70 years since the establishment of the State of Israel, it is high time that a fundamental misconception about Zionism and the Jewish right to national self-determination was addressed. A category error that renders Zionism unjust and Israel illegitimate in the eyes of the many who believe it.
The erroneous claim is this: Jews are not entitled to a nation-state because they are not a nation. They are a religious community not a national one and “how can one justify establishing a state purely for people of one religion”?
It is a legitimate question. The norms of democracy would seem to mitigate against such a thing. Except that is not what Israel is, and not what Zionism was about. Zionism is just, and Israel is justified, because the Jews have always seen themselves as a people, Am Yisrael – the People of Israel. In modern terminology we could say a nation, though the idea of nations and nation-states didn’t emerge until the 18th century.
The problem for advocates of Israel and Zionism is that, in the west, we have been conditioned to think of Jews as a religious group synonymous with Christians and Muslims. The reality is different – and is obvious in fact once you actually compare “the three Abrahamic faiths”. A Christian, by definition, is someone who accepts a certain religious creed – that Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God; a Muslim likewise must accept that Allah is the one true God, that the Quran is His literal word and that it was dictated to the last of the prophets, Muhammad. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Jews observe very little of the religion and are often agnostic or atheist. To be Jewish is not necessarily to be a believer in the literal word of the Torah or to observe Jewish dietary laws or laws of Shabbat, or even to believe in the one true God of the Bible. To be Jewish is to be part of Am Israel, part of the Jewish nation.
Princeton Professor Leora Batnitzky’s How Judaism Became a Religion – as the title implies – is a useful guide to the relevant history. Jews today may think of their Jewishness as primarily religious, or primarily cultural or – especially if Zionism if the dominant factor – as primarily national. As Batnitzky makes clear, “prior to modernity, Judaism and Jewishness were all these at once: religion, culture and nationality.”
If you had asked a Jew in the Middle Ages if he was religiously Jewish, he would have had no idea what you were talking about. There was no word in Hebrew for “religion”. He was part of the Jewish people, which meant that the customs he observed were those that Jews had always followed, informed by a particular understanding of the world that today we might call “religious”. He may have lived in England, or Spain, or Egypt, but he was not English, Spanish or Egyptian; he was Jewish.
The notion of being a citizen of a state did not emerge until the French Revolution, together with the idea of the nation state. The new French authorities believed in the revolutionary ideas of individual rights and the equality of each person, but what about the Jews? Could a Jew also be a Frenchman in this brave new world? The answer was provided by Stanislas de Clermont-Tonnerre, a liberal noble from Paris: “The Jews should be denied everything as a nation but granted everything as individuals …”.
David Ben-Gurion once wrote: “The French Revolution gave the Jews the first impetus to emancipation and equality of rights. But this revolution demanded of Jewry the obliteration of its national character…” He understood that modernity had brought with it a shift in the Jewish self-definition.
This was the message for the emancipated Jews of western Europe in the period of steady progress of equal rights and freedoms for European Jews over the next century. Jews who wanted to be recognized as Frenchmen, or Englishmen, or Germans, started to speak of their Jewish identity as a matter of religion. They were “Germans of the ‘mosaic’ persuasion”, just as their neighbors were “Germans of the Protestant / Catholic persuasion”. So when Zionism got going as a serious political movement at the end of the nineteenth century, it was not the conjuring out of thin air the idea of Jews as a nation, it was a return to what Jews had always seen themselves – and had been seen by others – to be: a particular people, with, yes a particular religious tradition, but also a specific history, a language, and a homeland. In the modern parlance of the 18th and 19th centuries, the Jews were a nation.
Many centuries earlier, long before the era of nation-states, the Jews had been a civilization. What is problematic for someone in the 21st century to grasp, is that a people who have existed for some 3000 years does not easily fit into modern categories.
In the west we are used to the narrative of Judaism as a religion, alongside Christianity and Islam. It is noteworthy that if you examine some of the modern constitutions of non-western countries, for example those in Eastern Europe that became newly independent after the fall of communism, Jews are listed as a “national” minority. The constitution of Croatia for example, which became an independent state in the 1990s after the dissolution of Yugoslavia, proclaims Croatia to be “the national state of the Croatian people and a state of members of other nations and minorities who are its citizens”. It then lists some examples: “Serbs, Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians, Italians, Jews…” So, not “Jewish” rather than “Christian”; “Jewish “ rather than “Hungarian” or “Italian”.
But what the Croatians understand, the Palestinians seemingly do not, and this is where the myth of “Jews are a religion” actually has a bearing on the prospects for peace. Palestinian leaders, up to and including President Mahmoud Abbas, have refused to recognize Israel as a Jewish state because “Jews are just a religion” and “religions don’t have states”. This refusal has, justifiably, provoked deep skepticism among the majority of Israelis about the seriousness of the Palestinian desire to reach a genuine two-state agreement- that is, the scenario of a state for the Palestinian people alongside a state for the Jewish people. If there is not even recognition of the existence of the Jewish people, exactly what kind of two-state solution would be acceptable to them?
Back in the west, Palestinian complaints about the inherent injustice and racism of Zionism will always find eager supporters. Some will be dyed-in-the-wool antisemites of the type we now see scuttling around Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party; others will simply be ‘useful idiots’, ignorant of Jewish history and of the just Jewish claim to statehood in the same land where a Jewish independent polity once existed. There is not much to be done about the ideological Jew-haters beyond exposing and shaming them, but ignorance can be reversed. Israel’s professional advocates, and the many organisations working to defend Israel from its detractors, should make it a priority to educate on this basic issue. Simply put: the Jews are not a religion or a “faith group”, we are a people. And we have returned home.