In recent weeks, the Israeli media has been flooded with coverage of our very own ‘kulturkampf’ in Beit Shemesh.  Perceived as a symbol for the future of the country, every angle to the story has been dissected relentlessly on our TV screens and in our newspapers.  Perhaps we have been too self-absorbed to appreciate that the simmering tension in Beit Shemesh has also captured the attention of the world.  A relatively small-scale demonstration to protest ultra-Orthodox coercion in late December led the news headlines on BBC World radio, while the New York Times billed it as “a struggle that could shape the future character and soul of the country.”

It is tempting to blame this seemingly disproportionate interest in our little sliver of land on an unhealthy appetite in some quarters of the media for “bad” news surrounding Israel.  However, to do so would be a dangerous simplification.  While we in Israel might consider the internal debate over religion and state a “private” matter, the outside world is curious, if not a little wary over the idea of a Jewish state.

After all, although Prime Minister Netanyahu has commendably and doggedly implored the Palestinians to accept the Jewish state, precious few world leaders have echoed his message.  President Obama has restricted his explicit endorsement of the Jewish state to fleeting references in front of AIPAC and other Jewish audiences.  Meanwhile in Europe, French President Nicolas Sarkozy is perhaps surprisingly one of the few heads of government to go on record to describe Palestinian acceptance of the Jewish nation-state as a key negotiating issue.  However, even Sarkozy has been reported to have rubbished the concept of the Jewish state as “silly.”  While foreign leaders appear more than happy to pay endless tribute to the importance of guaranteeing Israeli security, they are seemingly reluctant to shout from the rooftops in favor of Jewish sovereignty.

Although the Israeli government has squarely placed acceptance of the Jewish state as a core foundation of any future peace deal, it forgot to explain why.  A Jewish state akin to a French state, German state — or indeed a Palestinian state — may be self-evident to many of us, but the mixture of statehood and Judaism sounds a bit, well, religious to others.  And herein lies the central confusion, perhaps a classic case of crossed wires that desperately need untangling. A simple national home for the Jewish people has been misconstrued as a fusion of religion and power, a combustible mixture representing some of the darkest chapters of Western history, from the Crusades to the more recent “troubles” in Northern Ireland.  Note how the religious tone to the debate in the Republican primaries is not only a big turnoff to some Democrats, but also causes palpable discomfort for many Europeans.

And so, against this backdrop comes an apparent attempt to violently impose strict religious doctrine in Beit Shemesh.  Given that some argue it represents “an existential challenge” to the country, it’s enough to make those outside Israel wonder whether this is the kind of Judaism that could possibly characterize the Jewish state. Similar alarm bells will have been ringing as a result of recent legislative initiatives.  Some will have inevitably viewed the attempt to enforce an oath of loyalty towards the Jewish state on Arab citizens as religious coercion.  And what of the bill proposed by MK Avi Dichter, which would have seen Israel’s Jewish character take legal precedence over its role as a democratic state?  Although never intended as such, it is too easily interpreted as a move away from a secular concept of equal citizenship towards an exclusive hierarchy based on religion.  These social and legislative trends pave the way for the likes of former Arab League secretary-general Amr Moussa to erroneously brand the notion of the Jewish state as “racist.”  It also paves the path for PA President Mahmoud Abbas to state that he “will never recognize” the Jewish state, while at the same time campaigning for a Palestinian state.  For many, while the Palestinian state is perceived as a national aspiration, the Jewish state remains a misunderstood theological concept.

In the midst of our internal disputes, we have lost sight of the importance to explain the nature of the Jewish state, assuming that others see it the way we would like them to.  It is imperative that we re-affirm it as an expression of peoplehood rather than a vehicle for religious dogma.  We wonder when the word Zionist became a term of abuse, but failure to explain the Jewish state as an embodiment of self-determination, afforded to every other nation, will see it equally discredited.  And then, what exactly will there be left to talk about when we do negotiate the future of this region?