The Jews’ Right To Statehood: A Defense

By Ruth Gavison

A new look at Zionism from the perspective of universal rights.

Is it possible to justify the existence of a Jewish state? This question, raised with increased frequency in recent years, is not just a theoretical one. Israel will endure as a Jewish state only if it can be defended, in both the physical and the moral sense. Of course, states may survive in the short term through sheer habit or the application of brute force, even when their legitimacy has been severely undermined. In the long run, however, only a state whose existence is justified by its citizens can hope to endure. The ability to provide a clear rationale for a Jewish state is, therefore, of vital importance to Israel’s long-term survival.1
Over the many years in which I have participated in debates about Israel’s constitutional foundations and the rights of its citizens, I did not generally feel this question to be particularly urgent. Indeed, I believed that there was no more need to demonstrate the legitimacy of a Jewish state than there was for any other nation state, and I did not take claims to the contrary very seriously. Those who denied the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state were, in my eyes, little different from the radical ideologues who dismiss all national movements as inherently immoral, or who insist that Judaism is solely a religion with no right to national self-expression; their claims seemed marginal and unworthy of systematic refutation.2
Today I realize that my view was wrong. The repudiation of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state is now a commonly held position, and one that is increasingly seen as legitimate. Among Israeli Arabs, for example, it is nearly impossible to find anyone willing to endorse, at least publicly, the right of Jews to national self-determination in the land of Israel. Rejection of the Jewish state has in fact become the norm among most representatives of the Arab public—including those who have sworn allegiance as members of Knesset. As far as they are concerned, the State of Israel, inasmuch as it is a Jewish state, was born in sin and continues to live in sin. Such a state is inherently undemocratic and incapable of protecting human rights. Only when it has lost its distinctive Jewish character, they insist, will Israel’s existence be justified.
More worrisome, perhaps, is the fact that many Jews in Israel agree with this view, or at least show a measure of sympathy for it. Some of the Jews committed to promoting the causes of democracy, human rights, and universal norms are, knowingly or not, assisting efforts to turn Israel into a neutral, liberal state—a “state of all its citizens,” as it is commonly called. Few of them understand the broader implications of such a belief for Israel’s character. Most are simply reassured by Israel’s success in establishing a modern, secular, liberal-democratic state with a Jewish national language and public culture, and think these achievements are not dependent on Israel’s status as the nation state of the Jews. Like many liberals in the modern era, they are suspicious of nation states, without always understanding their historical roots or the profound societal functions they serve. This suspicion often translates into a willingness to sacrifice Israel’s distinct national identity—even when this sacrifice is demanded on behalf of a competing national movement.3
Nor, at times, have Israel’s own actions made the job of justifying its unique national character an easy one. On the one hand, the government uses the state’s Jewish identity to justify wrongs itperpetrates on others; on the other, it hesitates to take steps that are vital to preserving the country’s national character. The use of Jewish identity as a shield to deflect claims concerning unjustifiable policies—such as discrimination against non-Jews or the Orthodox monopoly over matters of personal status—only reinforces the tendency of many Israelis to ignore the legitimate existential needs of the Jewish state, such as the preservation of a Jewish majority within its borders and the development of a vibrant Jewish cultural life.
It is against this backdrop that I write this essay. In what follows, I will argue that the idea of a Jewish nation state is justified, and that the existence of such a state is an important condition for the security of its Jewish citizens and the continuation of Jewish civilization. The establishment of Israel as a Jewish state was justified at the time of independence half a century ago, and its preservation continues to be justified today. Israel does have an obligation to protect the rights of all its citizens, to treat them fairly and with respect, and to provide equally for the security and welfare of its non-Jewish minorities. Yet these demands do not require a negation of the state’s Jewish character. Nor does that character pose an inherent threat to the state’s democratic nature: On the contrary, it is the duty of every democracy to reflect the basic preferences of the majority, so long as they do not infringe on the rights of others. In Israel’s case, this means preserving the Jewish character of the state.
The argument I will present here is framed mainly within the discourse of human rights, including the right of peoples, under certain conditions, to self-determination. Such an argument begins by recognizing the uniqueness of peoples and by acknowledging as a universal principle their right to preserve and develop that uniqueness. This starting point may seem shallow or even offensive to some Jews, particularly those for whom the Jewish right to a state and to the land of Israel is axiomatic, flowing inexorably from Jewish faith or history. According to this view, neither the long exile of the Jews nor the fact of Arab settlement in the areas where the ancient Jewish kingdom lay undermines the Jewish claim, which is absolute and unquestionable, an elemental point of religious belief.
In my view, it is crucial to base the justification of a Jewish state on arguments that appeal to people who do not share such beliefs. We must look instead for a justification on universal moral grounds. This is the only sort of argument which will make sense to the majority of Israelis, who prefer not to base their Zionism on religious belief, or to those non-Jews who are committed to human rights but not to the Jews’ biblically based claims. Moreover, such an argument may have the added benefit of encouraging Palestinians to argue in universal terms, rather than relying on claims of historical ownership or the sanctity of Muslim lands. Locating an argument within the discourse of universal rights is, therefore, the best way to avoid a pointless clash of dogmas that leaves no room for dialogue or compromise.
Justifying the principle of a Jewish nation state, however, is only part of protecting the future of Israel. No less important is demonstrating that the state in fact can uphold, and does uphold, the principles considered essential to any civilized government, including the maintenance of a democratic regime and the protection of human rights. Accordingly, after presenting the arguments that support the existence of a Jewish state in the land of Israel in principle, I will go on to discuss how such a state ought to be fashioned—that is, how its policies and institutions should be crafted so as to help preserve the country’s Jewish character without violating its basic obligations to both Jews and non-Jews, in Israel and abroad.
One commonly held view of liberal democracy asserts that the state must be absolutely neutral with regard to the cultural, ethnic, and religious identity of its population and of its public sphere. I do not share this view. I believe such total neutrality is impossible, and that in the context of the region it is not desired by any group. The character of Israel as a Jewish nation state does generate some tension with the democratic principle of civic equality. Nonetheless, this tension does not prevent Israel from being a democracy. There is no inherent disagreement between the Jewish identity of the state and its liberal-democratic nature. The state I will describe would have a stable and large Jewish majority. It would respect the rights of all its citizens, irrespective of nationality and religion, and would recognize the distinct interests and cultures of its various communities. It would not, however, abandon its preference for the interests of a particular national community, nor would it need to.
The Jewish state whose existence I will justify is not, therefore, a neutral “state of all its citizens.” Israel has basic obligations to democracy and human rights, but its language is Hebrew, its weekly day of rest is Saturday, and it marks Jewish religious festivals as public holidays. The public culture of this state is Jewish, although it is not a theocracy, nor does it impose a specific religious concept of Jewish identity on its citizens. No doubt this kind of state should encourage public dialogue about the relationship between its liberal-democratic nature and its commitment to the preservation of Jewish culture. In what follows, I will offer an argument for the justification of an Israel that is both proudly Jewish and strongly democratic–and that has the right, therefore, to take action to preserve both basic elements of its identity.4

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