The day after Israel passed its nation-state law, a request for an interview popped up in my inbox.
The Scandanavian journalist from a socialist daily newspaper got straight to the point: Why does Israel have a right to exist at all as a self-defined Jewish state?
I was familiar with this line of inquiry: Isn’t that a strictly sectarian model of self-determination?
So Zionism is, in fact, Racism? What kind of civilized state-system and politically-correct civil societies of the 21st century can tolerate a sovereign entity that passes bills in the dead of night in the interest of Jewish supremacy?
My interlocutor wasn’t rejecting the right of Israel as a nation-state to exist as a whole (although curiously enough, those who reject nationalism and the nation-state system in general seem to be the same folks who advocate for Israel to be the first state to go out of business) - it was the character of the state itself.
As I patiently explained to him, surely Jews are not the only nation that expresses a particularistic character in their self-determination. After all, I was living in a nation-state where the monarch is also the supreme governor of the Church of England.
I could have also mentioned many other nations with state religions or special faith status - Buddhism in Thailand, Roman Catholicism in Monaco, Lichtenstein, Malta, and Vatican City, much of Latin America, and Poland, Eastern Orthodoxy in Greece, or Lutheranism in Scandinavia itself.
Surely I need not have mentioned the 25-odd Muslim majority nations that are Islamic republics, enshrine Islam as state religion in their constitutions, or are out-and-out Islamic theocracies ruled by clerics, many of which bar Jews from visiting their countries, modes of particularistic nationality that seem not to perturb the newspapers as much as Israel.
(With little sense of irony, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas immediately condemned the nation-state law as an apartheid law, although few journalists felt the need to follow up by recalling his statement that not a single Israeli would be tolerated in a future Palestinian state.)
Many of the states that boast an established church/mosque are significant world powers and also function as, at least, (semi)functional democracies. Surely Jews too, especially given their history, are entitled to one sovereign entity on the entire face of the earth, that not excusing the extirpation of the rights of others or enshrining racism into law.
Yet as I held forth, I could hear the protests and sighs on the other end of the line. The journalist - and I hazard perhaps much of world— had clearly already made up its mind.
For whatever double-standard the State of Israel is subjected to evaluating the special religio-ethnic character of its sovereignty, the nation-state law is still a staggering and sickening departure for the originalist doctrine of Zionism.
Theodor Herzl published his famous manifesto Der Judestaat, 112 years ago, as a most "un-Jewish" Jew, whose ideological awakening came mostly in observing structural barriers to Jewish assimilation, and in the stamina of a pernicious anti-Semitism in a turbulent Europe that would only a few decades later be annihilating its Jewish population.
His solution to the "Jewish problem" was a State of the Jews, a sovereign entity where a victimized people would have one safe place on earth to self-determine its political and personal destiny. Herzl’s vision was colored by the colonialist attitudes of his era - a belle epoque Vienna on the Mediterranean, a civilizing mission for the Middle East, even a protectorate of Kaiser Wilhelm - but he presciently understood the needs of the Jewish future.
Benjamin Netanyahu and those who voted for the nation-state law have corrupted the Zionist dream of a "State of the Jews" by replacing it with a "Jewish State."
By elevating the settlement and symbols of Jewish citizens over all others, stripping the Arabic language of its official status, and declaring Jerusalem the united capital of Israel, this legislation prioritizes Jewishness over democracy and excludes, debases and rejects both the human and national aspirations of Palestinian citizens of Israel and all other non-Jewish citizens within its borders.
This is not the Zionist dream: this is the Zionist nightmare which Jews across the world have experienced time and time again as a minority in other lands.
True, the law was a watered-down version of a far more virulently racist bill that could have been passed (not that that should give us much comfort). It is more symbolic than substantive. Nearly half of Israeli lawmakers voted against it - and an active Israeli civil society and Diaspora supporters opposed it as well.
It is also fair to acknowledge that there are elements of this bill which have been encoded in political and Revisionist Zionist DNA since its earliest days: The recognition of a Jewish homeland, the continued assurance of a Jewish demographic majority, and prioritizing Jewish settlement and land ownership. It also reflects some aspects of the spiritual center of Jewish peoplehood envisioned by Ahad Ha’Am, who of course was perhaps the only early Zionist thinker to write of how the encounter with the land’s Arab inhabitants had soured.
To suggest that the law is alien to Zionist aspirations is a fallacy - but it is also solipsistic and false to see the nation-state law as the natural evolution of Zionist ideology and praxis.
Yet as I learned that morning, amongst the Scandinavian literati class (and beyond) there are many who seriously question whether Israel has the right to exist in the wake of this law.
As both an academic and liberal Zionist, where is the hope? As Israel’s politicians lead Zionism down the road to perdition, what could another path look like?
I am just finishing five years at the University of Oxford and then returning to the U.S to take up a new academic post. One concept I will be taking with me, both professionally and personally, from my time in the U.K. is the (admittedly imperfect) model of "British values."
It is a duty incumbent on all schools in the U.K., according to government guidelines, to "actively promote" what are termed "the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs."
No good law is made in the dead of the night, but each dawn brings a new day. Can we not imagine a State of Israel that could struggle to find a new set of common "Israeli values" that respect divergent historical experiences but also transcend class, gender, religion and ethnicity?
A new set of shared symbols and systems, rituals and relationships, institutions and ideologies that reflect the diversity of populations and pasts, as well as the factions and futures of all its citizens?
One day, might we even dream of re-writing the lyrics of the national anthem, Hatikvah, to reflect the heritage and hopes of every citizen of the State of Israel?
At this moment, it seems far away. But the promise of an inclusive Israel has been as much present in Zionist thought as the protagonists of nationalist exclusivism. Those currents are still there for us to champion, if we still so will it.
Dr. Sara Yael Hirschhorn is the University of Oxford University Research Lecturer and Sidney Brichto Fellow in Israel Studies. Her book City on a Hilltop: American Jews and the Israeli Settler Movement was the Choice Award winner of the 2018 Sami Rohr Prize in Jewish Literature. In fall 2018 she joins the faculty at the Crown Center for Jewish and Israel Studies at Northwestern University. Twitter: @sarahirschhorn1
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