Yisrael Aumann

Israel is a Jewish state because the vast majority of the people living in it are Jewish, because its public sphere is Jewish, because to a great extent private life is also Jewish, and because it is located in Eretz Israel, the national home of the Jewish people for thousands of years.

A country where Hebrew is spoken, the day of rest is Shabbat, the Jewish festivals are national holidays, Jewish heritage is transmitted in the schools, streets are named for Jewish personalities, names of cities and sites come from Jewish history, many study Torah, the food sold in supermarkets is kosher, shiva is observed for the deceased, the army conducts itself according to Halacha, wedding ceremonies follow Jewish tradition, boys are circumcised, and the flag, national anthem, and state emblem bear a Jewish character – that is a Jewish state. Such is the State of Israel today. The country is Jewish as its public sphere, and to a very large extent also its private sphere, are Jewish.

So to the question “What is a Jewish state?” we may respond by pointing to Israel. Israel is a Jewish state by law; but more important, that is its reality.

A more challenging question is how to ensure that the state remains Jewish. This question has two aspects. One is demographic: for the state to remain Jewish, it must maintain a decisive Jewish majority. Without such a majority, there is no way to ensure that the language of the country will continue to be Hebrew, that its symbols will remain Jewish, that its children will continue to be educated in the traditions of the Jewish people, and so on. The second aspect relates to the familiarity of Israelis with the Jewish heritage and their identification with it.

The demographic challenge

A decisive Jewish majority does not preclude the ability of a non-Jewish minority – in this case Arab – to live in dignity and prosper in Israel. The Arab minority does not pose a challenge to the Jewish character of Israel, as it is recognized and defined as a minority, and itself wishes to preserve its culture and a certain degree of separation from the Jewish population. Most Israeli Arabs live in Arab towns, speak Arabic among themselves, and enroll their children in Arab schools.

The demographic challenge at issue here concerns a relatively small Gentile minority that is not Arab, currently amounting to some five percent of the country’s population. This minority lives within the Jewish majority without being defined or differentiated. Its daughters and sons live in the same communities as Jews, speak Hebrew, and send their children to Jewish schools. Over time, this minority may undermine the Jewish character of the state. The other side of that coin is that in a Jewish state, those who live among Jews, are educated in the same institutions, celebrate the same holidays, speak the same language, and serve in the same army deserve to be Jews. In the Jewish State of Israel, it is not good to distinguish between “Israeli” and “Jewish” (except, of course, in so far as Israel’s Arab citizens are concerned, as mentioned above).

For Israel to remain a Jewish state, it should find a way to absorb this minority into the Jewish people. The way that suggests itself is conversion, which, even if not based on a completely religious lifestyle, would allow future generations to assimilate into the Jewish people. I am not a Halachic authority and do not seek to change Halacha; but this challenge should be addressed, and practical solutions offered. The scenario is not new. Thus in the Book of Esther, we read that “for fear of the Jews, many converted to Judaism” (Esther 8:17). And in Deuteronomy, Moses declares: “All of you stand this day before your God … every man of Israel, your children, your women, and the stranger within your camp” (29:9-10). The expression “stranger within your camp” refers to Gentiles who joined the Jewish people and were integrated into it. (Incidentally, apart from Sabbath observance, the commandment to love the stranger appears in the Torah more often than any other.)

The need for a Jewish majority is unique to Israel; only in the Jewish state does individual identity have consequences for the collective. Abroad, a Jew marrying a Gentile is making a personal choice that positions him outside the collective. Perhaps he can maintain his Judaism for another generation, even pass a little on to his children; but in the vast majority of cases, the grandchildren will have no connection to the Jewish people. Though the Jewish community will suffer quantitatively, qualitatively it will not. It will continue on its path, and he on his. But in Israel, a Jew marrying a Gentile continues to live, act and exert influence in the country, and so do the ensuing generations. The safety valve that exists abroad and releases those who wish to leave the collective does not exist here.

The educational challenge

The second challenge to Israel’s remaining a Jewish state concerns education. One does not have to be religiously observant to want a Jewish state and to further it actively. However, to maintain the Jewish character of the state over time, the majority of Jews in Israel must be familiar with the Jewish heritage and identify with their own Jewishness. Without these, a Jewish state cannot survive. So, the first thing that must be done – and this is enormously important – is to strengthen the study of Jewish heritage, culture, and history in Jewish schools. But that is not enough. It is hard to imagine a Jewish state without a significant core of religiously observant citizens. Thanks to them, for example, the socio-cultural value of Shabbat and the Jewish holidays, the accessibility of kosher food, and the centrality of the Hebrew language will be preserved.

