The National Character of a Jewish State

Israeli flags, via Creative Commons

The idea of a Jewish nation-state did not originate in the writings of a modern ideology like Theodore Herzl or Max Nordau or in the trauma of a modern event like the pogroms or the Holocaust, but in the words of the Torah. In a commentary on Bereshit 1:1, the very first verse in the Torah, Rashi states that the Torah starts with creation to establish Hashem’s universal sovereignty for the sake of establishing Am Yisrael’s eternal sovereignty over Eretz Yisrael through Him. Eretz Yisrael is explicitly allocated to the descendants of Avraham Avinu in Bereshit 15, to the descendents of Yitzhak Avinu in Bereshit 26, to the descendents of Yaakov Avinu in Bereshit 28, and ultimately to Am Yisrael in Shemot 23, Bamidbar 34, and Devarim 1 and 19. Bamidbar 33:53 sees the mitzvah of liberating, possessing, and settling Eretz Yisrael, a mitzvah that serves as a fundamental precedent to many more mitzvot. Shemot 19:6 contains the directive to be a “mamlechet kohanim” (kingdom of priests), with Rashi commenting that this is an order to establish a literal kingdom of holiness, a political body, an orderly nation-state to further the cause of the Jewish people. Devarim 17:15 contains the mitzvah of appointing a king to fulfil such a task, with the added restrictions that this king must be both Jewish, emphasizing this point in three different ways.

In Torah, the idea of a Jewish national state is more than a mere motif, but a central focus. So central and powerful was this focus that even the most secular leaders of early Zionism, the same that would proclaim that Zionism is “separate from religion,” would find themselves compelled to fall back on the promises of Hashem and the mitzvot of Am Yisrael as the twin pillars of their movement. This became even more true in the generation after Herzl, who began to refrain from using words like “infiltration” and “colonization” that did not truly encapsulate the mission of the Jewish people and instead began using “aliyah” and “yishuv haaretz.” However, when the following generation of Zionist leaders rose and began drifting towards a more liberal view on the concept of nationalism itself, a rabbi from Brooklyn asserted himself into the Israeli conversation to make clear that Israel belongs to the Jewish people, alone.

To call Rabbi Meir Kahane a controversial figure would be an understatement of gargantuan proportions. Even today, it is not hard to find older Jews who fondly remember his activism on behalf of Russian Jewry and aliyah or younger Jews who adorn the slogan “Kahane tzadak” on T-shirts and city walls. Perhaps it is even easier to find Jews who decry the assassinated rabbi as some kind of Jewish Hitler, a dangerous radical, a national embarrassment, a figure antithetical to Judaism and the Jewish people.

In Rabbi Kahane’s day, it was no different. After serving as pulpit rabbi in Brooklyn and founding the Jewish Defense League (JDL), Kahane made aliyah in 1971 and immediately launched a political party named Kach. Kach, named for the Irgun slogan “rak Kach,” ran on a hardline nationalist platform, won official endorsements from high-profile rabbis like Mercaz haRav Rosh Yeshiva Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook and Rishon leZion Rav Mordechai Eliyahu, and eventually a Knesset seat in 1984, filled by Rabbi Kahane.

Rabbi Kahane’s political rise was made possible through dramatic tumult in Israeli politics. Through generational leadership change in the Avodah party and the long-awaited achievement of power for Likud, both parties moved away from their hardline Labor Zionist and Revionist Zionist roots towards a liberal consensus. This consensus saw Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin of Avodah and Menachem Begin of Likud join forces against settlement of Eretz Yisrael, the former antagonizing and opposing the burgeoning Gush Emunim movement and the latter beginning the shameful Israeli tradition of retreat and surrender, destroying Jewish communities in the Sinai and handing over the peninsula to the Egyptians. At the same time, the PLO and its allies began serious terrorist operations against Israel and Jews around the world, culminating in the First Intifada during Rabbi Kahane’s term as a MK. Additionally, the year Rabbi Kahane arrived, Jewish birthrates in Israel began a nosedive that would not reverse until two years after his assassination, all while Arab birthrates boomed. It seemed inevitable that an increasingly hostile Arab population was on the fast track to a population majority with the establishment, committed to the ideals of the liberal consensus, providing no answers for a worried Israeli public. Israel was in retreat territorially and demographically with the political establishment laying the ground for the transformation of Israel from a Jewish state to a Western, liberal, heterogeneous, multinational “state of all its citizens.”

Rabbi Kahane leaned into these issues with a brash, unapologetic style that attracted many and appalled many more. Of course, Rabbi Kahane did himself no favors in terms of controversiality, often leaning into meaningless debates for no other reason than to stir the proverbial pot. There is no greater example of this habit than his focus on citizenship and voting rights in They Must Go. Throughout the book Rabbi Kahane remarks on his intention to strip voting rights and citizenship, which has little relevance in Israel besides voting rights, to Arabs. However, in HaRa’ayon HaYehudi, Rabbi Kahane rejects any place for democracy or voting within his vision of a Jewish legal system (more on that in the coming “Legal Character of a Jewish State” article), meaning the entire concept of citizenship and voting meant nothing to him other than a means to sow controversy.

