A state has hills and valleys, lakes and rivers, rocks, soil, trees, roads and buildings. It also contains people, who come and go, are born and die. Landscapes and human-built environments do not claim a religion. It is only people who do that. So what does it mean to call Israel “a Jewish state”?
In fact, most Israeli Jews are secular. They obey very few religious laws and practice few religious customs. On a Sabbath, they drive and shop, use electricity, watch television, fire up their electronic devices and go to the beach. Many do not eat kosher food, and the majority dress as do people in the West. Only a minority visit a synagogue regularly, if at all. A secular movement against imposition of religion on society and in favor of separation between religion and state is growing in strength.
If the term “Jewish state” doesn’t properly describe Israel’s population, it certainly doesn’t describe Jewish law—with a couple of major exceptions. Most Israeli laws are secular (think transportation and vehicle codes, criminal statutes, banking regulation, building and safety codes, aviation laws, environmental standards, commerce and industry regulations). Jewish laws are mostly confined to such personal matters as marriage and divorce—and to immigration.
And there you have it: The essence of Israel as a Jewish state is its immigration law. Not only does the Israel government make it difficult for non-Jews to immigrate, its policy is to maintain Jews as the majority population. It does so with a set of immigration laws based on the Law of Return, which gives exclusive pathway only to Jews. Israel justifies this policy with the history of anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish violence that culminated in the Holocaust, in which 6 million Jews were murdered. Israel was established as an eternal refuge and safe haven for the world’s Jews, a guarantee that pogroms would not be repeated and another Holocaust could never happen.
The ironic reality is that today Israel is the one place where Jews are most at risk because of their religion. As a Jewish state, Israel has found neither peace nor security. Ever since its creation in 1948, it has been at constant war with the Palestinians and its neighboring Arab states. Thousands of Jews have been killed and wounded as a result of these conflicts, which are escalating in viciousness and extending to civilians in major cities, including Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem. To add to this ominous mix, Israeli officials are now warning of a nuclear threat from Iran, which would devastate Israel’s population.
It’s time to reflect on why Jews in Israel are less safe. Yes, the Jewish state successfully alleviated, and perhaps eliminated, Europe’s threat of genocide. But since, by definition, the Jewish state excludes non-Jews, and since most Arabs and Palestinians can’t identify with the concept of a Jewish state, Israel has created a form of institutional exclusion. The idea of a Jewish state is further complicated by there being almost as many Palestinians (Muslim and Christian) in Israel as there are Jews. Excluding Palestinians as members of a “Jewish” state places Israel on the trajectory of perpetual war—with them and with many Muslim countries.
Rather than coming up with a formula to include Palestinians and live in peace, Israel chose to reject them and live in perpetual war. We created a massive military to maintain Palestinian exclusion and to secure Israel’s safety by warring with the Arabs. Israel is betting its entire future on the strength of its military, expending its energy on bolstering military prowess and relying almost exclusively on that prowess for its survival. The longer Israel remains at war with its neighbors, the harder it becomes to make peace with them.
At this juncture, Israelis must ask themselves several questions: Will Israelis win every future war? Is having a Jewish state worth enduring perpetual war? Is Israel living up to its promise to the world’s Jews of offering a safe and peaceful haven?
Even when peace is discussed, it is almost exclusively in terms of dividing real estate with the Palestinians. The “peace” Israel wants to achieve emphasizes separation from the Palestinians, not integration. This “peace,” if achieved, will maintain the status of Israel as a Jewish state, distinct and apart from the entire Arab world surrounding it. This is hardly a formula for acceptance of the Jewish state by its Muslim neighbors; it’s more of a formula for Israel’s Jews to wear an eternal target sign on their backs.
Israel needs to remove the target sign. The best way to do so is to integrate with—and offer democracy to—its Arab and Muslim population rather than to alienate them. It’s possible to maintain Israel as a safe haven for the Jews and as a Jewish state by creating a confederation.
A confederation will be a third, independent government that would unite Israelis and Palestinians while allowing them to retain their own separate governments. A confederation will facilitate dialogue and mutual cooperation. A confederation will turn the tables; instead of Israelis and Palestinians fighting each other, they will have mutual interests. To see a short illustration on how a confederation could work, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=POjypzcii_8