Religion or a nationality? The case for the Jewish state

The recent UK Labor Anti-Semitism scandal raised some fascinating anti Israel claims. One of which relates to ‘the Israel’s right of existence’, or as Ken Livingstone phrased it “the establishment of Israel was fundamentally wrong”. Though it’s surprising to hear such an infuriating claim in official western politics, it is a common one among anti-Israel activists in university campuses. In a conversation I had with a pro-Palestinian student he rejected Israel’s right to exist because he believed a country should not be dedicated to a religion. At that moment, I realized that any case for Israel’s right to exist must relate to the definition of Judaism. As Judaism is at the core of Israel’s creation, misunderstanding of Judaism can lead to misunderstanding of Israel.

There is no doubt Judaism is a religion, however unlike Christianity or Islam it does not have a clear separation from nationality. Modern nationhood often relates to territory, economics and politics. Though this definition was the case of Judaism at times (ancient Israel and Judah), Jews are mostly a nation by its ancient sense: a group of people with common history, past and destiny which in term generate a connection among them. These ancient aspects of nationality were generated by a common religion and preserved despite secularization trends and the fact that there has been no Jewish nation for the past two thousand years. Though Jews are not a nation by modern definition, they do belong to one people and share a unique bond illustrated throughout history by various international connections among Jews. From multinational rabbinical correspondence regarding issues of religion to more modern international Jewish organizations like B’nai B’rith, Betar and the WJC, Jews made efforts to keep their connection and sense of peoplehood.

The Jewish sense of peoplehoold and the long term persecution of Jews have led parts of the Jewish people to seek self-determination in the form of a nation. Not a Jewish nation in a religious form, but one which will serve as a home for the Jewish people. In fact the Zionist movement, the principle force behind the founding of Israel, was predominately secular. Furthermore, the majority of Israeli Jewish population is secular or somewhat traditional – but not religious (2010 Israel Central Bureau of Statistics). With that said, since religion was originally the connecting factor that led to the creation of the Jewish people, it has an important place and influence on Jewish life, and in Israel specifically. Despite the intertwined relationship between Jewish religion and ancient Jewish nationality, the foundations of Israel are predominately secular and are based on Jewish sense of peoplehood and the right of self-determination. Though the term “Jewish State” is widely used, Israel is not a Jewish state, but rather a state that serves as a home for the Jewish people, a home with equal minority rights.

Though not all Jews see Judaism as peoplehood, the vast majority do. Almost half of the world Jewry lives in Israel, a clear indication regarding the population’s view of Judaism as peoplehood (with some exceptions). According to a 2013 Pew Research Center survey, 69% of U.S Jewish population (who are about 40% of the world Jewry) feels at least somewhat attached to Israel. Though data is unclear and often mixed with feelings regarding Israel’s policies (not necessarily its right to exist), it is safe to assume that the majority of Jews accept and support the idea of Jewish peoplehood and its search for self-determination.

So why is this history lesson relevant to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

By labeling Judaism as a religion, one devaluates the legitimacy of Jews’ right for national self-determination. Meaning, if Judaism is a religion and not a form of peoplehood than its status should be that of Christianity and Islam, a pure religion without national characteristics (one of which could be a state). However, if Jews are a people and not “only” a religious group they have significantly more legitimacy to claim the right of self-determination.

If one accepts the Palestinian right of self-determination, a national movement whose roots begin in the 1920s, one must accept the Jewish right of self-determination whose modern national movement (Zionism) dates back to the late 19th century. Thus by limiting Judaism to a status of religion one seeks to open a door for supporting Palestinian right of self-determination while objecting to a Jewish one

Criticism over Israel’s policies is legitimate, just as it would be for every other nation. Yet what often sounds as legitimate criticism holds a deeper purpose of undermining Israel’s right to exist. Targeting Jews’ right of self-determination should be concerning for everyone, Jewish or not, including those who oppose to Israel’s various policies. Jews are a people, and not a single people was revoked of its right of self-determination due to its government’s policies.

About the Author
Eitan Gor is a business professional with an addiction to politics to which writing serves as an effective outlet. Eitan is an MBA graduate from MIT Sloan where he served as a co-president of the Sloan Jewish Students Organization.