They are paralyzed by its complexities: the infinite circularity, the inevitability of violence and counter-violence, the hollow slogans employed in endless retellings of the history, the way authentic human stories are turned into a manipulative “narrative,” the affront to those whose life essence is reduced to cliché.

We who were born into “the situation” have accepted that our children and our children’s children are doomed to live by the sword—and often, to die by it. We already know that might is no guarantee of victory. That every sword is a double-edged sword. We know, yet we turn a blind eye to the knowledge. We burrow deeper and deeper into ourselves and surrender to apathy and fatalism, to the consolations found in religion, to the self-aggrandization offered by nationalism. We seek comfortable, accessible escapes, rising stars that shimmer before our glazed eyes, anything to distract us from the terrifying, destabilizing questions posed by the conflict.

To those observing us, we appear increasingly passive, emotionally “neutralized” (another horrific word in the language of conflict). But the chasm between ourselves and the reality generated by the conflict does not remain a void: it is constantly being filled by a flow of extremist, nationalistic, and fundamentalist forces. These forces do everything, and stop at nothing, to impose their agenda on the frightened, paralyzed majority.


It is dangerous to talk of a state’s or nation’s “characteristics,” but one can talk of acts and procedures. A clear example is what is referred to as “the settlement enterprise,” a reality-generating process that has transformed Israel. This process—geographic, political, military, and above all, psychological—was meant from the start to sabotage the chances of establishing fair, mutually accepted borders for the state, and thereby thwarted and continues to thwart a stable peace accord that would determine Israel’s fate. In a similar mode, the Jewish religion itself—for decades, but primarily since the Six-Day War—has wound itself around Israeli politics so tightly that it can no longer be unraveled.


Even after 75 years of independence, Israel has no permanent, accepted borders. Since earliest days, time after time, the state’s borders have shrunk and expanded due to wars and operations, withdrawals and occupations, and various agreements. A state that lacks agreed upon borders exists in a perpetual, dangerous tension: between the temptation to invade its neighbors and the fear of being invaded by them. This constant tension, this existential uncertainty, makes Israel feel a little less like home and a little more like a fortress. It also determines the nature of the Jewish state today.


The Judaism I connect with is secular and humanist. It has faith in human beings. The only thing it holds sacred is human life. Those who believe in it arrive through dialogue, absolutely not through coercion.

There is a frequency in my mind on which I sense my belonging to the Jewish people, but also my occasional aversion to that belonging. I feel a powerful affinity with the Jewish people’s destiny, as well as with its glorious and terrible history. With the Hebrew language in its various evolutions. With the rich culture it created. With its ironic, pained sense of humor.

The Judaism I connect with is repelled by the euphoria and arrogance I see among certain circles in today’s Judaism, and by their shackled fusions that tighten around my neck: the fusing of religion with messianism, of faith with zealotry, of the national with the nationalistic and fascistic.


“The situation,” which continues to metastasize, prompts a question about Israel’s right to define itself as a democracy. An occupation regime cannot be democratic: it simply cannot. After all, democracy stems from the profound belief that all human beings are born equal, and that it is wrong to deny a person the right to participate in determining his or her own fate.

Years of occupation and humiliation can create the illusion that there is a hierarchy in human value. The occupied nation is eventually perceived as existentially, innately inferior. Its misery and wretchedness are perceived by the occupier as a fate that supposedly stems from its essence. (That is how, as we know, anti-Semites have always treated Jews.) Its members are viewed as people whose human rights may be denied, whose values and desires can be disparaged. It goes without saying that the occupying nation sees itself as superior and, therefore, as innate master. In this reality, and as the influence of religion grows, there is an increasing belief that it is God’s will. And it is not hard to see how, in this climate, the democratic worldview wanes.

And I ask: how can those who believe man is created in God’s image trample that image?


It seems, at present, that thinking about the occupation and its repercussions does not arouse in most Israelis even the slightest distress, not to mention guilt, about living a life of lies and repression. Through a sophisticated set of intuitions, most Israelis have learned “to live with it” (one is tempted to say: “to filter it out”). Nor has thinking about the occupation done anything to spur Israeli citizens or the majority of their leaders since 1967 to take steps that could finally begin to repair the warped situation. We’ve grown accustomed to it. Furthermore, the State of Israel constructs its own image and the story it tells itself so efficiently and hermetically, that it has erected an impermeable barrier between its consciousness and reality.