Beneath the rhetoric, however, lies a profound message on Jewish statehood that resonated with many Israelis. While his philosophy is often reduced to his slogan “Arabs out,” the true nature of his ideas is much more nuanced. As the political establishment drifted further into the liberal consensus, Rabbi Kahane reasserted a commitment to the national character of a Jewish state, writing in They Must Go:

“The land, the state, exists to serve the people. Only tyrants say the opposite. In the beginning there was the family, tribe, clan, people. They have a common origin, history, heritage, destiny. The land has a definite, specific function. It exists to serve the people as a vessel to hold them and to allow them to live their unique way of life, to achieve their national purpose and heritage. The state is a tool to serve that purpose and to enable the people to achieve their fulfillment. Neither state nor land has a will or authority of its own. The identity and character of the land and state are decided upon and granted by the people. The land and state do not command, they obey; they do not order, they serve; they exist only for the purpose of the people whose name is attached to them.”

Kahane, 209

For Rabbi Kahane, a state that did not reflect the Jewish people in its governance was not a Jewish state. A state that did not protect the Jewish people was not a Jewish state. A state that was not of and by the Jewish people was not a Jewish state. A state that sacrifices the Jewish people at the altar of a modernist ideology is not a Jewish state. A state that neglects its responsibility to the Jewish people, its residents, the Land itself, and to Hashem is not a Jewish state.

Rabbi Kahane began with the idea that democracy and ostensibly Zionist ideal of a Jewish state were irreconcilable as equals. To prove this, Rabbi Kahane brought up what was then believed to be an inevitable situation, an Arab majority in the State of Israel. In that scenario, Rabbi Kahane would ask, would Israel choose democracy, allowing the Arabs, through their majority, to democratically overthrow the state, or choose Judaism, creating safeguards against democratic overthrow while denying Arabs their democratic privileges? The choice is clear, are you fundamentally a democrat, a liberal, a believer and protector of fundamental equal rights of fundamentally equal men, or a Zionist, a philosophical Jew, a protector of Jewish statehood, Jewish prerogatives, and the Jewish people? For the latter, safeguards must be made to protect a Jewish state, even against democracy and its decider, demographics.

To create such safeguards, Rabbi Kahane turned to Torah. In They Must Go, Kahane outlines his platform on the issue:

“Every Arab resident of Eretz Yisrael should be offered a voluntary transfer to an Arab or, if possible, non-Arab land… Arabs who decline the offer shall be asked to make a pledge of loyalty to the Jewish state in which they accept the Land of Israel as the home of the Jewish people and recognize Jewish sovereignty over it.”

Kahane, 209-210

This is in-line with the Torah’s laws regarding a ger toshav, a non-Jewish resident of Eretz Yisrael. According to Rambam in Mishneh Torah, Melachim u’Milhamotehem 8, a ger toshav must publicly state their acceptance the Seven Mitzvot of Bnei Noah, which are as follows: “establishing justice and prohibitions against cursing in the name of Hashem, idol worship, partaking in forbidden sexual relations, unprovoked/unnecessary violence, robbery, and eating the limb of a living animal” (Sanhedrin 57a). The mitzvah in question is the first mentioned, that of “establishing justice,” or “dinin.” Since Eretz Yisrael is under the responsibility of the Jewish people, a ger toshav’s ability to fulfill dinin is in his willingness and ability to accept Jewish sovereignty in Eretz Yisrael. If a non-Jew is unwilling or unable to respect the Jewish-created system of justice, law, and order in Eretz Yisrael, he cannot live in Eretz Yisrael.

For Rabbi Kahane, the answer to the struggles of the young state was not retreat and surrender but doubling down on the state’s formal and substantive Jewish identity. This approach became increasingly popular as the First Intifada began, with some polls showing Kach at 12 mandates ahead of the 1988 election. This was not meant to be, however, as Rabbi Kahane’s Knesset rivals and the Supreme Court banned Kach’s candidacy for “racism.” Rabbi Kahane planned to appeal this ruling by involving Arab converts to Judaism on Kach’s party list ahead of the 1992 election but was assassinated in 1990 at a speech in New York by Arab radical El Sayyid Nosair, who would only later be imprisoned for his involvement in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

Interestingly, one of the core issues that spurred Rabbi Kahane’s political rise in the 1980s, birthrates between Jews and Arabs, has completely reversed from an existential issue to a great boon for the Jewish people. From 1972 to 1992, Israeli birthrates dropped from 3.77 to 2.70, but have since risen back over 3, with Jewish birthrates within Israel surpassing Arab birthrates for the first time in 2019. Additionally, birth rates claimed by the Palestinian Authority have plummeted from 6.72 in 1990 to 3.56 in 2019, poised to fall beneath Israeli birthrates within the next decade or two. A 2012 study by the American Israeli Demographic Research Group found, with current population, immigration/emigration, and birthrate statistics, that the Jewish majority between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River will rise up to 80% by 2035.

