Join our email list

National Law and Israel’s ‘Jewishness’

The Basic Law, which defines Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, has sparked a heated debate in the government, the Knesset and the public at large.
©Roman Yanushevsky/
©Roman Yanushevsky/
Rabbi Dr. Shraga Bar-On is the Director of the Kogod Research Center for Contemporary Jewish Thought and the David Hartman Center for Intellectual Excellence, and a lecturer of Talmud and Jewish Thought at Shalem College. At the David Hartman Center, he is responsible for the advanced training of aspiring public intellectuals through the Beit Midrash for Israeli Rabbis, the David Hartman postdoctoral fellowship, and the Maskilot fellowship for women pursuing their doctorate. His research in Jewish philosophy and identity addresses

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently declared that he intends to rapidly advance the enactment of the Basic Law which defines Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, a declaration that sparked a heated debate in the government, the Knesset and the public at large.

We should welcome this initiative. Basic laws are of a crucial declarative importance. The law will strengthen the raison d’etre of the establishment and the existence of Israel. Such a law would end – at least for now – the post-national and post-Zionist attempts to redefine Israel as a state for “all its citizens,” who want to hinder its unique cultural character.

The law would enable a more vigorous development of the country’s unique Jewish cultural elements, as long as they do not contradict its democratic values. It would supply the government with a legal basis for acts that would ensure the sovereignty of Israel as a Jewish state within recognized borders. The law would allow shaping a shared public space based on Jewish civil culture, thus countering the trend that has developed following certain rulings of the Supreme Court, whereby public space should reflect only a balance among individual beliefs, tastes, desires and rights.

The prime minister’s timing on this initiative, which was raised as a requirement of the Habayit Hayehudi party for joining the coalition last year, is by no means coincidental. The demand for Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state drew criticism in Israel and abroad. On the one hand, it turned out that the Palestinians were not ready for such recognition, but on the other, defining the state’s character is an internal Israeli matter – as its opponents rightly claim. Enactment of the law with the negotiations as background is liable to offer political legitimacy to the move within Israel and would gain international recognition.

It would allow the prime minister to present the outcome of the negotiations – with concessions from Israel’s point of view – as the “end of the conflict” and as ensuring the Jewish character of Israel as part of the long term agreement. If everything is so reasonable, why has the Left in Israel raised so many objections?

These objections may be regarded as the proof of the unfortunate words Netanyahu once whispered in the ear of Rabbi Kaduri: “The Leftists have forgotten what it means to be Jewish.” Defining Israel as a Jewish state would be indeed be a defeat for the minority of leftists in Israel who wish to shed their Jewish and Israeli identity and base it on civil equality. However, most opponents rightly fear that the practical implications of the law would result in national chauvinism that would deepen discrimination against minorities and permit greater religious coercion against the secular majority in Israel.

It seems that in order to neutralize this last concern, the law was cumbersomely named “Israel, the nation-state of the Jewish people,” rather than “Israel, the Jewish state.” The emphasis is put on national rights, rather than on Jewish content. This emphasis intensifies the concern that this law is simply intended to provide legal grounds for discriminating against Arabs and damaging the civil and human rights of non-Jews.

The problem, therefore, is not the law in itself, but its Jewish content. The problem’s roots lie in the dichotomy between the nationalists and the peaceniks, between a Jewish state and a democratic state, or between “Israelism” and Judaism. These are erroneous distinctions. Most Israelis believe that Israel can be both a Jewish and a democratic nation-state. This is Israel’s founding belief, which is well articulated in the Declaration of Independence; its deeper roots lie in Zionist thought. In his classic essay, “The Jewish State and Jewish Problem,” Zionist pioneer Ahad Ha’am outlined spiritual Zionism’s vision, as opposed to Theodor Herzl’s political Zionism:

It is not only Jews who have come out of the Ghetto: Judaism has come out, too…
So it seeks to return to its historic center, in order to live there a life of natural development, to bring its powers into play in every department of human culture…and thus to contribute to the common stock of humanity, in the future as in the past, a great national culture, the fruit of the unhampered activity of a people living according to its own spirit….From this center the spirit of Judaism will go forth to the great circumference, to all the communities of the Diaspora, and will breathe new life into them and preserve their unity…(Translation from Hebrew by Leon Simon, 1912)

What is the meaning of “Jewish nationalism,” or in other words, what can be expected from the State of Israel? According to Ahad Ha’am, Zionism was not only about sovereignty, but also about identity.

Thus, forming a modern Jewish identity is a challenge for the entire Jewish people. Promoting national interests in order to ensure long term Jewish sovereignty in the State of Israel is important, but a political, legal and public discussion should also be held on how to ensure Arab citizens’ individual rights.

More important is the need to hold a discussion about the Jewish values of the Jewish state. Instead of opposing this legislation, the vast majority of the Israeli citizens and their political representatives should join the discussion about formulating the identity of the nation-state. This is an opportunity to pursue the shared values ​​of the Jewish people. The founding fathers of Israel tried to articulate it in the Declaration of Independence, which to date has not received a binding legal status. They put the principles of justice, equality and peace, ​​according to the vision of Israel’s prophets, in the top row of values.

For example, recognition of the various denominations of modern Judaism, which encompasses the majority of the Jewish people, must be included; multifaceted Jewish culture must be accepted as one of its essential components. The monopoly on all Jewish matters given by law to the Orthodox religious sector must be decentralized. Secular Hebrew culture must be regarded as an equal part of the Jewish legacy.

All of these values ​​should be expressed in the new national law, in order to ensure civil rights and the pursuit of peace with Israel’s neighbors. Without mentioning the term “democracy,” the Declaration of Independence assumed that the more Jewish Israel would be, the more democratic it would become, and the more democratic, the more Jewish. Most of Israel’s citizens – and most of the Jewish world – believe in this assumption. National law should reflect this belief.

You care about Israel, peoplehood, and vibrant, ethical Jewish communities. We do too.

Join our email list for more Hartman ideas

Add a comment
Join our email list


The End of Policy Substance in Israel Politics