What Zionism Lacks at 75: A Border

The only way to avoid choosing between being either Jewish or democratic is for the conflict with the Palestinians to be resolved by providing the Palestinian people with the opportunity to fulfill their just collective right to self-determination in a separate state of their own.

Occupation. Palestinians. Peace. Two states.

I’m struck that – in providing framing for contributors to this volume – the editors never used these words which, to me, constitute central challenges to Israel’s Jewish identity at 75.

It’s no easy feat to frame a meaningful exploration of what it means for Israel to be a “Jewish state” and how its Jewish and democratic identities should relate and interact. The omission of these concepts, however, speaks volumes about the mindset of many in Israel and around the world as the country approaches the three-quarters of a century mark.

While many of the nation’s founders understood that the type of state Israel would become depended on grappling with the conflict between two peoples over one small piece of land, many in Israel today, its biggest supporters abroad, and even a solid group of its former enemies have taken to avoiding talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, two states or peace.

In my view, however, any inquiry into what it means to be a “Jewish state” or into how Israel can strike a balance between its Jewish and democratic identities not only cannot ignore the unresolved conflict, it must grapple with it head on.

Two fundamental truths make these topics unavoidable. One is that half the 13-14 million people who live between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea are not Jewish. The other is that Israel remains a state without borders. Borders define sovereignty and in turn establish the status of the people who live there. That in turn defines the nature of the state. Yet this most fundamental task of state creation remains – for Israel at 75 – incomplete.

I am well aware of how “tired” people are of talking about the conflict. I understand that some may think that, now that Israel is a first-class military power and economic force, the topic is moot. They may believe that “Israel has won” and it’s time to move on. It does certainly seem that some of Israel’s Arab neighbors – and former enemies – are more than ready to normalize relations with Israel even as the Palestinian people remain stateless and all-but powerless.

Yet a discussion of the nature of the state of Israel at 75 cannot ignore that – with no borders and a population that is demographically split 50-50, Israel must choose not just between two things (its Jewish and its democratic characters) but among three: being a Jewish state, being a democracy, and controlling all the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

It is dealing with this third leg of the triangle – disposition of the land – that poses the real challenge, in my view, to Israel’s Jewish character. To determine whether Israel will be a true democracy and whether it can remain the national home of the Jewish people at the same time, the people of Israel will have to decide what to do about the territory it occupied in 1967 and that – for 56 years – has existed under its military control in territorial purgatory.

Are those territories part of the State of Israel? Do the people who live there deserve full political rights, including citizenship? And, yes, that question must include Gaza where more than two million people live without the physical presence, it is true, of any Israelis but under the full control of Israeli authority – from overseeing permission to enter and exit, to maintaining its population registry, regulating its economy, airspace, fishing rights and more.

Some supporters of Israel may not like the word or label some use in international law to describe the fact that millions of Jews and Palestinians live in the same geographic territory over the Green Line yet are governed by two different legal systems. But that is the reality. Whatever one calls the situation, what we can say for sure is that it is most certainly not full democracy with equal rights for all.

If Israel, as the one sovereign state west of the Jordan River, would like its internationally recognized border to encompass all of the territory yet does not want all who live there to live under the same laws with an equal say in their government, then that state cannot claim to be a democracy.

To answer that challenge, some argue that to retain its democratic character, Israel must give all 13 plus million people who live in the area under its jurisdiction equal rights. Yet for those who want the state of Israel to have a Jewish character and a majority Jewish population, it’s clear that a state that is roughly half Jewish and half would not be able to do so.

As a proud Zionist, I believe that the Jewish people are a “nation” with the collective right to self-determination and that the state of the Jewish people is properly established on the land they have called home for millennia. I believe deeply in the justice, not just the necessity, of a state that the Jewish people can call home. With my family’s experience of the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal, pogroms in the Russian empire and the Holocaust in Europe – I staunchly believe the world was correct to establish a state that provides safety, sanctuary, and a home to the Jewish people.

At the same time, I find it absolutely imperative that, if there is to be a state in the Land of Israel that is rooted in both Jewish and democratic values and identity, there must also be a nation -state that is the home of the Palestinian people. Palestinians too have a long and deep connection to the land between the River and the Sea. Their claims are just, and the tragedies they have suffered – including in 1948 – real.

Failing to address the Palestinian question head-on while discussing what it means to be a Jewish state is to ignore a central challenge facing Israel’s future.

The only way to avoid choosing between being either Jewish or democratic is for the conflict with the Palestinians to be resolved by providing the Palestinian people with the opportunity to fulfill their just collective right to self-determination in a separate state of their own.

The Jewish people spent nearly two thousand years of exile living as a minority in the lands of others – most of the time without the same, equal rights that were enjoyed by their neighbors. The Jewish commitment to justice was honed through living under oppression, as victims of prejudice and without full and equal rights.

That’s why an essential element of being a “Jewish state” should be demonstrating extreme sensitivity to the rights of non-Jews living in the state and under its authority. The Jewish people know meaningfully how it feels to be mistreated by those with power. The antisemitism, prejudice, and lack of full rights that my family and so many others experienced should provide the foundation on which the legal/moral/ethical framework of the State of Israel is built.