Unfortunately, the persistence of an increasingly hostile fifth-column population remains. Rockets from Gaza, stabbings in Jerusalem, lynching in Jaffa, riots in Lod, all reminders within the past year of this phenomenon. The existence of this issue is guaranteed only by the existence of Israel’s own identity crisis as a Jewish state or a multicultural Manhattan of the Middle East.

Luckily, the legacy of Rabbi Kahane’s commitment to a Jewish national state remains. For the 1988 election, the one from which Kach was banned, the Modelet party formed, adopted and adapted Kach’s platform, and won two seats. The party remained present in the Knesset until 2006, when they joined with Tkuma, a nationalist split-off of the National Religious Party, and Herut, a nationalist split-off from Likud, to form the National Union. In 1999, Avigdor Lieberman founded the Yisrael Beitanu party, promising as in its “Ten Commandments” that “without loyalty there is no citizenship.” The party would peak in 2009 winning 15 seats before watering itself down until the present day where it sits with the Islamist Ra’am party in the current Knesset. However, in 2010, Lieberman, together with the ruling Likud party, proposed an amendment to the existing oath of citizenship to read: “I swear that I will be a loyal citizen to the State of Israel, as a Jewish a democratic state, and will uphold its laws.” Dr. Michael Ben-Ari, a former member of Kach and then an MK for National Union, said on the proposition:

“Twenty years have passed since the assassination of Rabbi Kahane, and today Likud admits he was right. It’s a refreshing change to see the Likud government, which persecuted the rabbi over his call to have Arabs sign a loyalty oath, admit today what Kahane said 20 years ago was correct.”

The bill, however, did not pass. In 2013, Dr. Ben-Ari and Dr. Aryeh Eldad, son of Lehi commander Dr. Israel Eldad, joined with former Kach activist Baruch Marzel to former Otzmah Yehudit to focus on issues of national character. Last year, the party agreed to run with the National Union under Bezalel Smotrich as the Religious Zionist Party. Today, the Religious Zionist Party, with seven Knesset seats, is the guarantor of this legacy, refining and actualizing the vision of a state for and by the Jewish people.

Of course, the 2018 Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People (aka: the Nation-State Law) must be mentioned. The bill was first proposed in 2011 by then-Kadima MK Avi Dichter but was not passed until seven years later. For the first time in the history of the state, Israel officially recognized itself as the nation-state of the Jewish people, its immigration system a vehicle for kibbutz galuyot (ingathering of the exiles), its existence a vehicle for Jewish survival, success, and achievement. When asked to justify this law, then-PM Bibi Netanyahu said, “I want a state of one-nation: the Jewish state, which includes non-Jews with equal rights.” While this law was a necessary step forward, Israel has much work to do in asserting itself, not as a Manhattan of the Middle East, but as both the state of the Jewish people, understanding what that means for how it relates to minorities, diaspora Jews, territory, law, culture, and, more than anything else, taking responsibility over the Land and the state, not forking over that responsibility to the Arabs or the Americans.

Going forward, Israel must continue to pursue the goals outlined in the Nation-State law in a substantive matter beyond symbolic gestures and platitudes. Further, it is imperative that Israel cancel the counterproductive embarrassment that is the Oslo Accords and expel organizations that flout Israel’s law and order, specifically anti-state terror groups and organized crime, from Eretz Yisrael just as King Hussein expelled the PLO from Jordan in 1970 and just as Israel expelled the PLO from Lebanon in 1982. Israel must make clear its relationship with ethnic minorities, requiring them to serve in the military and national service as all other loyal citizens, just as ethnic minorities served in the armies of the ancient Judea, Bar-Kochba, and throughout the modern history of the IDF. Residents of Israel who refuse to integrate themselves into Israeli national life as respectful and loyal citizens should be given the opportunities to voluntarily relocate with compensation. Only when it is totally understood that the state and land of Israel are the exclusive national home of the Jewish people can Israel move on to further establishing itself as a global leader and assume its greater role as a light upon the nations.

About the Author
Jesse Edberg is a member of the Religious Zionist Party's youth wing. He has previously served as a spokesman and graphic designer for the Yamina Youth and has written for such publications as The Post Millenial and The Israel Press. Jesse is a student at the Tulane University of Louisiana where he is pursuing a degree in political science.
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