When Jews were dispersed among seventy diasporas, they managed to incorporate a soulful yearning for the wonderful, dreamlike Eretz Yisrael into daily lives that were often marked by deprivation and persecution. That is how Benjamin III and his friend Sendrel – the fictional characters penned by Mendele Mocher Sforim in The Travels of Benjamin III– stand with their feet bogged down in the Diaspora while they dream of Eretz Yisrael, to which they are positive they have a claim. Very soon they will reach it, and they will fill their bellies with dates and figs, and they will find King Solomon using the legendary shamir to cut through the stones of the First Temple. “It’s all there,” says Benjamin longingly, “there is all the places.”

This rare gift (the Fiddler on the Roof’s gift) of a total belief in the power of imagination, and the ability to bargain with imagination so that it becomes reality—is manifesting again today, but this time the fiddler is on a tank, and the gift is used to erase from our minds the existence of another nation, the humiliation and suffering that we inflict on it daily, and the inequities of the entire situation. This time, the gift helps us create amazingly sophisticated reality-bypass networks, which enable the nightmarish situation to persist, seemingly without us paying a price.

In other words: imagination, that metaphysical organ that played such a decisive role in fulfilling the tremendous feat of the Return to Zion, now allows those Israelis who wish to—and they are, it turns out, legion—to create for themselves a picture of reality in which an entire nation—millions of people whose homeland is here—is missing.

One of many possible answers to the question “What is a Jewish state?” is, therefore: “A Jewish state is a state that is skilled at living a full, intense life with a dimension of illusion and repression, engaged in a total denial of reality.”


Imagination fans its own flames and turns to hallucination.

Hallucination becomes matter.

There are those who know how to mould it to their ends.

Reality becomes hallucinatory.

More and more people fall captive to it.

Others are unwillingly captured by it.


But on this celebratory day, I would like to propose one more facet in the definition of a Jewish state, which, if implemented, could both strengthen Israel’s Jewish identity and values, and improve its relationship with its large Palestinian minority. “If implemented”—because at present it is not, or only in rare circumstances. But it is conceivable that one day, when the “big” conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people is resolved, Jewish and Arab citizens of the state may find it within themselves to achieve true reconciliation as well.

Part of the great, miraculous revolution of the Jewish nation’s return to its homeland is that it must now learn how to be a majority. It must heal itself from the ills of being a persecuted minority, and understand the duties of a majority toward the minorities living among it. This is not an easy exploration. It entails giving up both concrete assets and abstract ones—identity and self-perception. (Giving up stereotypes and prejudices is extremely difficult.) It requires a profound change in education curricula, for example. It requires a policy of protecting minorities from the ills of racism and hate crimes.

These steps have the power to create a reality that allows every person, from both the majority and the various minorities, to flourish, to feel protected, to feel represented in all systems of life and governance, to have equal rights and obligations, to live with dignity and parity—both economic and cultural. They may then feel valued, and able to nurture their own communities’ origin stories without erasing those of others. They may heal the wounds of past injuries contained in their roots.

If these steps are taken, we will then be able to inscribe and proudly quote this verse at the entrance to the Supreme Court: “Ye shall have one manner of law, as well for the stranger, as for the home-born” (Leviticus 24:22). And the avowed secularists among us, and the atheists, will stand at the gates of the Knesset and read with great intention, as in a secular prayer, the verse inscribed there: “And God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them” (Genesis 1:27).


But why suffice with repairing the state’s relationship with its large national minority? Why not go further and extend the aspiration to all minorities, all disadvantaged groups, of every nation, race, and sex? Asylum seekers are also an anguished minority. Elderly people on the verge of hunger are suffering, too. As are disabled people, and those trapped under the poverty line, and Holocaust survivors. And more and more groups.

You may say: What you are proposing is a welfare state; what is “Jewish” about your vision?

It is Jewish because most of these wishes, this concept of society, this worldview, have already been formulated in Hebrew, in the Bible. Moreover, as I mentioned, they will now be occurring in a state in which the Jews are the majority. The term is used here not merely as a mathematical fact: for thousands of years, Jews lived as a minority of foreigners, subject to hatred and suspicion, in countries that almost always mistreated, persecuted and degraded them, and even attempted to annihilate them. Even in “friendly” countries, the Jewish minority was in a permanent sense of instability and transience, barely tolerated by the majority. The earth constantly trembled beneath its feet, and imaginary “cutting lines” were always marked around it.

Today, that minority is the majority, a condition that comes with a large responsibility and demands sensitivity, empathy, and an overcoming of history that I question whether we are capable of. And yet, if Israel were to implement even some of the aspirations outlined here, we could then say wholeheartedly: “A Jewish state is the Jewish people’s national home, and it views the full equality of all its citizens as its great human test, and as the realization of its prophets’ and founders’ vision.”

Translated by Jessica Cohen

David Grossman is a writer.