The sage Hillel summed up these Jewish values on one foot: Whatever is hateful to you, do not do to other people. For Israel to be a truly Jewish state, then, it must live up to the ideals of its people.

Nationalism was not the watchword of the Jewish people through centuries of exile. Its laws, values and ethics were. That’s why a Jewish state much be an inclusive state, one where all those within its borders – Jewish or not – must be fully able to take part in both the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.

Antidemocratic forces around the world are aiming to limit the definition of who is entitled to the rights afforded to those living in their countries. Israel must buck this trend and avoid elevating the Jewish character of the state above its democratic identity. The creation of a two-tiered legal structure – one for those who are Jewish and one for those who are not – would not only be undemocratic and unjust – it would be un-Jewish.

Full inclusion in the state should extend as well to the definition of who the state recognizes as Jewish. Jewish identity should be defined broadly without regard to religious practice, affiliation with Zionism, or other characteristics. Non-Jewish spouses and partners should be welcomed and made to feel fully a part of the people into which they have married. Intermarriage should be seen as a strengthening and growing the Jewish people, not as a threat. Efforts to apply the rights and protections of the law or to extend the state’s welcome only to subsets of the Jewish people should be inconsistent with the notion of a Jewish homeland in the 21st century.

Taking this argument one step further, inclusivity should be the watchword not just of the Jewish state but of the Jewish world broadly. The global Jewish community will be best served by ensuring that all are welcome in our many and varied communal tents. This includes making room for all forms of practice of the Jewish faith as well as for all those who do not share in the broader community’s politics.

I support the decision of the editors of this essay collection to welcome contributions from non-Zionists, including some Israeli Arabs. I believe the same should apply to non-Zionist Jews. Zionism, as we know, is not a prerequisite for being a Jew. The increasing tendency to conflate “Jewish identity” with support for the State of Israel is troubling. Jewish identity and affiliation should not depend on the willingness to pledge allegiance to a nation-state and its actions and policies. After all, we should remember that large segments of world Jewry and major Jewish institutions were non-Zionist for much of the early 20th century. The Jewish community will be stronger and healthier if it includes those who disagree over Israel at the communal table.

Inclusion extends to the place of those of us who do not live in Israel in the global Jewish discussion about the direction of the state – as the editors of this volume have so wisely done. I term Jewish people like me around the globe “non-voting shareholders” in the state of Israel. We may not pay taxes, send our kids to serve in the army, or live under the threats that those who live there face.

Nonetheless, we do our part to help ensure the country’s success. In the United States, we lobby for American assistance for Israel’s security. We donate significantly to charitable causes in Israel. We visit frequently and send our children on Birthright. If institutions of our community are increasingly defining American Jewish identity as incorporating a sense of connection to the State of Israel, how could it be that our thoughts and opinions on it would not be welcome?

It should not shock us when, whether we like it or not, we – as Jews who don’t live in Israel – are held at least partly responsible by those we live and work with for the policies and actions of the state of our people. Tensions rise, for instance, on college campuses between Jewish students and their friends and classmates over perceptions of responsibility for the actions of the state of the Jewish people and the real and/or perceived injustice it may be causing to the Palestinian people.

I travel throughout the United States and speak regularly with Jewish Americans about Israel and its impact on our communities and families as the state turns 75. Without exception, the Jewish identities and experiences of people who don’t live in Israel are deeply affected by the course of events in Israel and by the actions and choices of those who do live there.

Part of what it should mean to be the “Jewish state,” it seems to me, is to take some responsibility for the well-being of the Jewish people as a whole. And if we Jews living in the United States are devoting considerable time, energy, and emotion to grappling with occupation, conflict, and Palestinian rights, then it doesn’t feel right that these topics should not be core to a discussion of what it means for Israel to be a “Jewish state.”

For 56 years since its amazing victory in the Six Day War and since it conquered and occupied the land over the Green Line, Israel has been “managing” the conflict. Throughout that time, there have been uprisings and conflicts. There has been terror and violence. I know first-hand about having my bus line, my favorite cafes, and even the market stall where I had just bought lunch blown up.

Yet across the years, public support and demand for conflict resolution has faded in Israel. And as the path toward peace has grown harder to see, there has been a growing desire to simply avoid talking about these difficult topics. But ignoring the conflict, pretending it may go away if we just look the other way, is not a solution. Failure to act is putting Israel on a path toward a tragic one-state, undemocratic – and un-Jewish – reality.

This volume seeks to grapple openly and honestly with what it means in the abstract for Israel to be a Jewish state. I would argue that all those writing and reading this volume – who obviously care deeply about the fate of Israel and of the Jewish people – would be well-served to devote our substantial intellectual firepower to developing strategies and messages that ensure that Israel can actually address these fundamental underlying threats.

The intellectual descendants of Herzl, Jabotinsky, Ben-Gurion, Begin and others should come together in shared purpose at this monumental anniversary to address the final and most critical challenge for Zionism: to define for the state of the Jewish people a border and in the process establish a second state that is the national homeland of the Palestinian people. If we can succeed, then perhaps when Israel reaches the century mark, we will have the luxury of looking deeply at the Jewish nature and character of that state without the need to address – or more accurately to avoid addressing – ongoing occupation and conflict.


Jeremy Ben-Ami is an attorney by training and Founding President of the American advocacy group J Street, which supports Israel, peace, and democracy.