What Israel Means to Me

The Jewish state must remain democratic and pluralistic. To be Jewish but not democratic is an inherent contradiction

What does Israel as a Jewish state mean to me? A Palestinian negotiator once privately asked me a similar question: “I understand why Israel being a Jewish state is important to Israelis. But why is it important to you, a Jewish American?” I wondered why he was asking – and he answered, “Look, in the abstract, a genuine binational, democratic state might be best for Israelis and Palestinians. But if both Israeli and non-Israeli Jews believe that there must be a Jewish state, it rules that out as an outcome.” I commented that I did not see how a binational state could be anything but a guarantee for enduring conflict: There were two national movements, with two national identities, competing for the same space. Both national identities needed expression. Denying their fulfillment would not suppress them, and, ultimately, neither side would accept giving up who they were in one state. Were Palestinians really willing to live in a state without a Palestinian identity? He answered, “Probably not, but I would still like to understand why a Jewish state is important to you and to non-Israeli Jews.”

My shorthand explanation was that Jewish history had exposed the horrific, tragic consequences of not having a state for the Jewish people. Jews living as outsiders would always be vulnerable. Antisemitism was the world’s oldest prejudice and it endured. Conspiracies against the Jews have never stopped even where there are no Jews. Jews had always been singled out, and tough economic times always triggered a resurgence of nativist populism – and the accompanying xenophobic nationalism always targeted Jews, the foremost other. Jews needed a place of refuge and only a state of the Jewish people could provide that with certainty. That, I said, explained the negative imperative of ensuring the safety and survival of the Jews. But there was also a positive imperative: Having a state in their historic homeland was necessary for the Jewish people – who were a people with a culture and a system of values – to fulfill their promise.

I could not help but recall this conversation as I contemplated the question of what the Jewish state means to me on the eve of Israel’s 75th birthday. I deeply believe what I said then. But that merely explains why a Jewish state must exist. It doesn’t capture what a Jewish state means to me. To be truly a Jewish state is not to be a state like any other. It must embody a set of values, a strong moral underpinning. Ahad Ha’am, one of the most compelling Zionist philosophers, argued that the Jewish state must lead a moral renaissance. David Ben-Gurion believed that Israel must be “a light unto the nations.”

How can a state be Jewish and not aspire to fulfill that role and meet that standard? To live a Jewish life means to live a life of meaning and purpose. To emphasize fairness, justice, and helping those in need. We Jews are obligated to welcome the stranger because we were once strangers in a strange land. We are called on to engage in repairing a broken world. We have an obligation not just to see what is wrong, but to act to right it. A state that is a Jewish state must be in the forefront of doing what is right.

In so many ways, Israel, the Jewish state, is doing what is right. It is the start-up nation, using technology and innovation to address basic needs of humanity. It is a world leader in dealing with the global challenge of water shortages, not just desalination but with wastewater treatment, conservation, drip irrigation and the development of drought-resistant crops. Israeli specialists grow wheat and rice – two water intensive staples – for a fraction of what was traditionally required. Think of the importance for dealing with global hunger and water scarcity. In medicine, Israel not only does cutting- edge research but also provides remarkable care to non-Israelis. At Rambam hospital, I saw how a Syrian man’s face had been fully reconstructed after it had literally been blown off by a bomb. It was a miracle of modern Israeli medicine performed by doctors who gained those skills, techniques, and talents in no small part because of their treatment of Israeli war casualties.

That is a reminder that Israel, the Jewish state, lives in a tough neighborhood. Throughout its entire existence, its citizens have faced terror and threats to eradicate the country. In order to foster the greater good, Israel must first survive. It has had to be tough and resourceful. It must have forces of such power that its enemies know what their fate will be if they carry out their threats. It has had to kill so as not to be killed. It understands that it must never appear weak, especially in a region where the weak do not survive.

It is no small achievement that Israel has largely maintained its character in the face of these threats. It has maintained its democracy and the rule of law in circumstances where others might have sacrificed theirs for the sake of security. Yes, it has its moral stains, and yes, occupation of Palestinians (and what they are often subjected to) at times betrays those values and threatens Israel’s identity. And, yes, Israel like other democracies is now facing populist forces that challenge its very essence. But in its 75th year, Israel, the Jewish state, has not surrendered its character.

For me that means the Jewish state must remain democratic and pluralistic. To be Jewish but not democratic is an inherent contradiction. Nothing would betray Jewish values more than for Israel to surrender its democratic identity. By definition, a Jewish state must respect all of its citizens – whether secular, religious, Jewish or Arab. Even as the state of the Jewish people, it must respect the civil and legal rights of its Arab citizens. Israel’s Declaration of Independence commits to that and more, stating: “The State of Israel would be open for Jewish immigration and for the ingathering of Exiles; it will foster 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; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”

These words captured the moral basis of the state and the standard to which it would hold itself. Maybe Israel, like any state, does not always live up to its promise. It is, after all, made up of humans who are imperfect. But look at the standard it created for itself and its descendants. Preserving that standard, and striving to fulfill it, is what the Jewish state means to me. And, for those of us who see in the Jewish state the pursuit of values we would like to see embraced internationally, our commitment should remain unwavering – even when some of the actions of that Jewish state may challenge our faith.

First published by The Jerusalem Post.