The State of Israel is a Jewish state. It is a Jewish state not only in the declarative sense, but in numerous practical ways as well. Israel was established by Jews for Jews in the ancestral Jewish homeland to solve a longstanding Jewish political predicament of statelessness and persecution.
Israel is a Jewish state in a natural and self-evident way. The rhythm of life in Israel is in synch with the Jewish calendar. The government and other state institutions do not operate on the Jewish Sabbath or holidays. With the exception of summer vacation, the Israeli school schedule is also dictated entirely by the Jewish calendar. The curriculum in state-run schools, moreover, clearly reflects Israel’s Jewish nature. Bible studies, for example, are part of the core curriculum even in secular Israeli schools, and special emphasis is placed on the study of Jewish history and culture throughout the ages, alongside more general studies.
Even in aspects of life that are not determined by the state, Israel’s Jewish nature shines thorough in countless ways. News anchors routinely wish their viewers a “Shabbat shalom” at the beginning and end of their Friday evening programs. The phrase “after the holidays” is universally understood by Israelis as referring to the period following the stretch between Rosh Hashanah and Succot rather than the one between Christmas and New Year’s. The language spoken in Israel is the ancient Jewish language of Hebrew. The examples are endless.
At the same time, Israel is a modern democratic country in which the state, as the product of a social contract, safeguards the rights, freedoms and privileges of all its citizens, regardless of race, religion or gender. Roughly 20 percent of Israeli citizens are Muslims and Christians. They are entitled to and indeed receive the same rights and protections that the state extends to its Jewish citizens.
In the two senses described above, the State of Israel is no different from many other Western democracies with large ethnic majorities. While the cultural heritage of the majority sets the unique cultural tone of the country, the democratic ethos protects the rights of its minority groups and ensures their freedoms.
By its own definition, as articulated in the Declaration of Independence and as subsequently entrenched in law, the State of Israel has an additional historic role to play, one that goes beyond the norm in other democracies that have similarly clear ethnic majorities.
The State of Israel was created to be a safe haven and a home for any Jew at any time, and is unreservedly open to Jewish immigrants, regardless of their health, age, financial situation or other factors.
The unique nature of Jewish history and the global scourge of anti-Semitism over the ages prompted Israel’s founders and political leaders to enter that provision explicitly into law.
In that sense, the State of Israel, as a Jewish state, is more than just a state of its citizens; it is also potentially the state of its Jewish non-citizens as well.
In the three ways described above, the State of Israel is precisely the Jewish and democratic state it aspires to be. It is culturally Jewish by design and hegemony, it is fully democratic and grants equal rights and protections to all its citizens and, finally, it remains a potential home for Jews everywhere, for better and for worse.
The need to maintain the delicate balance among those three elements is what makes separating politically from the Palestinians so very crucial for Israel.
Without a clear Jewish majority, one of two things will happen. Either Israel will lose its Jewish character – thus undermining the very goal of the Zionist enterprise – or will have to forgo its democratic nature – which in any event has been compromised by the nearly 47-year-long occupation. If Israel becomes either non-Jewish or non-democratic, it will cease to serve as a potential home for a large portion of world Jewry.
Not everyone in the Israeli leadership appears to accept that logic. For example, Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett said in January, “Our forefathers and descendants will not forgive a Jewish leader who divides our land and divides our capital.”
On the face of things, Bennett’s argument is sentimental, in that he imputes greater importance to formal Jewish sovereignty over parts of the historic Land of Israel earmarked for Palestinian sovereignty than he does to preserving Israel’s essential Zionist qualities. After all, what value will putative Israeli sovereignty over Jilazoun, Beit Omar or Jenin have if that Israel is either not Jewish or not democratic? While no Zionist Israeli would dispute that Judea and Samaria are steeped in Jewish history and that many Jews have an emotional bond to those places, sentimentality of that kind can only be permitted to play a limited role in setting policy when the country’s very future as the embodiment of the Zionist ideal is at stake.
The goal of the Zionist movement was to establish a Jewish and democratic state in the Land of Israel that could be a home for Jews around the world. That goal was achieved in 1948. Israel can stick to its guns and retain its sovereignty over Jenin, Jilazoun and Beit Omar, justly arguing that all were certainly home to Jews during biblical times. But to do so would be to undermine the Zionist movement’s enormous accomplishment. David Ben-Gurion showed most saliently that understood that when he accepted the UN partition plan, conceding parts of historic Land of Israel in order to ensure the establishment of a Jewish and democratic state in the remaining part of Zion.
The question is not whether Bennett is capable of distinguishing between the sentimental and the essential.
After all, Bennett’s vision is clouded by virtue of his very capacity as the leader of a small party with a sectarian and, more substantively so, a theological agenda, in which the State of Israel is perceived as being a vehicle for messianic redemption and restoration of Jewish control over the Land of Israel.
The important question is whether Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu understands the need to rise above sentimentality for the sake of Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state.
The author is a veteran Israeli writer and translator.
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