Why not a Jewish state?

The Knesset won’t be voting on any serious legislation until after the election, but one’s attitude toward the proposed Jewish State Law (literally, the ‘National Law’)  remains a hot topic. The law, which I discussed in detail here, attempts to give legal expression to the “Jewish” aspect of the “Jewish and democratic state” that is promised by Israel’s Declaration of Independence.

The problem — at least for me it is a problem — is that many who oppose the law oppose it because they simply don’t want Israel to be ‘Jewish’ in any meaningful sense. For example, take this:

Israel has an identity problem. Is it a Jewish state that provides legal and material preferences for citizens of Jewish ancestry? Or is it a secular nation-state, but one that happens to be rooted in Jewish culture and the Hebrew language? For more than six decades Israeli politicians have maintained a useful ambiguity about this deeply existential question. But no longer.

The writer, Kai Bird, an American biographer and novelist, goes on to argue that there is an “Israeli” culture based on the Hebrew language and culture that has little to do with religion, and that

In reality, Israel is a multiethnic, vibrant and largely secular society. This is clearly not a tragedy. It is actually what most of the country’s original Zionist founding fathers envisioned — a new, modern state in ancient Palestine where those Jews who so desired could become citizens of a nation like any other modern nation-state. “Israelis” would be seen not as members of the Jewish Diaspora, but citizens of their own state.

His ideal Israel seems to be a smaller, Hebrew-speaking version of Oregon or California. I am certain that this was not the intent of most of the original Zionists, and I think that even most secular Israelis would disagree with him.

Bird doesn’t mention the Jewish people, as such. He refers to Jewish citizens of Israel, meaning those that practice the Jewish religion or who have ancestors that did. For him, it is an argument against a Jewish state that some Jews are secular. In this he seems to agree with Mahmoud Abbas, who insists that there is no Jewish people, only a religion (of course Abbas thinks there is a ‘Palestinian people’). And this is the reason that he doesn’t see the point of a Jewish state.

The intent of a Jewish state is not that there will be “material and legal advantages” to Jewish citizens. Indeed, the democratic aspect of the state, which is mentioned in the declaration of independence is meant to eliminate such advantages. Israel tries very hard to provide full civil rights to all of its citizens, something that can be difficult in a place that often becomes a battlefield (and something that I suspect Israel does better than the great majority of the world’s nations).

There is one great exception, the Law of Return. Is it not unfair to allow Jews to become citizens of this desirable state simply by asking, when the descendents of Arab refugees and African economic migrants are kept out? Bird doesn’t discuss this, but I am sure that it is one of the advantages he refers to.

This is precisely the crux of the matter. Herzl and Nordau (and later, Jabotinsky, Begin and Ben-Gurion) understood that the primary reason for being of a Jewish state was that it be a national home for the Jewish nation, a place where all Jews belonged, which could serve as a refuge from the Jew-hatred that they understood could never be eliminated outside of a Jewish state. If there is one “advantage” provided to Jews, it is that no matter where they live they have the option to go to Israel.

Although the Hebrew language serves as a unifying principle, the technology, culture and economy are impressive, the nightlife in Tel Aviv unmatched, these are not part of the essence of the State of Israel. There could be (and Herzl envisioned) a Jewish state where the people spoke German, or one in which all the citizens were secular. But the fact that it is the nation-state of the Jewish people is essential. And this requires the distinction between civil rights and national rights that Bird elides.

The Law of Return and the Jewish character of the national symbols of the state of Israel are what make Israel a Jewish state, along with the close cultural connections to Judaism, even for secular Jewish citizens. If these were attenuated — which is precisely what the proposed law is trying to prevent — then Israel would soon disappear, swallowed up in the Muslim Middle East that surrounds it.

Bird suggests that a Jewish state would be a “theocracy.” He ignores the fact that Israel has been a Jewish state in fact for 67 years without becoming a theocracy, and passing a law that says “Jewish law shall serve as a source of inspiration for the Knesset” will hardly make it so.

He seems to disdain Judaism, calling it “mere religiosity.” Yes, Israel is a place where Judaism flourishes — there is a synagogue on every street corner, it seems. But why not? Israel does not place obstacles in the path of any other faith; there are also mosques, churches and the Baha’i Temple. In how many countries outside of Israel and the United States can Jews practice their religion safely today?

In fact, one wonders why Bird wrote about Israel at all, since he is an American by birth who lives in Peru. If he opposes theocratic states he could have written about Iran, Saudi Arabia, or the Islamic State. Why didn’t he complain that the established church of Norway is the Evangelical Lutheran Church and it is supported by the state, and “inhabitants professing it are bound to bring up their children the same?” If he dislikes nationalism, why didn’t he write about Hungary, whose constitution begins “We the people of the Hungarian nation…?”

The world is full of national states, states that have established religions (Israel does not), even states that exclude certain ethnic or religious groups. It is full of undemocratic kingdoms and dictatorships.

What is so special about the Jewish people having a state? And why do so many want to deny it to them?

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1 Response to Why not a Jewish state?

  1. Tom E says:

    “Is it a Jewish state that provides legal and material preferences for citizens of Jewish ancestry?”

    You are right, Vic. Why should a “Jewish state” necessarily provide legal and material preference for citizens of Jewish ancestry? It would not and does not.

    Furthermore the “right of return” is a red herring too. It’s not a right which accrues to Jewish citizens of Israel. It is a right which accrues to non-citizens. Therefore this cannot be seen as discriminatory against non-Jewish citizens.

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