Editors’ Introduction

A key feature of Israeli life today is the lack of a broad social, political, intellectual, and experiential consensus on the proper vision for the state. Life amid controversy, though it has its positive side, can also be a dangerously destabilizing force.

Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people. That is what Israel’s Declaration of Independence – the state’s foundational text – affirmed on May 14, 1948 by proclaiming “the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz-Israel, to be known as the State of Israel.” Over the years, the “Basic Laws” enacted by the Knesset, which are elements of Israel’s emerging constitution, have conferred formal constitutional recognition to the state’s Jewishness by asserting that Israel is “a Jewish and democratic state.”

But what is the meaning of this two-part definition? With what ideological and practical content should each of the state’s two identity components – the Jewish and the democratic – be infused, and what is the correct relationship between the two when tension arises between them? What are the “values of a Jewish and democratic state” in the wording of Israel’s Basic Laws, and how do these values differ from those of a non-Jewish democratic state? Answering these questions is a significant challenge, given the fact that Israel is both the national home of all the world’s Jews and the fifth of the state’s citizens that are not Jewish.

The challenge spans a wide spectrum of issues, and engagement with them encompasses many different relationships, including culture and philosophy, society and identity, religion and nationality, state and law. Ideological currents, identity groups and political camps within Israel, and in certain contexts outside it as well, answer these questions in diverse and contradictory ways. Some feel that the controversy over what it means for the state to be democratic and Jewish is a fundamental issue that slices through the Israeli polity and lies at the heart of a “culture war” within Israeli society.

As Israel approached its celebratory and momentous milestone of 75 years of statehood, the three of us decided to launch a project that echoes an effort in 1958 undertaken by David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister. Ben-Gurion reached out to 50 “Jewish scholars in Israel and abroad” and asked them to present their views on the question of “who is a Jew?” His goal was to enrich the debate and to make an informed decision regarding how “Jew” should be defined in Israeli law.

Similarly, in honor of the state’s 75 years of independence, we have gathered 75 essays, written by people in Israel and abroad. Our contributors were asked to express their opinion on the question: What is a Jewish state? Our hope is to present current and future readers with an array of views.


The book opens with a preface by the 11th President of Israel, Isaac Herzog. This is followed by the essays in alphabetical order by author. These essays form a mind-expanding picture of the authors’ views on the nature of the Jewish state, its vision, its conduct, and the challenges it faces. We are pleased to have been able to assemble these writings in a collection that constitutes a shared stage. The writers include thinkers in a variety of fields, writers and poets, rabbis and legal scholars, journalists and politicians, social activists and the heads of Israeli and foreign organizations, Jews and non-Jews.

We strove to include the broadest range of voices relevant to our topic. This wide spread does not reflect opposition to setting boundaries for the discourse. It does, however, aim to expose readers to many different voices, and to allow them to judge for themselves. The essays in this book do not accord with each other. Rather, they are a polyphonic ensemble; a product of the diversity and multiplicity of its writers, each of whom communicates an outlook stemming from his or her specific life experience, personal/communal identity, value system, and professional training.

There is no way to present, in a brief introduction, the “content” of the book. Nevertheless, we would like to offer a general classification of the various topics. Most of the essays address questions that fall into one of three categories: conceptual, cultural-experiential, or practical.

Conceptual questions

The democratic state is a common phenomenon in the post-World War II era. How such a state should function has been the center of attention of the human experience in recent generations. Disagreements regarding the essential merit of democracy persist: some see it solely as a type of political regime and a framework of rules for public decision-making (formal democracy), while others see it as an idea, or an ideal, of commitment to values, such as tolerance, and to specific arrangements, such as a Bill of Rights (substantive democracy). The challenge of grasping the various meanings of a “democratic state” is not unique to Israel. It is an unresolved challenge of the West.

However, a Jewish democracy is a unique and recent phenomenon, the discussion of which is still in its infancy. Jewish culture, whose roots are deeper than those of democratic culture, existed for two thousand years in the absence of sovereignty. The exile of Jews from Eretz Yisrael emptied Jewish memory of its political experience. As a result, we lack experience about managing Jewish sovereignty – both on the ethical/ideological and institutional levels. This lack creates a conceptual difficulty in understanding the meaning that can be attributed to the State of Israel as a Jewish state.

In addition to the general conceptual difficulty (what is a democratic state?), and the particular difficulty (what is a Jewish state?), there is also a conceptual difficulty in integrating the state’s two identity components – Jewish and democratic. Is the combination possible? Different interpretations ascribe different weight to each component. Fundamentalist interpretations – e.g., “a Jewish state must be theocratic,” or “a democratic state cannot be an ethnic nation-state” – make it difficult to settle disagreements. But as a few of the essays in this collection show, more moderate interpretations of each of the identity components also generate conceptual tension.

As noted, the two parts of the state’s identity leave us and future generations with a variety of cultural, social, religious, and legal concerns regarding their potential integration. The existence of tension however should not discourage us: living with contradiction is a constant of the “human condition” and perhaps its essence.

Cultural-experiential questions

The dual identity that defines Israel reflects the cultural duality of Israeli Jewish society – Western-liberal culture (perceived as universal) and traditional Jewish culture (defined as varied but particular). Israeli Arab society is not a partner in this split (it experiences a duality between Western-liberal culture and traditional Islamic culture), but is, of course, influenced by it.

