Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, just as Japan is the nation-state of the Japanese and Finland is the nation-state of the Finns. A nation-state is a self-ruling ethnic group, one that practices self-determination and political sovereignty within defined national borders. The concept of the nation-state has been the basis for European international order since the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia. The U.S. endorsed it (for Europe) in 1918, in President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points. Greece, France, and most other European countries are nation-states.
Nationality is not the only possible basis for statehood. Other forms of political organization include binational states (like Belgium) and multi-national ones (Yugoslavia), non-national states (the U.S., Australia), tribal or multi-tribe states (much of Northern Africa and the Middle East), religion-based states (the Islamic Republics of Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan, as well as the Vatican), empires (from the Holy Roman Empire to the British and Ottoman ones to the Soviet Union), principalities and emirates (Monaco, Andorra, Kuwait), and city-states (like the ancient Greek ones or modern-day Singapore).
A state is the basic unit of international sovereignty. Its nature—nation-state or other—is unrelated to its borders, internal structure (for example, federal or unitary power), political character (democratic, autocratic, or something else) or system (monarchy, republic, parliamentary or presidential), constitution (or lack thereof), or individual rights (ditto).
A nation-state, by definition, gives political self-determination to the majority ethnic (or national) group; that is what makes Greece Greek and Finland Finnish. Minority groups can and should be respected, included, even celebrated. In a modern democratic nation-state, individuals of all ethnicities can and should enjoy full civil and political rights, but they do not have the collective right of national self-determination. In a nation-state, the national symbols (such as the flag, emblem, and anthem) and culture (language, holidays) derive from the majority group’s national identity.
That last point emphasizes the Jewish national collective identity, beyond the religious one. Religions are characterized by theologies, moral codes, rites and practices, holy texts and liturgies, hallowed sites and clergy—and Judaism indeed has all of these. But the Jewish people also share a language, a culture, heritage and common history, and ties to a specific land—characteristics of ethnic groups or national communities. Israel is not a Jewish state in the same way that Greece is a Christian state—though it is!—but rather in the way that Greece is a Greek state, the nation-state of the Greek people.
Not all peoples enjoy political self-determination. The Tibetans, Kurds, Chechens, Catalonians, and many other ethnic communities—including, yes, the Palestinian people—long or strive for sovereignty. The principles of Westphalia and Woodrow Wilson apply to these stateless nations no less than to the Greek, Finnish, and Japanese peoples. And they apply to the Jewish people, like all others.
During two millennia of dispersion, Jews never ceased their passionate yearning for their ancient homeland. Wherever they were, they prayed facing Jerusalem. For two thousand years, they annually marked the ancient Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt with the vow, “Next year in Jerusalem.” Religiously observant Jews everywhere in the world pray for Jerusalem in daily liturgy, after every meal, and as part of the weekly Torah reading.
The Zionist movement, born in Europe in the late 1800s, harnessed the age-old sense of Jewish peoplehood and passion for the Land of Israel, merging it with the post-colonial ideals of national liberation and self-determination. Early Zionists called for the establishment of a Jewish state in the Jewish homeland, and worked tirelessly to turn that vision into a political reality. Zionism succeeded in obtaining international support for the idea of Jewish sovereignty; its biggest failure was that the Jewish state was established too late to save European Jews from mass extermination.
In the first decades of the Twentieth Century, Zionists were successful in obtaining international recognition and support for their quest for sovereignty. Over a century ago, the British government endorsed Jewish nationalism—“the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”—as a post-colonialist move. The dying Ottoman Empire followed suit. Jewish sovereignty was ratified in international law in the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres (Article 95) and San Remo Convention and the 1922 League of Nations Mandate for Palestine. It was enshrined in U.S. law (1922 House Joint Resolution 322 and 1924 Anglo-American Treaty) and reaffirmed by the United Nations Charter in 1945 (Article 80) and the UN General Assembly Resolution 181 (the “Partition Plan”) in 1947. While some—out of ignorance or thinly veiled antisemitism—try to challenge the legitimacy of the Jewish state, there is arguably no modern nation that enjoyed more international recognition before its state was even founded.
When a sovereign Jewish state was reborn after two thousand years of exile, there was never any doubt as to its purpose and character. “The Jewish Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people,” began its Declaration of Independence. The new state celebrated its Jewish character—Jewish as a nation, not a religion—and proudly proclaimed “the establishment of a Jewish state in the land of Israel.” Israel has always had an explicit mission to promote Jewish immigration—“the ingathering of the exiles.” It has actively recruited (or rescued, if needed), absorbed, and integrated millions of Jews from around the world, reuniting them with their indigenous land. So while it is obviously the democratic state of all its citizens, Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people alone.
A Jewish nation-state is at the core of the ever-elusive “two-state solution”— as envisioned by the 1937 Peel Commission, 1947 UN Partition Plan, 1991 Madrid Peace Conference, 1993 Oslo Accords, 1998 Wye River Memorandum, 2000 Camp David Summit, 2014 Kerry Initiative, and many other informal and behind-the-scenes discussions. Each plan called for a Jewish state and a Palestinian-Arab one, living side by side in peace and security. If peace will ever be achieved between Israel and the Palestinians, it must follow this model of “two states for two peoples”—each an ethnic-based, sovereign nation-state, realizing the self-determination of a distinct people.
One can debate Israel’s new nation-state law: Its specific wording, what it does not say but we wish had been included, the process by which it was adopted, or whether it was necessary at all. These are all legitimate points of contention, and reasonable minds may differ. But to object to the idea of the Jewish nation-state requires either rejecting the basis for the entire modern international order, or applying a discriminatory double standard, denying that right to the Jewish people alone.