An ultra-Orthodox Jew looks down as he passes a gay pride parade in Tel Aviv, June 11, 2010
An ultra-Orthodox Jew looks down as he passes a gay pride parade in Tel Aviv, June 11, 2010 Photo by Moti Kimche
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If Israel had Words of the Month, October’s would be “Jewish,” as in “a Jewish and democratic state,” or medina yehudit ve’demokratit, in Hebrew. This is what — if a controversial cabinet decision is adopted as law by the Knesset — anyone becoming an Israeli citizen will have to swear loyalty to.

The many criticisms of the proposed oath can be assigned to one of two categories. Category 1 is political. To ask non-Jews to declare loyalty to a “Jewish and democratic state,” it is claimed, is an inherent contradiction, since no country can be considered democratic if it demands of prospective citizens that they swear allegiance to what excludes them.

Many of those making this argument would also say that the very idea of a “Jewish and democratic state” is an oxymoron, since a democratic state has to belong equally to all its citizens, Jews and non-Jews alike.

But what concerns us here is Category 2, which is a semantic one. The word “Jewish,” it is argued, signifies so many different things to different people that it is meaningless to ask anyone to swear allegiance to what it represents. Does it refer to a religion? A people? An endogamous biological community? A system of values? A common destiny? To what exactly, it is asked, would the takers of such a loyalty oath be declaring their loyalty?

Here, too, of course, we are dealing with larger issues that go far beyond the proposed oath itself. The question of what is “Jewish,” or of who or what is a “Jew,” has been a contentious one for a long time now — so long, we sometimes forget that for an even longer time before that, it was not disputed at all.

Until modern times, indeed, although there may have been different ideas about what being a “Jew” or “Jewish” ideally should be, hardly anyone disagreed about what the words meant in practice. A Jew was a member of a Jewish community, and Jewish communities all over the world were clearly defined entities both in their own eyes and in the eyes of non-Jews.

Being Jewish meant belonging to a religion and to a people and to a biological community and sharing certain values and having a common destiny. None of these things was thought of as being inconsistent with any of the others.

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