Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

Israel’s New Basic Law: The Meaning of Nation-State

While yesterday’s Israeli Supreme Court ruling upholding the Jewish Nation-State Basic Law was unsurprising, neither were the attacks by the Left against that decision. However, the sharp divide between Left and Right on this issue is not simply “political”. Rather, it stems from a very profound disagreement as to what a “nation-state” should entail.

Until the early modern age, there was no such term or even concept of the “nation-state”. Indeed, during the Middle Ages there weren’t any “states” as we understand the term – just provinces, independent cities, small kingdoms on the one hand, and merely formal “empires” (e.g., The Holy Roman Empire) on the other hand.

The idea of a “nation-state” basically combined two separate identities. The “nation” was based on a common ethnic heritage of language, religion, or some other significant societal marker. That concept was at least a few thousand years old (the Israelites/Jews, too, considered themselves a “nation”). However, the state had a more political and “civic” meaning: a ruling structure based on some form of equality between citizens, although it took a few centuries for such equality to emerge (close to) full bloom.

One can see that from the start there was an inherent tension – even contradiction – between these two combined concepts. That’s because the “civil state” meant equality for every citizen, whereas the “national” element gave precedence to those belonging to the dominant ethnos. This tension continued for a long time, perhaps best illustrated by the nineteenth century Romantic movement that attempted to turn back the Enlightenment’s egalitarian ethos by emphasizing the “nation above all” (or as the Germans put it: Deutschland uber alles).

And here we come to a supreme irony. This same nineteenth century “nationalism” (actually a revival of the earlier NATION-State idea) became the basis of the twentieth century’s two most outstanding – and totally antithetical – national movements: Nazism and Zionism. The former set out to murder all Jews; the second was designed to save Jews from the murderous intentions of all anti-Semites around the world. Thus, as with any ideology (or technology, for that matter), it could be – and was – employed for great harm and for great good.

The Western world at large focused on the nationalistic negatives of Nazism, and from the mid-twentieth century onwards looked to the civic nature of the state as a remedy for its national element. Zionism, of course, precisely because it evolved to fight anti-Semitic fire with its positive approach to the national ethnos, did not abandon the “Nation” part of the State, but continues to try and find the best way of combining the two.

This is where the recent Jewish Nation-State Basic Law comes into play. For the Western world – and Liberals within Israel as well – it constitutes a problem because they no longer view the “Nation” as a positive ideal, certainly not in comparison to the civil “State”. For national-Zionists, this Basic Law is merely the ultimate statement that Israel takes the concept of Nation-State seriously: a state for the protection of a specific nation.

Neither approach is “wrong”. However, the fact that most of the world has “moved on” beyond “nationalism” does not negate the legitimacy of a country’s political structure being founded and based on a specific national ethnos. To be sure, this also is not an excuse for significant discrimination against those citizens (in this case, mostly Arabs) who are not part of that ethnos. However, as in all politics, there are forms of “affirmative action” that the country deems necessary – in this case, for the majority Jewish population. That too might be unusual, but hardly illegitimate.

If and when anti-Semitism is expunged from the world (from my pen to God’s ears), Israel might then rethink its approach to the Nation-State. Until that happens, with Jews still under threat around the world because of their ethnic nationality, there is every reason to maintain a nation-state that gives priority to its Jewishness.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published three books and 60 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. For more information and other publications (academic and popular), see:
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