What is a ‘Jewish State’?

Ha’aretz 1/3/12

We will give our lives to the Torah” was the collective message this week of Haradi parties in the Knesset responding to the High Court’s decision to strike down the Tal Law. It seems the desire to give one’s life to Torah would exclude giving one’s life for one’s country – even if that country is the Jewish state. Along with issues of buses running on Shabbat or “public modesty” campaigns, the imminent disappearance of the Tal Law revives the need to define a “Jewish state.”

In some spheres it is assumed that the “Jewish State” is already a defined concept. For example, Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu have often posed recognizing Israel as a “Jewish state” as a precondition in negotiations with the Palestinians. Many Israelis have pointed to the Palestinian rejection of this precondition as a refusal to commit to the two states for two peoples end of claims concept. But what do Israel’s leaders mean when they say “Jewish state”? Before making such a demand of others, we must first be clear with ourselves on what exactly this means.

Jerusalem Day 1.6.11 A boy holding an Israeli flag at a Jerusalem Day parade on June 1, 2011.
Photo by: Daniel Bar-On

I used to – naïvely it seems – think that defining a “Jewish State” was not a matter of debate among Jews. Israel is a Jewish democratic state; it is as Jewish as its democracy allows it to be, while protecting the rights of all minorities within the state and promising full and equal rights for all. Israel’s national culture and iconography are Jewish, the workweek reflects the Jewish time cycle and the national holidays track the Jewish calendar. As in most of Europe, instead of Christmas being a national holiday, Rosh Hashana takes its place. Those of other religious persuasions could take a holiday during their own religious festivals, just as I – a religious Jew in the U.K. – could take a break on Rosh Hashana.

This was the nature of the “Jewish state” that I had been brought up to understand; an understanding supported by the academic traditions of Ruth Gavision and Donniel Hartmann.

Yet the inability of Israeli leaders to spell out what a “Jewish State” means in practice has left the international community, and some Jews, questioning that very concept.

First, we must look at the definition on a societal and communal level. Does a “Jewish State” mean Orthodox Jews have a monopoly over status law? Does it mean that the Jewish right of return will continue to be based on the definitions of a Jew as set up by the Nuremberg laws? Where is Halakha situated in the legal system – as a source of law, a societal guide or segregated from public life?

Next, the “Jewish state” must be examined on a political negotiation level. Thus far, it has been used as a tactic to attempt (unsuccessfully) to get the Palestinians to give up the right of return as a starting point in negotiations, rather than to find a mutually acceptable solution. Using the concept of the “Jewish State” in this way makes it a political battering ram, and restricts it to the polemical fights around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Even more important than defining a “Jewish State” is to determine who participates in the discussion. Could Israel’s minority communities have a seat around the table that debates national Jewish identity? All those living within the borders of Israel – Arab Israelis, Jewish Israelis and others – arguably have the right to determine the character of the “Jewish State.”

But those living outside Israel’s borders also have much to contribute. Israelis should recognize that they have deep intellectual resources in the Jewish people as a whole to help tackle the problem. Free from the pressure cooker of the Middle East, those outside Israel have had the chance to fully plumb the depths of Jewish identity and have much to offer to the conversation.

Whether sparked by the Tal law, negotiations for peace, or little Na’ama Margolese, a conversation over the nature of the “Jewish State” is a necessity. Clearly my naïve assumptions barely scratched the surface of such a deep question of national identity. But using the ability to project a common identity into a national expression within the state, together with the creative experiences outside the state, we can continue a conversation that began 63 years ago. It was paused as Israel faced the wars of its birth and survival, but now, more then ever, needs to continue.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s