Yes, the Nation-state of the Jewish People

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File photo: A man watches a flyover on Independence Day on a Tel Aviv beach.
File photo: A man watches a flyover on Independence Day on a Tel Aviv beach. Credit: Emil Salman

Haaretz publisher Amos Schocken believes that the Basic Law on Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People negates the concept of the Jewish state in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. The new law, passed last year, replaces the Jewish state with the nation-state of the Jewish people, Schocken claimed in an op-ed late last month.

As Schocken sees it, the “Jewish state” was “inclusive,” while the nation-state of the Jewish people is a state that “separates” its citizens. As he understands it, Jewish on one hand and national on the other are opposites.

To support his argument, Schocken quotes the Declaration of Independence, which refers to equal individual rights, the development of the country for the benefit of all of its inhabitants, and liberty and equality. In Schocken’s view, “the only Jewish value in the Declaration of Independence” appears in the statement that the State of Israel “will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel.”

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To him, the Jewish nation has no existence in the newly created state. Its only Jewish aspect, as Schocken would have it, is not Jewish at all but universal, and nothing more. It follows from what Schocken says that a proper Jewish state must negate Jewish nationhood.

So it’s not surprising that this position, negating Jewish nationhood, has led Schocken in the past, long before the new Basic Law, to suggest that the national anthem, “Hatikva,” be replaced with something that the country’s Arab citizens can also identify with. By that logic, presumably the country’s other characteristics that are specific to the Jewish people should also be replaced because the Arab citizens of Israel ostensibly don’t identify with the menorah as the state symbol, or with the Star of David and the blue stripes on the flag, or with the Jewish Sabbath as the weekly day of rest.

Two names for the same thing

Such a stance is legitimate, of course, but it clearly contradicts the position of the drafters of the Declaration of Independence. At the start of the ceremony at which Israel declared its independence on May 14, 1948, everyone sang “Hatikva,” and the anthem was played again at the end of the ceremony. The State Council declared that the Zionist movement’s flag would be the Israeli flag and that the menorah would be the state symbol.

The drafters of the Declaration of Independence saw no difference between the Jewish state and the nation-state of the Jewish people because they’re two names for the very same thing. As noted in the declaration, when the First Zionist Congress met in 1897, it proclaimed “the right of the Jewish people to national rebirth in its land.” That right, which was recognized by the British government in 1917 in the Balfour Declaration and confirmed in the British Mandate by the League of Nations, constituted international recognition of the right to “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”

The Declaration of Independence begins with a statement that cannot be clearer: “The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious, and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave the world the eternal Book of Books.”

The declaration states that the Jews, “like all other nations,” have the right to self-determination in the land where their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Last year’s nation-state Basic Law declares that “the exercise of the right to national self-determination in the State of Israel is exclusive to the Jewish people.” This is a blunt way – indeed, an unnecessarily blunt way – to say something that is in no way new.

Since most nation-states have national minorities, which similarly do not partake in the state’s national identity, the Council of Europe drafted a convention as guidance to its members on the question of how a decent, democratic state should treat its minorities. The Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities does not require that signatory countries renounce their national character to create another identity that would also include the minorities.

Danger of coerced assimilation

The truth is that minorities usually don’t want this either. The challenge they normally face is the very opposite: how to preserve their separate identity without compromising their equal rights. From this point of view the creation of an inclusive identity usually spells a danger of coerced assimilation. One can glimpse that point of view, for example, in the Muslim reaction to the law that forbids women from wearing a Muslim headdress in public in France, a country with an inclusive civil national identity.

Instead the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention demands that members of minorities be given the means to protect and perpetuate their separate collective identities. To accomplish this, the convention seeks to enable members of minorities to study their national languages in schools where their national languages are spoken, receive religious services equal to those of the majority, and ensure a modicum of cultural autonomy.

Israel’s Declaration of Independence did exactly this when it ensured not only equal civil and political rights, including the right to vote and be elected, but also the right to “religion, conscience, language, education and culture.” Israel has been meticulous about safeguarding those collective rights from 1948 to the present.

So the answer to the question of equality clearly does not lie in abolishing the national Jewish character of the state. Attempting to make Israel non-Jewish is not only unjust, it can only be achieved at the price of abolishing democracy.

That’s because as long as Israel has a large Jewish majority and the universal right to vote, the democratic process will support the existence of the hallmarks of the nation-state of the Jewish people. Israel will remain its name, the Star of David and the two blue stripes will remain on its flag, and the menorah will remain the state symbol. Hebrew will be the official language, the Jewish Sabbath the day of rest, and the Jewish holidays will determine the official calendar.

On behalf of the Declaration of Independence, it’s worth reminding everyone objecting to the nation-state law that it’s impossible to recognize the universal right to self-determination and at the same time oppose its realization by one nation only – the Jews. As the Declaration of Independence states: “This right is the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign state.”

Haaretz columnist Gadi Taub is a senior lecturer at Hebrew University’s Federmann School of Public Policy and Government. Nissim Sofer is a research student at the university’s Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies Department.

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