“A state of all its citizens.”
That’s what four people suggested, and I was simply stunned.
After 2,000 years of exile from the land of Israel, 2,000 years of the Jewish people hoping, praying and dreaming of returning to their homeland, 2,000 years of wandering and suffering, the miracle finally happened in 1948, when David Ben-Gurion proclaimed a Jewish state, right here, where we started.
No longer would the Jewish people be “strangers in a foreign land.”
But that right and privilege is now being questioned by serious people, in the most serious of forums.
The Brookings Institution in Washington recently invited 20 people from different backgrounds and political ideologies for two intensive days of discussions, deliberations, and public panels. Two of the more difficult challenges facing Israel – religion and state, and the Jewish-Arab divide – were a major focus.
As the “Future of Israeli Society” conference came to a close, four different participants – two Israeli Jews, one Israeli Arab, and one American Jew – suggested that Israel explore shifting from defining itself as a “Jewish state” to “a state of all its citizens,” as a possible solution to these two challenges.
If Israel were no longer a Jewish state, they argued, then Israeli Arabs wouldn’t feel disconnected from their state, and would embrace their citizenship with all the obligations such citizenship requires.
Furthermore, they continued to explain, if Israel were no longer a Jewish state, then the government would not be in a position to dictate issues of religion and state, and Israel would finally be a state with full religious freedom.
Finally, given that Jews around the world live in relative safety, so their argument went, there is no longer a need for Israel to be a Jewish state.
I was terribly bothered.
It is no secret that many analysts have thought about this idea for some time. But hearing it expressed in such a public forum made me realize the need to explain why Israel, despite the challenges they articulated, must remain a Jewish state.
Let’s begin with the last point – that Jews around the world are no longer in need of a place of refuge.
Anyone who has sat in the Knesset Committee for Diaspora Affairs in recent years and heard statistics about the worldwide rise in antisemitism would never make such a suggestion.
The reality is scary: neo-Nazi groups and Nazi sympathizers are increasing on all continents; surveys show that over one billion people in the world harbor antisemitic attitudes; close to 50% believe that Jews have too much power in the business world; and 2/3 of the world’s population has never heard of the Holocaust, or believe that the historic accounts of the Shoah are inaccurate.
We must also remember how Jews once referred to the German Rhineland as “little Jerusalem,” and Jewish aristocracy flourished during the Golden Era of the Jewish settlement in Spain. Those Jews could never have imagined things going sour between the Jewish communities and their governments. But if there is one thing history has taught the Jewish people is that a place where Jews can go in time of need is a necessity – and Israel, specifically as the one Jewish state, fulfills that role.
But the need for a Jewish state is not limited to serving as a refuge for Jews. The Jewish nature of the state is what enables it to grant full rights for women and people of all races and faiths. It is what often makes Israel the first — and sometimes only — country to send doctors and field hospitals to any place where a natural disaster occurs, allowing us to utilize our medical advances to save lives worldwide.
We may have a ways to go to make the “light unto the nations” vision become a full reality, but Judaism – which has so much to offer the world – now has the platform to do so via its own state.
Yes, the rabbinate’s stranglehold on religious services pushes people away from religious observance, and yes, there needs to be major changes regarding the relationship between religion and state in Israel. The very definition of Israel as a free democracy means we can strive and work towards improving the relationship between religion and state through the free and open democratic process. That’s no small matter, in stark contrast with all the other states in the Middle East that are non-democratic.
This brings us to the “problem” of the non-Jewish minority, especially Muslim Arabs, struggling to find themselves in the context of a Jewish state.
I am the first to say that Israel can and should do more to ensure that all minorities feel comfortable in the Jewish state and to live with complete equality in the Jewish state. Israel is, after all, still a work in progress after only 68 years.
But let’s put things in perspective. Muslims and Christians have the freedom to worship as they choose in the Jewish state. So do the Druze, the Bahai, and every other faith. Over in Jordan, on the other hand, Jews cannot become citizens; and in Saudi Arabia, no non-Muslim is entitled to become a citizen.
Not only is their freedom of worship in Israel, but the Jewish state goes out of its way to provide this freedom: every Israeli university gives students the option of deferring their exams during the month of Ramadan; the Technion in Haifa is now building a mosque for the high percentage of its Arab students (16%); and the Knesset calls off all sessions at sunset during Ramadan to insure that Muslim Knesset members can break their fasts with a traditional iftar dinner, just to cite a few examples.
As to the discomfort that Muslims feel with state symbols being Jewish – like the Star of David on the flag — how do non-Christians deal with the Christian cross which appears on the state flags in 31 countries, including Denmark, England, Finland, Greece, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland? How do non-Muslims deal with the imagery of Islam on 21 state flags?
I am aware that it is not the most comfortable situation for a Muslim to stand for a national anthem that talks of the yearning of the Jewish soul for this land. But this is no reason for Israel to cease defining itself as a Jewish state. Given the opportunities for education, advancement and careers that exist for ALL citizens in the Jewish state – especially in the context of the lack of such rights and opportunities in any of the Muslim Arab states – Muslims and Christians should stand proudly and show respect for the country which gives them so much.
I must spell out that the argument for Israel to cease existing as a Jewish state, while accepting that other countries can define themselves as Muslim where no rights exist for non-Muslims, women, and the LGBT community, is nothing short of hypocrisy.
Israel is no stranger to such hypocritical criticism, and will continue to ignore it even while confronting the challenges inherent in being a Jewish state – including religion and state, and the Arab minority – in an open and democratic manner. Israel will also continue to serve as a refuge for Jews from around the world, but even more than that: it will continue contributing to the betterment of the world as the proud Jewish state it is.