Why Israel Must be a Jewish State
Israel’s cabinet has approved legislation to officially define the country as the nation-state of the Jewish people. This timely measure accomplishes several important goals. It will facilitate peace by encouraging the Arab world to accept Israel’s permanence. It will help forge a sense of unity among the famously diverse and contentious Israeli public. And it will not in any way infringe on the rights of Israel’s Arab citizens and other minorities.
The core obstacle to Arab-Israeli peace has always been the refusal of both Arab regimes and the Palestinian Arab leadership to sincerely accept the permanent existence of a Jewish state. The classic study ‘Arab Attitudes to Israel,’ by Proessor Yeshoshafat Harkabi (1921-1994) of Hebrew University, has an entire section called “The Artificiality of Israel.” It describes the widespread conviction among Arab leaders, intellectuals, and journalists that the existence of Israel is an aberration, a violation of the natural order of the world, and a contravention of the will of Allah. Harkabi (who, incidentally, was from the political left) sums up the Arab view: “Israel cannot endure, for justice will win in the end…Israel is fated to disintegrate and disappear.”
That is why formally defining Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people will send an important message to the Arab world that Israel, the Jewish state, is here to stay. If and when the Arabs finally accept this reality, peace will be possible.
The new legislation will also contribute to Israel’s own sense of national cohesion. Forged of immigrants from every corner of the globe and from every political and religious orientation, this “ingathering of exiles” is also notorious for the vehement political, cultural, and religious arguments among its citizens – so fierce are some of these disputes that doomsayers occasionally issue dire warnings of the danger of social violence, or even of an all-out civil war. Especially in difficult times such as now, when Israel is under incessant attack – whether from rockets in Gaza or guns, knives, and firebombs in Jerusalem – it is more important than ever that Israelis reaffirm their common ground. A basic issue on which the overwhelming majority of Israelis can agree is that modern Israel was established to be the nation-state of the Jewish people.
Israel, after all, was not created in order to be a purely secular Western state. It has uniquely Jewish features, and most of its citizens want it that way. The Jewish Sabbath is the official day of rest. The national language is Hebrew. The national culture is permeated with Jewish symbols, history, and memories. An official definition of Israel as a Jewish state is the natural corollary of this national consensus. It will help bind Israel’s people together in a sense of kinship, fraternity, and common national purpose.
None of this will in any way impinge on the rights of Arabs and other minorities who are Israeli citizens. Beginning in the 1970s, some Jewish peace activists began urging Israel to take steps to tone down its Jewish identity. They said it was necessary in order to make Israeli Arabs feel truly equal. They said, for example, that the national anthem, Hatikvah (The Hope), should be changed because its lyrics speak of “the Jewish soul yearning” for the Land of Israel. They said that the Law of Return should be abolished, because it gives Jews alone the privilege of receiving automatic citizenship upon immigrating to Israel.
Well, those who predicted the ever-increasing alienation of Israel’s minorities have been proven wrong. Israeli minorities have made enormous strides in real, practical ways that are far more significant than the anthem or the citizenship law. Today, an Israeli Arab sits on the Supreme Court, Israeli Arabs and Druze serve as Israeli diplomats abroad, a Druze colonel commands an elite division of the Israeli army, and a Bedouin Arab is slated to become one of its tank commanders, another first. An Israeli Arab woman was named Miss Israel – and that was back in 1999. Hatikvah and the Law of Return did not hold them back. And neither will defining Israel as a Jewish state.
To facilitate the chances for peace and to advance the cause of national unity – while continuing to respect the equal rights of non-Jewish Israelis – it’s time to call Israel what it really is, and was always meant to be: the nation-state of the Jewish people.
Moshe Phillips and Benyamin Korn are members of the board of the Religious Zionists of America.