Opinion: Israel as a Jewish State

In 1896 Theodor Herzl published Der Judenstaat, his national plan for the Jewish people. The pamphlet has often been mistranslated as The Jewish State. The word “Juden” was used by those who hated and persecuted Jews. Herzl’s point in calling the pamphlet The Jews’ State was to hurl back the epithet by asserting that those very Jews were proud and able enough to form their own nation. When Herzl’s vision of a haven from the murderous enemies of the Jews was wedded to Jewish ancestral ties to the land of Israel, modern political Zionism became a potent historical force.
Israel, that is, was not conceived as a Jewish state in a religious sense. It remains a democracy, not a theocracy. Judaism is not the state religion of Israel. This is in contrast to countries that do have state religions such as Denmark (Lutheranism), Greece (Church of Greece), and Thailand (Buddhism), not to mention various nations that have legally declared themselves as Islamic, such as Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. It is true that Jewish holidays are national holidays, but that is hardly unique in the world. Few non-Christian citizens in the United States, for example, clamor for the right to work on Christmas.
However, the fact that Arabic is an official language of Israel, or that Arabs can and do vote and serve in the Knesset, or that they have legal equality in the state, does not erase the inherent tension in the country between Jews living in a state of the Jews and Gentiles living in a state of the Jews. It is not that Jews conceive of themselves as superior, but that they conceive of themselves as needing to retain political control. At the same time, the Israeli Jewish population doesn’t wish to be exclusivist. If it did, it would not allow non-Jewish citizens or residents or, at the very least, would bar non-Jews from voting.
But if Israel wants to be a democracy, can it retain its identity as a Jewish nation? Israel’s moral burden in asking this question is to determine whether its continuing status as a haven for Jews is justified and to ponder whether it is out of step with the temper of the multi-cultural times.
Since the last century provided overly ample evidence that Jews without a country were subject to barbarism beyond name, since hatred of Jews and outright attacks continue, and since the Iranian president gleefully envisions what he insists will be the first Holocaust, it is difficult to argue that a haven for Jews is no longer needed.
But is a “Jewish state” appropriate among contemporary nation states in focusing on a specific part of its population? This question is most often considered in the light of Israel’s immigration policies. After all, the Law of Return gives all Jews and their spouses the automatic right to settle in the nation and become citizens. If Israel is a democracy, some argue, why should such a right only apply to Jews?
Part of the reason, obviously, is that Israel’s very reason for existence is to provide such what is the only national home for Jews. Still, if Israel were unique in making such a law, its moral authority would be diminished. That, however, is not the case. All countries, to one extent or another, control who enters, how long they stay, and who is qualified for citizenship. In Bulgaria citizenship is granted to anyone who descends from a Bulgarian citizen as established by a court ruling. People not born in Ireland but who have an Irish grandmother or grandfather can claim Irish citizenship.
And so on. That is, Israel is hardly unique.
The Law of Return needs to be seen in the context of population policies. Demography is destiny in a democracy. If Israel is to remain a needed safe haven for Jews, it must have a democratic majority to maintain laws protecting that haven. That doesn’t automatically imply a majority of Jews, but it is abundantly clear that should Israeli Arabs gain a democratic majority they would eliminate the Law of Return for Jews and in other ways eliminate Israel as a country that will accept any Jew who needs or wants to go there.
Israel’s objection to the mass return of Palestinian Arabs rests precisely on this demographic point and has virtually universal Israeli Jewish support in the country. Furthermore, the morality of the Palestinian claim to a “right of return” is undermined by their very determination to have Jewish communities of the West Bank removed from any future Palestinian Arab state there. If Palestinians want to become automatic citizens in a Jewish State, they should be willing to grant all the Jews currently living in the West Bank automatic citizenship in a future Palestinian state with rights to their current housing and voting rights. In addition, they should allow unlimited Jewish immigration and population growth leading to the possibility that Jewish candidates would democratically take control over the government. That won’t happen not because Palestinians are racist but because Palestinians know that a Palestinian state has a primary obligation to protect Palestinian Arabs. If Palestinians object to Israel as a Jewish State, they provide the moral justification for Israel to object to a nation for Palestinian Arabs.
That problem leads some to utopian visions of a bi-national state. But such a state is impractical because both peoples seek and want a haven for their own peoples and so any bi-national state would lead to perpetual conflict and competition.
Given all this, it is clear that Israel has the right to exist as a Jewish state. It has an historical obligation to do so for the Jewish people. Continuing as a Jewish state coheres with moral traditions and contemporary international law. Its citizens have the will and the way to a continuing and vibrant future as a Jewish nation.

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