Another facet of the educational challenge concerns institutions of higher education, which train the country’s teachers and intellectuals. Once, before the establishment of the state, Ben-Gurion was asked whether one should not take the Brit Shalom movement, which opposed the vision of a Jewish state, more seriously. Ben-Gurion replied disdainfully: “They can chatter all they want; in the meantime, I will build the state.” That was a fateful mistake. Though Brit Shalom did not realize its political vision, its adherents constituted the educational and intellectual elite of the Yishuv, which instilled its ideas into the subsequent generations. A direct line connects today’s Post-Zionism to pre-state Palestine’s Brit Shalom.

Values of a Jewish state

A prominent moral value of Judaism – perhaps the most prominent – is concern for others, particularly the weak. We have already mentioned the mitzvah of loving the stranger. The Torah commands us regarding leket (gleanings), shikhḥah (forgotten produce), pe’ah (corners), shmitat kesafim (cancellation of debts), ma’aser (tithing), hashavat aveidah (returning lost objects), and helping others (Deuteronomy 22:4: “If you see your fellow’s donkey or ox fallen on the road, do not ignore it; raise it together with him”), among other similar commandments. In Maimonides’ codex, an entire volume is devoted to “gifts to the poor.” The morning prayers open with the Mishnah: “Following are deeds whose dividends one enjoys in this world, while the principal is preserved for the world to come: honoring one’s father and mother; giving charity; praying twice a day in the study-house; entertaining guests; visiting the ill; providing for brides; attending funerals; praying devotedly; making peace between one man and another; and most important, studying Torah (cf. Shabbat 127a).” In the short vidui (confession) included in the daily prayers, we confess to 24 sins, including treachery, slander, robbery, lying, self-serving advice, and scoffery; but not to a single sin of a purely religious nature (such as observing kashrut). In the Talmud (Shabbat 31a) we find the words of Hillel the Elder: “What you yourself hate, do not do to another – that is the entire Torah.”

Many of these values are in the private sphere; it is to be hoped that most Israelis conduct themselves accordingly. The state implements some through the social services it provides, for which the citizen ultimately pays with his taxes.

Another value of Judaism is the establishment of a justice system: “You shall appoint magistrates and officers … and they shall treat the people justly. Don’t judge unfairly; don’t show partiality; don’t take bribes … Justice, justice shall you pursue, so that you may thrive on the land that your God is giving you” (Deuteronomy 16:18-20). In keeping with this general mitzvah, and many specific mitzvot that spell out what justice means in practice, Halacha – “Hebrew law” – developed.

Unfortunately, one must admit that in this respect, Israel is not a “Jewish state”; Hebrew law was not accepted as the dominant legal system here. For example, in Hebrew criminal law, a defendant cannot incriminate himself (Ketubot 18b); confessions of guilt are inadmissible. But in modern Israel, nearly all criminal cases – 95% – end in a plea bargain (or simply a confession). Thus, in the Jewish state a person can indeed incriminate himself, in a big way. This is truly a miscarriage of justice, as the authorities are motivated to pressure the accused – to the point of actual physical torture – to admit guilt. The accused confesses not because he committed the crime, but because he cannot withstand the pressure.

The above-mentioned values are truly Jewish. But sometimes the catchphrase “Jewish values” is applied to anything that seems good or worthy. For example, in the public debate over refugees from Ukraine, calls have been heard to open the country’s gates, in the name of “Jewish values,” to a large wave of non-Jewish refugees. It may be appropriate for the State of Israel to admit some non-Jewish refugees, but not because of the state’s Jewish character. As a Jewish state, Israel is committed first and foremost to Jewish refugees. It is also obliged to maintain a solid Jewish majority, and therefore cannot accommodate a large influx of non-Jewish refugees. And finally, the non-Jewish refugees who are admitted should eventually convert, as discussed above. Similar considerations apply to infiltrators from Africa.

Not infrequently, Israel demands of itself behavior whose “morality” far exceeds the standards accepted elsewhere in the world. For example, senior figures in Israel’s defense establishment decided that it is preferable that IDF soldiers be killed than that “innocent” civilians from hostile populations be killed; as though IDF soldiers are “guilty.” Ultimately, Israel’s first obligation is to its continued existence. Even if it sets an unparalleled moral standard for itself, our detractors will continue their work with undiminished vigor.

