The Nation State of the Jewish People
by Robert Wolfe (July 2015)
When I first heard that Netanyahu wanted to enact a Basic Law defining Israel as "the nation state of the Jewish people," my only objection was that such a law didn't seem necessary. Of course Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people. No one doubts this. Israel was founded as a "Jewish state," and a Jewish state it has remained unto this day. Why make a law of a well established reality? But even though I didn't see the need to legislate the Jewishness of Israel, I didn't see anything wrong with it either and I was surprised when all kinds of people began criticizing the proposed law.
The most frequent criticism was that such a law would be unfair to non-Jewish Israelis in general and Israeli Arabs in particular. Although there was nothing in the law curtailing the democratic rights currently enjoyed by non-Jewish Israelis, the critics tried to make out that the law would somehow undermine those rights even if it did not say so. It is true that passage of the law would make it slightly more difficult to change the Jewish character of Israel, but most of the critics of the law also declared that they had no intention of makng Israel less Jewish. In fact they banded together under the name of the "Zionist Camp" to contest the new elections which the opposition to the law had precipitated. As for the Israeli Arabs, it is not the lack of democratic rights but the fact that they are a minority of Israelis which prevents them from changing the Jewish character of the state.
But in order for Israel to remain the nation state of the Jewish people, the Jewish people also has to remain. At one time there was no doubt that Jews formed a people because a large proportion of them spoke the Yiddish language regardless of their religious beliefs or the lack thereof. Jews spoke Yiddish not only in Eastern Europe but also in the countries to which they had emigrated in the past 150 years or so. Due to the Holocaust on the one hand and assimilation on the other, this is no longer true. Yiddish is no longer the spoken language of a large number of Jews. It has been replaced by Hebrew in Israel and by the various languages, such as English, French and Russian, which Jews now speak in the Diaspora. And the less that the Jews of the world are able to communicate with one another, the less they are going to feel themselves part of one people. They may still identify as Jews but their primary identity will be as Israelis, Americans, Russians and so forth.
There are however two factors which tend to promote a sense of Jews as belonging to one people despite the loss of the linguistic and cultural unity associated with the Yiddish language. One factor is the persistence of Jewish religious belief, the other is a sense of identification with the nation of Israel. The Jewish religion, and in particular its Orthodox version, is more or less the same all over the world, so those who practice it will naturally tend to feel themselves part of a world people in a way that secular Jews may not. On the other hand, identification with the state of Israel provides all Jews with the possibility of unity in what many have called the "secular religion" of Zionism. But in order for this possibility to be realized it will prove necessary to overcome the wave of anti-Semitism which has emerged as a result of the efforts of the enemies of the Jewish people to delegitimize the very concept of a Jewish nation state.
The main cause of the resurgence of anti-Semitism in the world today is the spread of the ideology of political Islam, sometimes called Islamism. Political Islam seeks to regulate the whole of modern social and economic life on the basis of one or another version of Islamic law. This profoundly reactionary ideology seeks to prevent the establishment of secular democratic and socialist institutions in the Arab and Muslim world, and since Israel is the outstanding example of a democratic state in the Middle East, political Islam openly aims at the destruction of Israel. All those who seek to appease or ally themselves with the advocates of political Islam then proceed to translate the genocidal anti-Semitism of the Islamists into the language of human rights. The Jewish state, it is said, deals too harshly with those who seek its destruction. This accusation is then embellished with a whole set of anti-Semitic stereotypes culled from Christian as well as Muslim tradition and the end product is an image of Israel as "just like the Nazis."
No amount of argumentation, however just and reasonable, can significantly improve Israel's image so long as political Islam continues to gain ground in the Middle East and worldwide. The key to defeating modern anti-Semitim is defeating political Islam, and the key to defeating political Islam is developing a viable alternative to it. It's not hard to sketch in the abstract what such an alternative might look like. It would be open to secular thought and foster a program of economic development utilizing both capitalist and socialist institutions. It would be as close to a liberal democracy as the political culture of the Middle East permits. And it would possess the means to defend itself against external aggression. In short it would look something like Israel. It is precisely because Israel has the potential to act as an alternative to political Islam that it has become the target of so much hatred.
Unlike the Islamists, Israel does not demand religious belief as a condition of membership in the community. Jewish religious law states that anyone born of a Jewish mother is a Jew regardless of religious belief so long as they do not convert to another religion. In practice a very considerable percentage of the Jewish people defines themselves as secular Jews or even as atheists. As the nation state of the Jewish people, the Israeli state and society necessarily reflect the diversity of the Jewish community. What unites us is a feeling of respect for Jewish tradition and this is something which non-Jews could also feel should they wish to do so. Respect for Jewish tradition is not an arbitrary stance but a legitimite response to the progressive role which the Jewish people has in fact played in world history.
In the world today the state of Israel is in the vanguard of the movement for democracy in the Middle East. It deserves support and recognition of this role and not carping criticism for defending itself against the Islamists and their allies. The alternative to democracy in the Middle East is the spread of Islamist medievalism to the rest of the world as is already happening on a large scale in Europe. The blatant anti-Semitism of the Islamists would result in the disintegration of the Jewish people into various sects in the Diaspora increasingly indistinguishable from the population in the midst of which they reside. The Jewish people needs a nation state and Israel needs a Jewish people.
Robert Wolfe is a professional historian and scholar with 40 years experience teaching history on the college level in the United States. He made aliyah to Israel in 2001 and lives in Netanya with his wife.
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