What’s Jewish About a Jewish State

The fear of Israel being the state of all its citizens is that it will lose its Jewish majority and will consequently cease to exist as the homeland of the Jewish people. This fear was coherent in the state’s early decades. Today as we celebrate our 75th anniversary, there are close to 7.5 million Jewish citizens in Israel, and 2 million non-Jewish citizens. Our challenge for the future is to admit victory and develop new policies that reflect our current reality, and not that of 75 years ago.

The meaning of the qualifier, “Jewish,” in Jewish State is complicated and subject to much debate for the term is inherently ambiguous, simultaneously referring to both Jews and to Judaism. The problem is further compounded by the fact that Judaism now divides the Jewish people more than it unites us, leaving the question of which Judaism should shape the Jewishness of Israel the subject of much debate.

My answer to the question, what is Jewish about the Jewish state, is based on a reading of Israel’s founding Declaration of Independence. When referencing the Jews, Israel is Jewish by virtue of its being the homeland of the Jewish people. By virtue of its association with Judaism, it obligates a values commitment to Israel being the state of all its citizens, treating its Jewish and non-Jewish citizens equally.

The State of the Jews and their Religious Sensibilities

In the Declaration of Independence, the “Jewishness” of a Jewish state is first expressed through the fact that it is a state of the Jewish people, (though not exclusively for the Jewish people). Israel’s right to sovereignty is grounded on its relationship with the historic Jewish people and their history, and accordingly, its first commitment is to “be open for Jewish immigration and for the ingathering of the Exiles.” Israel belongs to the Jewish people, who, consequently, have a claim to citizenship therein. The more the Jews embrace Israel, the more it embodies its Jewish identity and roots.

Now, in this sense of Jewishness, no commitment to conformity to Jewish law or tradition is manifested. More accurately, almost no commitment. In the homeland of the Jewish people it is nearly impossible to embrace Jews but ignore their Judaism. In Europe, Judah Leib Gordon could still proclaim the Haskalah ideal: “Be a Jew in your home and a man outside it.” However, the essence of sovereignty and serving as the homeland of the Jewish people, is that in Israel, for the Jews, “home” encompasses the public sphere as well. We have come home, and relegating Judaism to the private domain is experienced as a diasporic consciousness. To be sovereign is to be free; free to be able to be a Jew in public.

As a result of this core consciousness, in Israel there has always been a push to undermine a Jeffersonian type of wall separating religion and state. Cracks in this wall are already evident in the closing paragraph of the Declaration, cracks that, I believe, ought to guide our understanding of the role for Judaism in the Jewish State:

“Placing our trust in the Rock of Israel, we affix our signatures to this proclamation at this session of the provisional council of state, on the soil of the homeland, in the city of Tel-Aviv, on this Sabbath eve, the 5th day of Iyar, 5708, the 14th of May,1948.”

“Sabbath eve,” ” the 5th day of Iyar,” “5708, reflect a recognition that in their homeland, the Jewish people have a right to have their culture and calendar, not to speak of their historical language, define the public sphere. This idea was reinforced in subsequent legislation and ultimately in the Basic Law: Israel – The Nation State of the Jewish People.

However, the more significant “crack” is with the seemingly innocuous phrasing “Placing our trust in the Rock of Israel.” Who is the Rock of Israel? For secular Israeli Jews, the term was gratuitous. For the Orthodox Jewish leaders, whose signature on the Declaration was critical, the reference was far from superfluous. As believing Jews, who saw in the establishment of the state a manifestation of God’s return to history and the beginning of the ushering in of the Messianic era, they demanded that God be mentioned in the body of the Declaration. For Orthodox and traditional Jews, God was a part of their Zionist story. However, for many Secular Jews, for whom Zionism was at its core a rejection of traditional beliefs, or at the very least, a rejection of the belief in God as determining events in history, no trust in God needed to be implied, assumed, or accepted.

In the case of the linguistic phrasing of the Rock if Israel, a compromise was found allowing all to interpret the term in accordance with their beliefs. For secular Jews it referred to the Jewish people or the Israeli Army. For the Orthodox, it referred to God, as God was so termed in the Bible and Jewish liturgy.

The case of “The Rock of Israel” can serve as a helpful model for how Judaism can shape the public sphere. The impetus for including the phraseology was neither Jewish law, nor a broader assertion that Israel’s Jewishness requires adherence to Jewish tradition. There is no such obligation, nor is there a tradition which demands that our documents reference and give thanks to God. Rather, the motivation for its inclusion was solely the religious sensibilities of Orthodox Jews whose support for the Declaration was needed and desired.

When Judaism enters the affairs of state by virtue of the authority of Jewish law, the state is accepting a particular reading of Judaism and granting it preference and legitimacy over others. At a time when Jews debate the essence of Judaism and its requirements, to do so is to alienate some Jews in the homeland of the Jews and undermine the essence of a Jewish state. In addition, when the authority for the inclusion of religion is a claim to Jewish law, religious coercion is sanctioned, as those with a different understanding of Jewish law are forced to accept a reading that is not theirs.

This is not the case when Judaism enters at the impetus of Jew’s religious sensibilities and commitments. The authority is what particular Jews feel they want or need to see in their national homeland, not their claim that this is what Judaism demands. As a result, when being obligated by the religious sensibilities of Jews, by definition one must also take into account the religious sensibilities of all Jews and find ways to share the public domain. No one’s Jewish sensibilities can be favored or given preference, and no one can demand a place for their religious sensibilities at the expense of others.