Quite a bit of criticism has been leveled at the approach presented here, according to which the matter of a Jewish majority is paramount. I remember a conversation, during one of my visits to the United States, with a Gentile woman who praised the achievements of the Jewish people and its contributions to humanity, but complained about the supposed moral injustice of endogamous marriage. I explained to her that these things are interdependent – that what enables the Jewish people’s existence and its contributions to humanity is, above all, that it maintains its identity and uniqueness. Without physical continuity you cannot have spiritual continuity. If the Jews were to marry everyone, they would disappear within a single generation. The same is true nationally: If Israel fails to maintain a Jewish majority within its borders, it will cease to be a Jewish state.

A Jewish and democratic state

In the text that accompanied the invitation to write this essay, the editors wrote: “Israel’s Declaration of Independence speaks of ‘the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz Israel, to be known as the State of Israel.’ … Decades later, with the enactment of Basic Laws, the legislature refers us to ‘values of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.’ The Israeli public widely endorsed this dual identity – ‘Jewish’ and ‘democratic’– and today there is no doubt that this is the accepted definition of the State of Israel.”

Allow me to take issue. Israel is indeed Jewish and democratic, but that is not its “definition.” The definition is “Jewish,” period. As the editors themselves wrote, that is what the Declaration of Independence says. And 70 years later, in 2018, it was again affirmed in the Basic Law: Israel – the Nation-State of the Jewish People, which states that “The State of Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, in which it realizes its natural, cultural, religious and historic right to self-determination.” Although democracy is important, it is not the main thing. For thousands of years, we have been praying every day: “Return in mercy to Jerusalem Your city.” Finally, the dream of thousands of years is coming true. The secular founders of the state wanted and aspired to a Jewish state, and even fought for it. Judaism is the soul of the state, its raison d’être. There are many democratic states; only one is Jewish.

The editors went on to write: “The dual-identity definition reflects the cultural duality that characterizes Israeli Jewish society, between liberal-Western culture and traditional Jewish culture.”

To that, too, I take exception. In my view, there is no “duality.” Western-liberal culture can and does live completely at peace, even happily, with traditional Jewish culture. It is true that there are Jews who know only traditional Jewish culture; and there are also those who know only Western culture. But that’s their problem; there is no contradiction between the two. The opposite is true. The two cultures feed each other, shed light on each other. “It is good to grasp the one, without abandoning the other” (Ecclesiastes 7:18).

Is there tension between “Jewish” and “democratic”?

Some argue that the phrase “Jewish and democratic” is a contradiction in terms. In my view, there is no contradiction, whether one understands the word “democracy” as a form of government only, or whether one also sees in it a commitment to values such as tolerance and equal rights.

First of all, there is clearly no contradiction between a democratic political system –the rule of the people – and the state being “Jewish.” Indeed, the Jewish nature of the state is not dictated from above, but rather stems from the fact that most of its citizens are Jewish; the people themselves, through their democratic institutions, decided that the country would have the character it has. If, for example, the people wanted public transportation to operate in Jerusalem on Shabbat, it would. In fact, in Haifa it does.

Nevertheless, one could ask whether there is a contradiction between the Jewishness of the state and “fundamental democratic values” such as those detailed above. The answer to this question is also “no” – unless the separation of religion and state is considered a basic value of democracy.

Finally, does the existence of a sizeable Arab minority within the Jewish state contradict the basic values of democracy? Here too the answer is “no”; there is no contradiction. On the contrary, the existence of different ethnic-cultural communities within the state reinforces diversity, which is now considered one of the core values of democracy. As long as Israel’s Arab citizens have equal rights, there is no problem.

Diaspora Jewry

Only about half of the world’s Jews live in Israel. It is fitting that the state be concerned with the Jews who live outside it, and with their communities. Of course, this includes opening the gates of aliyah to them, whether or not they are in need. But that is not enough. Israel should “strive to secure the welfare of Jews … and act to preserve the cultural, historical, and religious heritage of the Jewish people in the Diaspora,” as stipulated in the Basic Law: Israel – the Nation-State of the Jewish People. Israel should cultivate an active relationship with Diaspora Jews and encourage them to visit, so that they can get to know the country, its people, and its culture. Israel is not just a Jewish state; it is the state of the Jews – all the Jews of the world.


In short, Israel is a Jewish state because the vast majority of the people living in it are Jewish, because its public sphere is Jewish, because to a great extent private life is also Jewish, and because it is located in Eretz Israel, the national home of the Jewish people for thousands of years.


Professor Yisrael (Robert) Aumann is a mathematician known for his contributions to game theory. He is Professor Emeritus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a 2005 Nobel laureate in economics.