The Soul of the State Must be Jewish

There is a struggle for the soul of the State of Israel.

It isn’t about whether Israel should withdraw from Judea and Samaria, how the IDF should act in Gaza, or whether the buses should run on Shabbat, although your answer to these questions may be implied by your position on a more fundamental one. It isn’t a matter of Right and Left, religious or secular, hawk or dove.

It’s just this: how seriously do you take the idea that Israel is a Jewish state.

Most Jews in Israel and in the diaspora take it as a given. Of course it is a Jewish state, or more correctly, the Jewish state. But the struggle I mentioned starts when you try to explain what that means.

Israel’s Declaration of Independence says that Israel will be the Jewish state, and that it will be democratic in nature. It details at least some of the ways it will be democratic, but “Jewish” is not further explicated.

The former President of Israel’s Supreme Court, Aharon Barak, took an extreme position. He said

The content of the phrase “Jewish state” will be determined by the level of abstraction which shall be given it. In my opinion, one should give this phrase meaning on a high level of abstraction, which will unite all members of society and find the common among them. The level of abstraction should be so high, until it becomes identical to the democratic nature of the state.

And he added,

The basic values of Judaism are the basic values of the state. I mean the values of love of man, the sanctity of life, social justice, doing what is good and just, protecting human dignity, the rule of law over the legislator and the like, values which Judaism bequeathed to the whole world. Reference to those values is on their universal level of abstraction, which suits Israel’s democratic character, thus one should not identify the values of the state of Israel as a Jewish state with the traditional Jewish civil law. It should not be forgotten that in Israel there is a considerable non-Jewish minority. Indeed, the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish state are those universal values common to members of democratic society, which grew from Jewish tradition and history.

In other words, according to Barak, “Jewish values” are identical with secular democratic liberalism, and therefore when you call Israel a “Jewish state” you just mean a free, democratic, liberal one – so much so that even non-Jewish minorities will feel at home in it.

That is one side of the dichotomy. The other side could be represented by MK and Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who has often said that he – and any Orthodox Jew – would prefer the state to be governed according to the laws of the Torah. “Israel is a Jewish state, and it will return to be ruled as it was in the days of Kings David and Solomon, according to Torah law, in line with the way society lives in 2019,” he said in June.

Smotrich is not likely to get his way, because a majority of Israelis do not wish to be governed by religious law, even if it is updated to take into account the social and technological changes of the past 3000 years or so. But it would be a fatal mistake to move too far in the opposite direction and adopt Barak’s point of view, which removes virtually all content from the idea of a Jewish state.

The Jewish state is a refuge for persecuted Jews, and it is a homeland that is available at any time and with minimal friction to any Jew, persecuted or not. Most Israeli Jews agree with this, and they are proud of how Israel absorbed the Jews from Yemen, Ethiopia, and the former Soviet Union. But someone who thinks that the “Jewishness” of the state is no more than its democratic nature might ask why only Jews should benefit from this refuge. Why not, for example, “Palestinians,” who also view themselves as exiles?

If a Jewish state is only a democratic state (even in the Jewish “prophetic tradition”), then there is no justification for it being more than a “state of its citizens,” as the extreme Left and Arab minorities in Israel have demanded. There would be no reason to privilege Jewish symbols, like the flag and the national anthem, the holidays and the calendar, and even the Hebrew language. Immigration need not be made easy for Jews and difficult for non-Jews. And maintaining a Jewish majority would not have to be a national goal. This is a prescription for the end of the Jewish state.

Barak, in fact, supports the Law of Return, the Jewishness of the symbols of the state, the holidays, and so forth. But whether or not he notices it, his arguments would remove the logical justification for them.

Israel is a nation-state, a country that exists as an expression of the unity of a single people. There are other nation-states, but Israel is unique in several ways. One is the Zionist principle that without a state of their own, the Jewish people would be unable to survive in a hostile world. Another is the religious principle of the connection between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel that is explicit in the Torah. These principles answer the question, “why is there a State of Israel?”

Israel, in other words, was created and is defined as the state belonging to the Jewish people, not simply the people that inhabit it. In order to make this an explicit part of Israel’s “constitution,” its collection of Basic Laws, the Knesset passed the Basic Law: Israel – the Nation State of the Jewish People.

The law reserves the right of “National Self-Determination” only to the Jewish people. It establishes the symbols of the state, the national language, and so on. Other Basic Laws guarantee rights such as the right to vote and to hold office to all citizens, regardless of ethnicity.

The law was and remains extremely controversial, with opponents saying that it makes non-Jews “second-class citizens.” In a narrow sense they are right, but that is a consequence of the unique nature of the state of Israel. Despite the reservation of “national” rights to the Jews, every citizen without exception should have a right to equal treatment under the law; the allocation of resources to communities should be fair regardless of the ethnicity of the majority of their residents; opportunities for education and employment should be equal, and so forth. These aren’t necessarily easy goals to attain, but they do not conflict with the Jewish nature of the state.

The place of Judaism in the public sphere also can present difficult choices. On the one hand, the state shouldn’t execute someone who is caught gathering wood on Shabbat (Num. 15:32-36), nor should non-Jews or secular Jews be coerced into observing Jewish law. On the other hand, it is hard to imagine a Jewish state without some elements of Judaism in people’s day-to-day lives. How much and precisely where is complicated, but again I think this can be accomplished without ripping our society apart.

Although the discussion about the Jewish State Law seems to be on hold now, as are so many things in our paralyzed politics, I’m sure it will come up again as soon as there is a functioning Knesset and government. There will be initiatives to throw it out or change it, and I think they should be resisted as strongly as possible.

The concept of the Jewish state is, as I said, unique and special. I would go as far as saying that in today’s world, the survival of the Jewish people as a people is not viable in the diaspora alone. It is dependent on the existence of a vital and powerful Jewish state.

The state is threatened physically by its enemies, and I think we understand that. What we don’t understand is that it is also threatened by those who think that they want to make it “better,” by emulating the universalist, pluralist societies of Europe and North America. Like Aharon Barak, it’s possible that they don’t understand that by ending the explicitly nationalist definition of the state, they would also remove the foundation that underlies the ability of the state to be a refuge, a homeland, and a place – the only place on Earth – that Jewish culture can develop in its completeness.

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2 Responses to The Soul of the State Must be Jewish

  1. Pinchas Baram says:

    didn’t you ever hear the song dundi dundi, the verse for which went thus: eretz yisrael beli torah hi ka-guf bli neshama. or,the land of israel without torah is like a body without a soul.

    and that’s the long and short of it. that melodic line should be the motto of Israel today. the notes, the details, the orchestration– those will be worked out over time.

    and a big feh to Aharon Barak and his platitudinous abstractions– though I thank you for the direct quotations, as I didn’t reallze how far out he was in dismissing any Jewish content!

  2. Shalom Freedman says:

    This is as always an informative intelligent and I believe ultimately wise and right description and explanation of why Israel is a Jewish state and should remain a Jewish state.

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