When Judaism is a reflection of religious sensibilities alone, one can have state-funded Jewish education, but only so long as each citizen has access to a school system that reflects their Jewish sensibilities. A state-funded rabbinate can be acceptable, but only under the condition that there are multiple ones. When the authority for the rabbinate is founded on the sensibilities of the Jewish citizenry of the Jewish state, as distinct from Jewish law, no one practice, or belief system takes precedence over others.

This is exactly what we see playing out in the Declaration. The word God was not included and in its stead, a noble compromise was found, an ambiguous turn of phrase identified, which all could embrace despite their disparate beliefs. No one was religiously coerced to accommodate sensibilities that violated their own.

Chief Justice Aharon Barak turned this reasoning into law in his famous 1997 ruling in the Horev v. Minister of Transportation case, regarding the legality of closing a street to vehicular traffic on Shabbat where the majority of the inhabitants in the area are Orthodox. His argument, grounded in the 1992 Basic Law of Human Dignity and Freedom, which stipulates that Israel is both a Jewish and democratic State, is that Israel as a Jewish state must give legal weight to religious sensibilities, but under the condition that in doing so it does not violate the religious sensibilities of others.

A Jewish State of all its Citizens

Does a Jewish state also demand some role for Judaism beyond religious sensibilities? Here too, the Declaration of Independence offers a blueprint. The Jewish state, will not merely serve as the state of the Jews, but will also:

“foster the 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.”

Before the Bible articulated the particular story of the Jewish people beginning with Abraham in Genesis 12, it starts the Jewish story with God’s relationship with all of humankind. In the language of the Torah, this teaches that all human beings are created equal, as all were created in the image of God. (Genesis 1:26-28; 9:6) The Rabbinic tradition expands this lesson and instructs that the creation of the human race began with one person so that no one could ever claim that their parents are superior to others. (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5) To discriminate between Jew and non-Jew is to deny the essence of our Jewish story.

Even after the Bible shifts to the particular story of the Jewish people and our covenant with God, we are reminded that chosenness is not a privilege but a responsibility: “I will make of you a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great. And you shall be a blessing.” (Genesis 12:2) The Jewish people’s core mission on earth is to be a blessing to others “for all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves through you. (Genesis 12:3) Our mission is to “walk in the way of the Lord by doing just and right,” (Genesis 18:19) and to internalize that our election is conditional on our doing precisely that. Just as Abraham understood that to be a Jew is to stand up, even against God, in the face of a perceived injustice God was planning against the non-Jewish city of Sodom, so too a Jewish state is Jewish to the extent that it stands unequivocally for all its citizens, demanding equal justice for all.

Modelling this value, over and again the Bible demands that we love the stranger for we were strangers in the land of Egypt, and that the stranger shall be as one of our citizens. (Leviticus 19:34) Now, while Palestinian citizens of Israel are not strangers in this land, the lesson of our tradition is that in a Jewish society, all need to be treated equally. The central point is that as Jews we are obligated to treat others as we yearn to be treated. A Jewish people who suffered untold discrimination and persecution when in other peoples’ home, needs to be committed to conduct the affairs of our home differently. Or more accurately, to treat the Palestinians as we had hoped others would treat us – with justice, equality, and dignity. As Hillel the elder famously taught: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to another; that is the entire Torah. The rest is commentary. Go study.” (BT Tractate Shabbat 31a)


Can a Jewish state be both the homeland of the Jewish people and at the same time the state of all its citizens? The prevailing opinion is that it cannot.

I disagree.

Israel can change its laws and norms that discriminate against Jews in areas of religion, and against its Palestinian citizens in areas of budget allocations, citizenship, building and zoning permits. To do so we need a new political discourse that embraces the full meaning, potential, and responsibility of being a Jewish state. We need to internalize that Israel is less Jewish when the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Rabbinate and political parties monopolize the Judaism of the public sphere and where their religious sensibilities have authoritative weight and value. We are less Jewish when we decrease the legal status of Arabic, when we try to prevent integration, when a Palestinian Israeli has almost no access to family reunification, or when we do not allow Palestinian population centers in the Galilee and the Negev to expand and thrive.

The fear of Israel being the state of all its citizens is that it will lose its Jewish majority and will consequently cease to exist as the homeland of the Jewish people. This fear was coherent in the state’s early decades. Today as we celebrate our 75th anniversary, there are close to 7.5 million Jewish citizens in Israel, and 2 million non-Jewish citizens. Our challenge for the future is to admit victory and develop new policies that reflect our current reality, and not that of 75 years ago. An Israel that is the state of all its citizens does not require of Israel to give up the Law of Return nor its mission to be also the homeland of the Jewish people. At the same time, there is no longer a demographic challenge to the Jewishness of Israel (unless we continue to hold on to all of Judaea and Samaria). We can, if we have the will, create an equitable immigration and family reunification policy that grants Jewish and Palestinian citizens equal access to citizenship for their families.

In the early years before and after the founding of the state, a homeland of the Jewish people and the state of all its citizens, could not have been imagined, let alone formed. “Dirty” compromises needed to be broached, as we focused on the basic imperative to survive. As we celebrate 75 years, we celebrate not merely the passing of time, but the transformation of our circumstances. Our strength and success allow us to celebrate our victory and challenge us to not merely be a nation like all other nations, but a Jewish state worthy of the highest moral and spiritual aspirations of our people.


Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute and holds the Kaufman Family Chair in Jewish Philosophy.