From Jewish State to “Jewish Supremacy”

I am a concerned Israeli. I’m afraid that when the dispute over the values embodied in a Jewish state dissipates, we will end up with something much simpler, much cruder: Jewish supremacy; a supremacy based not on values or heritage, but on ethnicity. White supremacy in the United States, Jewish supremacy in Israel.

“We […] hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz-Israel, to be known as the State of Israel.” These are the jubilant words that conclude Israel’s Declaration of Independence. It is instructive to consider, from a distance of 75 years, what is in the Declaration and what is not.

The Declaration seeks to establish the Jewish people’s historic right to the Land of Israel. It assures the international community that the state will accord its minorities equality and treat them with respect. It says nothing at all about Judaism’s role and its place in the new state. The term “Jewish state” as employed in the Declaration is technical and geographic; it derives from the UN partition plan calling for the founding of a Jewish state alongside an Arab state. A Jewish state is the state of the Jews. Nothing more, nothing less.

A Jewish state. Over the years, this terse phrase has given rise to a wide-ranging debate – ethical, legal, and political. Each side has interpreted it in its own way and for its own convenience. Three Basic Laws approved by the Knesset have added to the Jewish state its counterpart “democratic state.” A law of contrary character, the Nation-State Law, has gone all out for a Jewish state and deliberately disregarded the previous Basic Laws’ commitment to democracy, thereby generating yet another disagreement: Do these two definitions complement each other or contradict each other, and which definition takes precedence? From time to time, we encounter the dispute’s sometimes-cruel practical implications at the Supreme Court.

Let’s leave aside for a moment the philosophers, the historians, the rabbis, the jurists, and the fateful debates over what a “Jewish state” means. In everyday Israeli life, a “Jewish state” is understood according to it plain meaning, one similar to the interpretation given by the signatories of the Declaration of Independence: The Jewish state is the state that is not Arab. It is defined first and foremost by what it is not. Afterward, at second and third glance, additional features present themselves: language, religion, shared fate, culture, ways of life.

But the distinction between Jewish and Arab has for a long time now been not technical but rather emotional, political, tribal: it is a matter of identity politics.

Seventy-five years after the founding of the state, one might have hoped that all Israelis, Jews and Arabs alike, would feel that Israeliness is their primary identity – the thing that defines them, that makes them proud: Israel as a homeland, a vision, a success story. Unfortunately, it hasn’t happened. The Jewish state won out.

Is religion, in its Orthodox form, the axis around which the Jewish state pivots? Not necessarily. In the 1990s Israel was blessed with a wave of immigration from the Former Soviet Union. Some 400,000 immigrants did not meet the stringent criteria of Halacha and neither they nor their descendants are Jewish by this definition. There were concerns that the Jewish majority would single them out and exclude them. This fear proved unfounded. All immigrants suffered absorption difficulties; it was only in exceptional cases that those whose Judaism was in doubt were subjected to exclusion. The immigrants joined Israeli-Jewish society as they were, with no investigation of their ancestry and no conversion. One main factor made this miracle possible: they weren’t Arabs; they were as non-Arab as they could possibly be.

That is what Bezalel Smotrich, head of the Religious Zionist party, meant when he promised his voters that the newly-formed government (December 2022) of which he is a member would be a “Jewish” government. The sin of the previous government was that it was based on a coalition that included an Arab party. That’s what made it non-Jewish, in the eyes of Smotrich and many others.

“Jewish” is not just the antithesis of “Arab,” it is also the antithesis of “Israeli.” The late Arthur Finkelstein, a strategic consultant to Benjamin Netanyahu and to Avigdor Lieberman, devised an efficient means of identifying right-wing voters: Ask someone what he is first and foremost – Jewish or Israeli. If he answers “Jewish,” he’s on the right, one of our own; if he answers “Israeli,” he’s center-left. “The Jews defeated the Israelis,” Shimon Peres said, or reputedly said, after his loss in the 1996 elections.

What was true in 1996 is even more true in 2022. Repeated waves of terrorism, violent clashes between Jews and Arabs within the Green Line, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and social-media incitement have all raised the barriers higher. In the Declaration of Independence, “the Jewish state” and “the State of Israel” are identical concepts. In the consciousness of a large proportion of Israelis today, this is not the case. The State of Israel is the framework; the Jewish state is the content, the essence, the vision.

One parameter that can help us determine the degree to which the Jewish state is Jewish is the state’s attitude toward Jews living outside it. The answer to this question is complicated. Israel is willing to receive aid from the Jewish people; it has trouble giving. Aliyah yes, donations to Israel yes, investments yes, Jewish lobbying of foreign governments and parliaments, yes. But when non-Orthodox streams within the Jewish people want to integrate in the Jewish state, solidarity disappears. They are excluded, expelled, and humiliated. Solidarity also disappears when Jewish communities in the West are critical of Israeli policy. It is a conditional solidarity; it exists so long as it serves the Israeli political system’s agenda.

The problem starts, perhaps, with the simplification of the concept of Judaism. One day, in Jerusalem, I met the son of acquaintances of mine, kibbutzniks. The boy had been given 13 assignments to complete by the time of his bar mitzvah. One of these assignments was called “Judaism.” “What’s the assignment,” I asked. “To visit Mea She’arim,” he answered. “Why?” I asked. “Do your teachers think the Judaism of Mea She’arim is more complete, purer, better, than the Judaism of your parents?” The boy was embarrassed. All he wanted was to get home in peace.

In the eyes of the state’s founders, Israel wasn’t just a state; it was a project, an idea, a national and social ideal. The Jews would return to their historical homeland and establish there a just, secure, flourishing society that would set an example for the rest of the world – a light unto the nations. The pretensions may have deflated, but the aspiration still exists. It exists among Israelis who want to shape the state in the spirit of the Zionist, secular, liberal heritage, and it exists among Israelis who want to shape the state in accordance with the heritage of their rabbis. There is no easy way to reconcile Vision A and Vision B. Not because there is a contradiction between “Jewish” and “democratic,” but because there is a contradiction between “Jewish” and “Jewish.” A secular Israeli interprets his Judaism one way; a Masorti (traditional) Israeli another way; a Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Israeli a third way; an ultra-nationalist Israeli in a fourth way; and there are yet other ways.

This is all very interesting, but it doesn’t get us the slightest bit closer to answering the question before us: What is a Jewish state, and where does it take us? I am a concerned Israeli. I’m afraid that when the dispute over the values embodied in a Jewish state dissipates, we will end up with something much simpler, much cruder: Jewish supremacy; a supremacy based not on values or heritage, but on ethnicity. White supremacy in the United States, Jewish supremacy in Israel.

Judenstaat, a state of the Jews, for the Jews, was what Theodor Herzl suggested. We should follow his vision. Nothing more, nothing less.


Nahum Barnea is a columnist with Yedioth Ahronoth and a 2007 Israel Prize laureate in journalism.