Is Israel a Jewish State? Or a “state of the Jews”?

This question became a hot political potato in recent months due to the attempt of the government of Israel to have a new “Jewish nation-state law” passed in the Knesset before the Israeli Parliament dissolved itself a few weeks ago, so that we could have elections (again!). It has  developed into one of the main symptoms of the divide between Right and Left in Israeli politics.

The Right appears to think that it is necessary to re-affirm this in legislation, even though it is enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence since 1948. The Left repeats over and over again that it is an unnecessary provocation on the part of the government, that it is a “racist” law, and that it will only increase Israel’s alienation among the nations of the world, not to mention disenfranchisement of the Palestinian Arab citizens of the state.

Why has this debate arisen now? Why did Prime Minister Netanyahu make it one of the conditions in renewing the Peace talks, which eventually helped lead to their collapse last April?

The answer most pundits give here is that Netanyahu did it for essentially internal political reasons, i.e. to please his right-wing voting base within the Likud, and beyond to potential other right-wing voters whom he wants to convince to vote for Likud in the upcoming elections. But there must be more to it than this.

Indeed, there is a certain logic to the idea. Since one of the main principles of the Oslo Accords is the concept of “mutual recognition”, and since in theory—and once in a while in practice (but not very often)—Mr. Netanyahu has recognized that the Palestinian People have a right to a nation-state of their own, it should follow from this that the Jewish People, should also have a right to a nation-state of their own. This assumes, of course, that in the Oslo Accords, the Palestinian leadership actually agreed to the concept of the Jews as a People, and therefore the idea that this people has an attachment to this homeland, the land of Israel.

But did the Palestinians accept the notion of Jewish Peoplehood?

This is not clear. They have accepted the State of Israel de facto, and perhaps de jure too. But do they really acknowledge that the Jews are not just a religious group but a people also?

One thing is clear. The Palestinians have not become Zionists! They don’t sing Hatikvah and obviously they are not really excited that the Jewish People have returned to their ancient homeland!

And another thing is clear: in all the past peace treaties between Israel and the Palestinians (Oslo One and Two, Wye River) and in the peace accords with the Arab countries of Egypt and Jordan, this demand was not made. It was enough if the interlocutors recognized the state of Israel, period!

In fact, this demand has created confusion both within Israel and abroad. Many questions have been raised: If Israel is a “Jewish” state, what exactly does this mean? What makes the state Jewish? Its laws? Religion? Culture? Food?

Even among the Jews of Israel there is virtually no agreement as to what kind of “Jewish” society this is!  We have just about every form of Jewish identity that one can imagine within Israel—religious (in many permutations and combinations), traditional, secular, cultural, agnostic, atheistic, Zionist, non-Zionist, anti-Zionist, you name it! As a “Jewish” state, Israel is totally multicultural, with Jews having immigrated here from more than 70 countries around the world. Israel is an anthropological paradise as a “Jewish state” and no one form of Judaism dominates.

Is Israel the nation-state of the Jewish People? Yes, maybe, well, it depends which Jews you ask. Nevertheless, most Jews in the world would agree that this is so. But what does this mean?

At base, it means that Jews in the world have a place to call home in case of trouble. It is a refuge in the face of anti-Semitism.  It is in theory a “safe haven”, although we don’t always feel this, especially in the midst of intifadas or wars.  It is certainly a place where Jews are free to be whoever they want to be, whether they have a weak or strong Jewish identity or any at all. It is meant to be a “normal” state, “like all other states” (a favorite slogan of early Zionist thinkers).

But what about the non-Jews in Israel, who make up about 25% of the population (including the 20.7% who are Palestinian Arabs of Israeli citizenship)?  Do they have a place in this “Jewish” state or the “nation-state of the Jewish People”?

This is the real nub of the issue. Can Israel be both a Jewish state and a democratic one?

Both the Right and the Left in Israel say “yes” to this question. But do they really mean it?

The Palestinian Arabs of Israeli citizenship are clearly feeling that this new legislation—proposed by the Right and opposed by the Left—is directed at them, to make them feel second-class in their own country, to disenfranchise them, to discriminate against them. The Right denies this, but are they disingenuous?

In my view, the most important litmus test of a Jewish state is and will be how we relate to the non-Jewish majority within our midst. For, as the Bible teaches us over and over again, “we were strangers in the land of Egypt” and therefore we, more than others, should know the soul and the psyche of “the stranger”, the minority.

Rabbi Hillel taught: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I? And if not now, when?