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Must a Jewish State be Zionist?

June 28, 2013 8:55 am 12 comments

Theodor Herzl leaning over the balcony of the Hotel Les Trois Rois.

Modern western states are slowly adapting to the idea that no one religion should dominate and all religions within them should be treated with equality and respect. Too often modern states fail not in the theory as much as the practice. There is a powerful reactionary move in parts of Europe and the Middle East to drag everyone backwards towards medievalism by tolerating no-go areas controlled by religious and usually fanatical authorities. Even what is laughably called “mild” Islam in Turkey is failing to protect its secular and other religious minorities.

A state that defines itself as a religious state, rarely gives absolutely equal standing to all its citizens. The only way they will is if religion plays no formal part in the running of the state and its legislature, full stop.

Israel is an example of a hybrid. It is officially secular and democratic and gives equal rights to all its citizens regardless of religion. But it does also give preference to Judaism as a religion and people of Jewish origin. This inevitably has consequences for secular Jews as well as other religions. The compromise worked for many for a while. But it is not working now if most secular Jews, most Christians, and most Arabs feel the state is not protecting or validating them sufficiently.

What is the solution? Recently Israel has allowed Muslim recruits to its army to swear on the Koran. Arab Israelis have equal civil and legal rights; yet it is also true that because they are regarded (sometimes very unfairly) as not fully loyal, they are often discriminated against, not by law as much as convention. To equate this inconsistency with Apartheid, where state legislated discrimination was the rule and interracial sex was a crime, is of course just the stupidity of ignorant or prejudiced idiots. Nevertheless, there is a problem that needs to be addressed. How?

Many Israeli intellectuals seem still caught up in an outdated debate about their identity caused both by their secularism and their left-wing ideology. It’s as if they still lived in the nineteenth century. Currently there’s a fascinating debate about what kind of state Israel should be as two secular Israelis battle it out in the pages of Haaretz. Shlomo Sand, a secular Israeli professor at Tel Aviv University, is notorious for his banal theory that Jews today have no connection with the Land of Israel because they are descended from non-Jewish Khazars who converted a thousand years ago in the Caucasus. No unbiased academic takes this seriously.

But he has a point in challenging the concept of a Jewish Nation as opposed to Religion. In his latest book, How and When I Stopped Being Jewish, he says he wants to be an Israeli but not a Jew. Of course he is welcome and entitled and I would say “bloody good riddance.” But that will not solve the problem of Jews who want to live in a state that supports Jewish values (however one wants to define them). Sand’s arguments have sparked a lively response from other secular Israelis.

Vladimir Shumsky has argued in Haaretz that most Israelis, Jews and Palestinians, feel a Jewish or a Palestinian national identity. This national identity is connected in both cases to a wider community beyond the borders of the state: Jews with world Jewry and Arab Palestinians with world Islam. To substitute an “Israeli nationalism” for this reality makes no sense to those who care about their Judaism of Islam. The only way Israel can truly be a more equitable state of all its citizens is not by eliminating identities but by negotiating rights for both national groups in an Israeli federation, he argues. Plausible, but it evades the question of the relationship between Israeli Palestinians and Palestinian Palestinians within the state.

Secular Israelis and religious Jews can now, if they choose, live safely in many countries outside the state of Israel. Yet many from both camps insist that they have as much right to live in Israel as any other religio-ethnic group that has qualified for a seat in the United Nations. Religious Israelis argue furthermore that whereas a secular Israeli could live the same lifestyle anywhere else in the free world, only in a Jewish state could a religious Jew live where Shabbat is Shabbat and work stops on Jewish festivals. If there are states for Christians and Muslims, where their religions are state-supported and enforced, what moral argument could possibly deny Jews a similar right?

What does the term “Zionism” add to a Judaism that wishes to express itself within a Jewish state? Is it anything more that Jewish Nationalism? Before Zionism was created in the nineteenth century what was the nature of Judaism’s relationship to the land? Was it not simply the wish to live within a community of practicing Jews on its historical territory? Did that require a political movement? There was no political movement when thousands of Jews moved to Safed under the Ottomans in the sixteenth century. So why add this controversial notion of Zionism to Jewish proactive dynamism? And why not recognize secular Jews in the way, once upon a time, both Jewish commonwealths did, by including everyone, religious or not?

