For many years, I worked in Jewish dayschools in Australia. An ongoing debate was how we made certain that the school was a “Jewish school” and not just a school for Jews. The challenge was to create an ethos that reflected Jewish values.

Now I find myself asking the same about a “Jewish state”. Certainly, I am convinced that a “Jewish state” is not just a state where Jews live. The founders of the State had high ideals about the society they were creating. They believed that the restoration of the Jewish state would be significant not just in providing a home for Jews but in creating a “new Jew” and providing her with the opportunity to create a new Jewish culture which would be expressed through the ethos of the State. That idealism is rarely heard in the current climate.

What is a Jewish State?

What is a Jewish State?

The question about the “Jewish” nature of the state has been raised as an election issue. There seem to be assumptions that we know what the term means.  I am convinced that not everyone talking about the “Jewish state” means the same thing. The issue is sharpened by the claim of extremists to have created an “Islamic State”.  The Muslims I know reject entirely that the radicals using that name have anything “Islamic” about them. Similarly, most Jews would reject any definition of a “Jewish state” that reflected an uncompromisingly strict interpretation of religious law, or one that excluded or restricted the rights of large portions of the Jewish world based on gender or cultural background.

Here is the list of principles and qualities I believe would describe a Jewish state:

  1. Justice, justice you shall pursue (Deuteronomy 16:20). A Jewish state must be committed to justice. Because the Biblical verse repeats the term ‘justice’, I believe that we need a double commitment: a commitment to uphold and defend the legal system by which all are bound and in which we are all equal under the law; a commitment to pursue social justice beyond the legalities, for the sake of creating a just society.
  2. And you shall not mistreat a stranger, nor shall you oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Exodus 22:20). My teacher, Nehama Leibowitz (z”l) frequently reminded us that this is the most repeated commandment in the Torah. A Jewish state needs to establish safeguards to protect minorities. The double prohibition against ‘mistreating’ and ‘oppressing’ indicates that we need to have the highest standard, not just a minimum.
  3. “Zachor” – Remember. A healthy society knows and honours its past. Yiddish writer YL Peretz wrote that a people without its history is like a person without a memory. The Jewish people are obligated by Torah to remember. We need to remember our Biblical heritage; we need to remember our Diaspora  experience; we need to remember the heroism and sacrifice of those who built the State. Through remembering, we learn and build our future.
  4. “Hatikva” – the Hope. The flipside of remembering our past is believing in our future. All religious traditions are based on hope – hope based on ideas of redemption. The Jewish people are known for their resilience, which comes from an unshakable belief in our future. A Jewish state needs to reflect hope. Of the four qualities I have identified, this is the one that is closest to realization already.

Considering the four principles above,  I realize that such a state would not only provide a wonderful homeland for Jews but would be a model for any state – a “light unto the nations” – fulfilling the Prophets’ vision of what a Jewish state really ought to be.

Peta Jones Pellach is a fifth generation Australian, she made Aliyah in 2010 and took up her position as Director of Educational Activities for the Elijah Interfaith Institute. She has visited places as exotic as Indonesia, India, Iceland Poland and Morocco to participate in and teach interreligious dialogue. She is also a teacher of Torah and Jewish History, a Scrabble fanatic and an Israeli folk-dancer.

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