Israeli society’s cultural duality could be a source of cross-pollination, not only a factor in internal Israeli conflict. Some of the writers emphasize the points of closeness and convergence between the two cultures, while others prefer to represent the cultures as hostile to each other and poised for inevitable struggle, i.e., a culture war. Some prefer a long-term, process-oriented path toward conflict resolution, while others prefer a decisive, rule-bound path.

In the past, Israel had a reasonable level of intra-Jewish consensus: the horrors of the Holocaust, the ethos of statehood, and existential security needs laid the foundations for a practical, even if not ideological, common denominator between the different groups within Israeli Jewish society. This basic level of consensus made common functional action possible even in the absence of agreement on the state’s existential meaning. Today, by contrast, eight decades into Israeli statehood, we are witnessing aggressive competition in the country’s marketplace of ideas. Each side tends to entrench itself behind a single cultural truth. Some fear that the realization of one side’s dream may come at the cost of a nightmarish reality for the other side.

The “what is a Jewish state” question encompasses another question, the place accorded to Jewish culture in its many shades, including the non-Orthodox streams, in our national life. In this context, the conceptual tension between “Jewish” and “democratic” manifests in Israel’s cultural character compared with, and in the face of, global and Western culture. To what degree is it appropriate or possible to actualize, within the Israeli public sphere, some measure of the experience, the memory, and the meaning of generations of Jewish existence? And could it be that all of these things, or at least some of them, are a yoke around our neck, as a country that seeks to belong to a global community with Western culture at its core? Different views on the matter are presented in this book.

Practical questions

“Jewish” has always been regarded as the designation of a people (demographic criterion), of a nation (national criterion), and of a faith (religious criterion). The physical, spiritual, and psychological existence of Jewish civilization in its various incarnations has always drawn sustenance from this triple source. But most of these incarnations emerged under exilic conditions. Should a “Jewish state” also reflect the many faces of Judaism itself?

Throughout history, most Jews viewed these three elements as a single integrated essence. Today, due to secularization and following the establishment of the State of Israel, the identity package has come undone. Many feel that the spheres of peoplehood, nationality, and religion do not overlap, and the Israeli reality is marked by continual friction between them.

Thus, questions about the place of religion in the state fuel the painful friction between religion and state in Israel, which does not separate the two. Questions about the state’s national character raise clear tensions between the Jewish majority and the Arab minority, which feels that the emphasis on Israel’s Jewish national character comes at its expense. Questions regarding criteria for immigration to Israel – citizenship laws and the Law of Return – are linked to the demographic issue. Here too, tensions flare over the state’s Jewishness and the fact that it is also home to a fifth of its citizens who are not Jewish.

Surveys of the state’s Arab citizens show that the country’s very definition as a Jewish state in the “ethnic nation-state” sense (a definition that applies to most other countries), creates the potential for a real sense of alienation on their part vis-à-vis the state. How should this challenge be addressed?

The existing conceptual and cultural-experiential difficulties restrict the sphere of Israeli common life, and there are many cases where the different sides try to exert cultural dominion via Knesset legislation or through the courts. Indeed, a major part of the debate over practical issues pertaining to the character of a Jewish and democratic state is directed to the legal arena. Much of the work of jurists is focused on the effort to determine the appropriate balance between “the values of a Jewish state” and “the values of a democratic state.” Yet although the authority to interpret these terms, which appear in Israel’s Basic Laws, is of course factually and legally vested in the judiciary, some feel that because the debate over Israel’s character as a Jewish state is essentially an identity debate, it should be conducted primarily in the ideological, social, and political arenas.

Many of the essays in this anthology indeed wrestle with practical issues that have engaged us ever since this state with its dual Jewish and democratic identity came into being. Various suggestions are made regarding the appropriate balance on practical matters where the aforementioned conceptual and cultural-experiential tensions arise. Nor is the question of which body should be entrusted with determining that balance neglected.


A key feature of Israeli life as the country marks its 75th jubilee is the lack of a broad social, political, intellectual, and experiential consensus on the proper vision for the state. Some will say that the disagreement on this matter typifies the Jews as a people and that we are now merely witnessing the current incarnation of that discord. But life amid controversy, though it has its positive side – “riches kept by the owner thereof to his benefit” – can also be a dangerously destabilizing force. Jewish history has, unfortunately, demonstrated this time and again.

It is therefore important to manage the dispute in a spirit of mutual respect for the opinions of others. A necessary condition for this is familiarity with those opinions, as expressed by their proponents in a reasoned manner. That is what this book is about. Our goal is to facilitate lively debate from which a responsible and honorable discourse may be shaped for future generations that will engage with the ultimate question of our national life: “What is a Jewish state?”


We would like to express our heartfelt thanks to the many people who devoted their energies to this unique endeavor.

Deep gratitude and appreciation are extended to President Isaac Herzog, who generously contributed the prefatory essay, and to the array of distinguished figures who generously shared their thoughts with us in this collection.

Foremost among those who saw the project to fruition is Dr. Haim Zicherman, who conceived the initiative and managed it with exceptional skill. In this he was aided by the entire staff of the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI), including Dr. Shuki Friedman, JPPI’s Vice President; Ghila Amati, the editorial coordinator; and many others who contributed advice and practical effort. Big thanks are due to our Hebrew-language publisher, Yedioth Books, under the inspiring direction of Dov Eichenwald and his talented staff, and to Academic Studies Press for shepherding the English edition. We are also grateful to Anat Bernstein and Barry Geltman for editing the texts, and to Sagir International Translations Ltd. for the translation of the essays.