Zionism is a product of its limited time. Judaism has been around for thousands of years. Trying to conflate a nineteenth century nationalist ideology with a millennial religious tradition just cannot work. It’s like trying to fit a fat man into a thin man’s diving suit.

This is why many Israeli politicians now realize that if Israel is to be a Jewish state as opposed to a state for Jews, it must define itself as a Jewish state and support Jewish identity within its mission. The Palestinians should indeed also have a Palestinian state of their own which will define itself in any way it sees fit. Palestinian Israelis and Jewish Israelis, be they secular or religious, should be free to choose which state they want to live in and make whatever adjustments or compromises will be required. This is the fair solution. In theory. Sadly, we know it’s not that simple.

Given the unlikelihood of reaching an agreed solution with the Palestinians for two states, a single state looks a possibility. Under the Ottomans, a government bureaucracy ran the country, and each religion, millet, ran its own affairs. That would be the ideal solution if only the external threat was removed. But it won’t be as long as militant Islam exists and so long a militant Judaism wants to defend itself with maximal demands. Or as long as both sides have political leaders with limited imagination and no stomach for risk taking.

Therefore sadly I see no solution. There is only an unsatisfactory status quo, both externally and internally. That being so we have an obligation to make it as livable, as fair, and as ethical as we possibly can. But ask politicians to achieve that (anywhere) and you’re dreaming!


  • Fulan Kishwar

    A tolerance that is ‘transcendently-ordained’ is one which carries with it some divinely revealed sanction; tolerance of a non-transcendent order ultimately derives only from a kind of social or humanistic utilitarianism, and is thus at the mercy of the contingencies of pragmatism. The first kind of tolerance is of a much more absolute nature, being sealed, as it were, by Heaven; the second, though laudable in its positive effects, is more fragile, and depends more on the evaluation of what is opportune in any given situation. Religious discourse, read in depth and not just on the surface, contains the principles for elaborating just such a ‘transcendently-ordained tolerance’, a tolerance that is not simply the outcome of a sentimental desire for peaceful relations between adherents of different religions [and different sects], but one which is deeply rooted in a recognition of, and respect for, the holiness that lies at the core of all revealed religious traditions.

    • Jeremy Rosen

      Unfortunately religious sanctioned tolerance does not have an impressive record of actually tolerating ! This goes for all the religions I have encountered including my own.

  • Jeremy Rosen

    Thats a very interesting p[oint and not one I would disagree with, with provided you add something more. After all both Christianity and Islam claim to be Monotheist too!

  • Your ideas about a secular single state which recognises, protects and respects the equal rights of ALL faiths sounds a lot better and more secure than the endless alternative horror which seems to be driven by extremists of all hues. If your biggest fear is the barrier of outside interference and violence from a militant Islam which would not accept such a democratic one state solution surely this threat would be confronted by Muslim and Jewish citizens of the new state and their world-wide supporters… plus democratic peoples of good will. These seem more logical/moral battle-lines than the current ones which divide us. Surely its a case in the final analysis of “unity is strength”

    • Jeremy Rosen

      Yes Peter, you are right.
      Perhaps I am too jaded and disillusioned by generations of hatred to feel too optimistic. But as I say below, perhaps the Messiah or equivalent will achieve it!


  • In the Jewish tradition, Zion represents the intersection of G-d, man, and earthly place. The scene was set upon a modest mountain in Jerusalem. The patriarch Abraham was perfectly cast in the role of man. And G-d, as always, played himself.

    A state that is not a dedicated witness to that covenant could arguably be considered only ethnically Jewish…and then perhaps, before too long, not even that.

