Just a Little More on Israel As a Jewish State

In this post I want to spend just a little bit of time dealing with a few more specific and down-to-earth issues with respect to Israel being a “Jewish” state. I received my share of responses last week ranging from those who thought it was just another slap in the face of Palestinians, to those who are sure the state will become a theocracy and oppressive. Below I enumerate key issues and respond directly. I will avoid the historical arguments about the legitimacy or illegitimacy of the establishment of the state and what transpired in 1948. Rather, I focus on more mundane issues.

1. Many people get depressed about Israel as it fumbles forward increasingly divided by religion, secularity, and politics. The truth is that Israel is already ahead of most with respect to democracy. It has not made peace yet but that is a relational concept that requires help from the other side. Israel is currently the “state of the Jews.”

2. All Israel needs to do is establish a state that tilts toward the protection and development of Jewish life, culture, and religion. Israel will always be diverse but groups will always have a right to their own identity and protection under the law as long as they do not actively advocate for the destruction of the Jewish state. All groups have a right to advocate for their interests – even the majority group as long as it does it within democratic principles.

3. So, what do you do about an institution such as education? The role of an educational institution, especially public education, has always been to promote Jewish identity and citizenship in the public schools. But why is this any different than in the United States where schools promote American cultural values. And being socialized into a community through the public education system is not a mindless activity; there is no reason that the Jewish education cannot expose students to the conflicts and contradictions of this society as well as others.

4. The law of return is often cited as a discriminatory act that allows all Jews to settle in Israel but not those Arabs from earlier generations who lost property in the war or had it taken from them. The right of return could make it possible for Jews to return but not guarantee their actual return. That was always up to individuals and families. A significant ingathering of a particular group is a clear demonstration of a population’s readiness to establish formal legitimacy. The state fulfills the legitimate aims of a large group of people.

5. What about things like national symbols such as the flag of the state of Israel, the Star of David. Such a flag certainly does not represent symbolically in any way the Arab minority population. Still, many countries have religious symbols on flags and the Star of David would have to remain as a significant symbol for Israel and the Jewish people.

6.Or, even more divisive and impossible would be the singing of Hatikva the Israeli national anthem. The state of Israel cannot be neutral on these matters and still claim its Jewish identity. But it is also true that the obligations to democracy require as much neutrality as possible. But solutions to these things are possible. Gavison suggests, and I agree, that a second national anthem could be written acceptable to the Arab community. We would hope that one day the two sides might listen politely to each anthem.

7. Or what about the national calendar including the recognition and observance of holidays, public festivals, and school closings? This too is a solvable problem. Schools and institutions could be organized around the holidays of both significant groups. Jews are off during “Christmas” break in the United States which is based on a Christian calendar.

We should remember that a Jewish state creates conditions for a powerful cultural Jewish life. Works of literature, philosophy, art, and science rooted in Jewish life and tradition will have the opportunity to flourish. All ethnoreligious conflicts must strike a deliberative balance between what divides them and their necessary interdependence. Doing this successfully requires communication and democratic conditions, both of which continue on striking a homeostatic balance.


About Donald Ellis

Professor Emeritus at the University of Hartford.

Posted on November 4, 2013, in Democracy, Israel and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Just a Little More on Israel As a Jewish State.

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