What about 'Jewish State' don't you understand?

The new citizenship law recently proposed by the Government once again raises the question of why Israel should define itself as a Jewish state and what this definition means in the first place.

According to the proposed law, naturalized citizens will have to pledge their allegiance to Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state.” Imagine if France would pass a law stating that France is a French state, if Japan would pass a law stating that Japan is a Japanese state, or if Sweden would pass a law stating that Sweden is a Swedish state. This would sound both silly and unnecessary. Far from being ridiculed for stating the obvious, however, Israel is being taken to task for stating the odious.   

When the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) recommended in September 1947 that the British Mandate in Palestine be divided between a Jewish state for the Jews and an Arab state for the Arabs, everyone understood that this meant each nation would have its own nation-state (though many opposed the idea). In May 1948, Israel’s Declaration of Independence clearly proclaimed the establishment of a “Jewish state” and specified that this state would both be the nation-state of the Jewish people and respect the civil rights of the country’s non-Jewish minorities.

In recent years, the very legitimacy of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people has been under attack. Sophisticated people realize that they cannot logically question the legitimacy of the Jewish nation-state without doing the same for every nation-state (indeed, most countries in the world today are nation-states). Hence their claim (itself stated in the PLO charter and recently popularized by Prof. Shlomo Sand), that the Jews do not constitute a nation but only a religion, and thus that a Jewish state is not a nation-state but a religious state. Therefore, its legitimacy can be challenged without questioning the principle of self-determination.     

But who are those people to decide whether or not the Jews constitute a nation? Scholars have been debating for at least a couple of centuries about what makes a nation a nation (Ernest Renan called it “a soul, a spiritual principle”). In recent years, many attempts have been made to “deconstruct” the very concept of national identity (Benedict Anderson comes to mind). But the bottom line is that if people define themselves as a nation and are ready to fight in order to preserve their national independence or identity (whether this identity is real or “imagined” as Anderson would put it), then they obviously do constitute a nation.

How people define their national identity is also their own business. Japan’s definition is ethnic, while America’s is ideological, and France’s is cultural (though this is a hotly debated issue in France). Moreover, religion is central to the national identity of many nations. Catholicism is intrinsically linked to the national identity of Poland, Ireland, and Italy. Shinto is indissociable from Japan. The Queen of England is both Head of State and Head of the Anglican Church. Afghanistan, Iran, Mauritania and Pakistan, are all “Islamic Republics.” Surely, the fact that there is a religious dimension to the Jewish definition of national identity is no exception.

Instead of saying that Judaism does indeed constitute part of Jewish identity and that there is nothing wrong with that, many Israelis feel the need to be apologetic about the religious component of Jewish national identity and therefore suggest redefining this identity in purely secular terms. Such is the essence of Amnon Rubinstein’s recent article in Azure (“The Curious Case of Jewish Democracy,” Azure 41, Summer 2010). He suggests a purely “national-cultural reinterpretation” of Jewish identity.

Though a professed liberal, Rubinstein is suggesting something illiberal: that the state should choose, institutionalize and favor one specific definition of national identity despite the will of many citizens. A true liberal, however, would say that it is not the state’s business to define and impose a definition of its national identity over all its citizens. 

Rubinstein, however, has the merit of addressing the core issue: can and should the Jews keep their national identity and rights while abandoning the traditional Jewish definition of nationhood? In the Biblical narrative, Jewish faith is intrinsically connected to Jewish identity and nationhood. Until Emancipation, Jews defined their identity in purely religious terms. Zionism tried to undo that link by redefining Jewish identity based on territory, language, and history. The problem is that it is the non-Jews who won’t take it.

The same way that Jews, as individuals, were not left alone in Europe after assimilating, Israel, as a state, was never left alone when it was established as a secular nation-state. No matter how hard the Jews tried to stop being Jewish in Europe, they were still perceived and reviled as such by the gentiles. And no matter how secular Israel was when it was established, it was opposed by the Vatican and by the Muslim world on religious grounds. Jewish “rationality” won’t rid the world of its irrationality. Even if Israel were to officially declare itself a purely secular nation-state and retreat to the armistice lines of 1949, it would still be reviled and hated (as it was before 1967) by a plethora of zealots –from devout Muslims to leftist Europeans.

This is a point that Rubinstein, with all his brilliance, does not seem to get. 

It says in the Book of Deuteronomy: "And among those peoples, you shall not find any rest for the sole of your foot." Rabbi Yitzhak Arama writes in his book Akedat Yitzhak that this verse teaches us that the Jews will never be able to completely assimilate among the nations, and will never be able to forget who they are. No matter how hard Jews try to forget and to be forgotten, the nations will always remind them that they are Jewish. The Midrash (Bereshit Rabah) says there is a connection between the above verse and the one in Genesis describing the return of the dove to Noah''s Arch ("And the dove did not find any rest for the sole of her foot, so she came back to the ark"). 

The Midrash teaches us that we can turn the curse of "There shall be no rest for the sole of your foot" into a blessing. For if the Jews had found a rest for the sole of their foot in Exile, they would never have come back to the Ark, both physically and spiritually. 

The Jews came back to the ark physically. Only when they do so spiritually as well will they not only be left alone, but also be respected and admired.