  • Yes, a modern Jewish state must be Zionist because countries today, with their rapidly growing anti-Israel/anti-Jewish violence, show that Jews still definitely need a state of their own. The pseudo-intellectualism present in this article is nothing new nor is the conflict between religious and secular Jews something that just sprang up but neither is reason enough to pretend that Israel, as a Jewish state (which does treat all its citizens as equal under the law) is not absolutely necessary in the world today. Every country has internal conflicts among its citizens; just look at the divisions between Republicans and Democrats in America, for example. Yet I don’t hear you calling for the dissolution of America because each side has genuine grievances. Ironically, your Palestinian friend would not find another country in the Middle East that he would be treated equally; in fact, he wouldn’t even be able to become a citizen in any Islamic country today. Yet, he (and you) are whining and boo-hooing because Israel is a distinctly Jewish state. Frankly, this attitude shows such a lack of knowledge of what Israel, with all its faults really is, that it makes me sick. So, in answer to your question, I again say that a Jewish State must be Zionist.

    • Jeremy Rosen


      I dont think you could have read my article because contrary to your suggestion I completely support the idea of a Jewish State.

      My reservations were simply
      Why not call it a Jewish State and leave out using the recent and controversial term Zionism. It adds nothing to a Judaism that sees Eretz Yisrael and Yishuv HaAretz as core elements.

      And my other point was that all citizens regardless of degree or sort of religious affiliation, should be treated equally and encouraged to identify with the State.
      Whats your beef with that?

  • Mark Jay Mirsky

    This is a very balanced analysis of a a difficult moment in the life of those of us who identify as Jews and feel a deep tug of family to the Land of Israel and to the Jewish state there. In my trips back and forth to Israel, I experienced the strange hypnosis there of a world that has so many resonances, and ghostly moments even for those of us who live for the most part outside it. I think that without the pressure from religious fanaticism, it would be possible to find a compromise, with the other religious believers to whom it is precious, but as I argued in the essays I wrote for my collection, “My Search for the Messiah,” only through an inspired religious leadership can this be possible. And I am not ready to abandon Zionism, even though it is located in the nationalism of the 19th century, because I think of it as a frustrated religious idea which despite its obvious limitations, maintained Jewish identity for many intellectuals who would otherwise have simply assimilated. I started off as a young man as a skeptic in this regard,but having met some of the men who were Zionist leaders at the founding of the state, I felt their charisma and their moral leadership. There are, I know, intelligent, realistic Arab leaders and some day I believe, taking command of Palestinian nationalism, they will meet a committed Jewish leadership that has an equal sense of moral ideas and loyalty to a Jewish state. At this moment it will not be that difficult to find common solutions. However hopelessly romantic this seems,I have lived through painful moments here in the United States between racial and ethnic communities that are at least partially in the past.
    In short, I agree with your conclusion, but as the son of a “politician” who did a great deal of good in his career as a legislator, I am more hopeful perhaps than you are.

    • Jeremy Rosen


      As always a beautiful, poetic and important contribution. You are right, I ought not to generalize about politicians without asserting the significance of the few driven not by personal gain but by ideals and your late father clearly belonged in the second category.

      Two responses. I do not give up in any way on Jewish Nationalism and the right to self determination regardless of the origins of modern nationalism or its limitations in an imperfect world. Neither do I minimize the massive contribution Zionism has made in establishing and sustaining the Jewish State.I just cavil at the continuing need for the introduction of an extraneous “ism.”

      In so far as Messianism is more than jingoism or religious millennialism, I see it as the recognition of the fact that miracles, or non-rational, unpredictable events and circumstances are crucial in our survival as a people. We can never discount and should always hope for Divine Intervention. And it is this that I believe Maimonides thought the Messiah to represent. So yes, my rational analysis may make sense but it certainly is not the complete picture.

      And I am almost finished reading the amazing Pinsk saga and ready to write!

      Warmest regards

  • There is only One Elohim of Israel and the nations .Who will judge at the end all who serve their false gods and thrown in with Satan and his demons to eternal the One Elohim Word.

  • David Hoffman

    The question is not, “Must a Jewish State be Zionist?” but rather, “What makes a state Jewish?” The answer, in one word, is monotheism. This is why the Sages say “Whoever rejects idolatry is called a Jew,” (Megilla 13a). Today, those who reject monotheism are more likely to be atheists than polytheists, but the principle remains the same. Only when the State of Israel stops trying to be neutral on the question of whether or not G-d exists will it truly be Jewish. Let it accept that, along with Hillel’s dictum that all true revelation of G-d’s will is consistent with the principle of not doing to others what we would not want done to ourselves, and all the rest will follow in due course.

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