In the letter that I reproduce below is historical information necessary for an understanding of the meaning of the phrase "the Jewish state". I learned several things I did not know and I hope you will too.
June 18, 2011
I AM fed up with all this nonsense about recognizing Israel as the
It is based on a collection of hollow phrases and vague definitions,
devoid of any real content. It serves many different purposes, almost
all of them malign.
Binyamin Netanyahu uses it as a trick to obstruct the establishment of
the Palestinian state. This week he declared that the conflict just has
no solution. Why? Because the Palestinians do not agree to recognize
Four rightist Members of the Knesset have just submitted a bill
empowering the government to refuse to register new NGOs and to dissolve
existing ones if they “deny the Jewish character of the state”.
This new bill is only one of a series designed to curtail the civil
rights of Arab citizens, as well as those of leftists.
If the late Dr. Samuel Johnson were living in present-day Israel, he
would phrase his famous dictum about patriotism differently:
“Recognition of the Jewish Character of the state is the last refuge of
IN ISRAELI parlance, denying the “Jewish Character” of the state is
tantamount to the worst of all political felonies: to claim that Israel
is a “State of all its Citizens”.
To a foreigner, this may sound a bit weird. In a democracy, the state
clearly belongs to all its citizens. Mention this in the United States,
and you are stating the obvious. Mention this in Israel, and you are
treading dangerously close to treason. (So much for our much-vaunted
As a matter of fact, Israel is indeed a state of all its citizens. All
adult Israeli citizens – and only they – have the right to vote for the
Knesset. The Knesset appoints the government and determines the laws. It
has enacted many laws declaring that Israel is a “Jewish and democratic
state”. In ten or in a hundred years, the Knesset could hoist the flag
of Catholicism, Buddhism or Islam. In a democracy, it is the citizens
who are sovereign, not a verbal formula.
WHAT FORMULA? - one may well ask.
The courts favor the words “Jewish and democratic state”. But that is
far from being the only definition around.
The most widely used is just “Jewish State”. But that is not enough for
Netanyahu and Co., who speak about “the nation-state of the Jewish
people”, which has a nice 19th century ring. The “state of the Jewish
people” is also quite popular.
The one thing that all these brand-names have in common is that they are
perfectly imprecise. What does “Jewish” mean? A nationality, a religion,
a tribe? Who are the “Jewish people”? Or, even more vague, the “Jewish
nation”? Does this include the Congressmen who enact the laws of the
United States? Or the cohorts of Jews who are in charge of US Middle
East policy? Which country does the Jewish ambassador of the UK in Tel
The courts have been wrestling with the question: where is the border
between “Jewish” and “democratic”? What does “democratic” mean in this
context? Can a “Jewish” state really be “democratic”, or, for that
matter, can a “democratic” state really be “Jewish”? All the answers
given by learned judges and renowned professors are contrived, or, as we
say in Hebrew, they “stand on chickens’ legs”.
LETS GO back to the beginning: the book written in German by Theodor
Herzl, the founding father of Zionism, and published in 1896. He called
it “Der Judenstaat”.
Unfortunately, this is a typical German word that is untranslatable. It
is generally rendered in English as “The Jewish State” or “The State of
the Jews”. Both are quite false. The nearest approximation would be “The
If this sounds slightly anti-Semitic, this is not by accident. It may
come as a shock to many, but the word was not invented by Herzl. It was
first used by a Prussian nobleman with an impressive name - Friedrich
August Ludwig von der Marwitz, - who died 23 years before Herzl was even
born. He was a dedicated anti-Semite long before another German invented
the term “anti-Semitism” as an expression of the healthy German spirit.
Marwitz, an ultra-conservative general, objected to the liberal reforms
proposed at the time. In 1811 he warned that these reforms would turn
Prussia into a “Judenstaat”, a Jewstate. He did not mean that Jews were
about to become a majority in Prussia, God forbid, but that moneylenders
and other shady Jewish dealers would corrupt the character of the
country and wipe out the good old Prussian virtues.
Herzl himself did not dream of a state that belongs to all the Jews in
the world. Quite the contrary - his vision was that all real Jews would
go to the Judenstaat (whether in Argentina or Palestine, he had not yet
decided). They – and only they - would thenceforth remain “Jews”. All
the others would become assimilated in their host nations and cease
altogether to be Jews.
Far, far indeed from the notion of a “nation-state of the Jewish people”
as envisioned by many of today’s Zionists, including those millions who
do not dream of immigrating to Israel.
WHEN I was a boy, I took part in dozens of demonstrations against the
British government of Palestine. In all of them, we chanted in unison
“Free immigration! Hebrew State!” I don’t remember a single
demonstration with the slogan “Jewish State”.
That was quite natural. Without anyone decreeing it, we made a clear
distinction between us Hebrew-speaking people in Palestine and the Jews
in the Diaspora. Some of us turned this into an ideology, but for most
people it was just a natural expression of reality: Hebrew agriculture
and Jewish tradition, Hebrew underground and Jewish Religion, Hebrew
kibbutz and Jewish Shtetl. Hebrew Yishuv (the new community in the
country) and Jewish Diaspora. To be called a “Diaspora Jew” was the
For us this was not anti-Zionist by any means. Quite the contrary:
Zionism wanted to create an old-new nation in Eretz Israel (as Palestine
is called in Hebrew), and this nation was of course quite distinct from
the Jews elsewhere. It was only the Holocaust, with its huge emotional
impact, which changed the verbal rules.
So how did the formula “Jewish State” creep in? In 1917, in the middle
of World War I, the British government issued the so-called Balfour
Declaration, which proclaimed that “His Majesty’s Government views with
favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish
Every word was carefully chosen, after months of negotiations with
Zionist leaders. One of the main British objects was to win American and
Russian Jews for the Allied cause. Revolutionary Russia was about to get
out of the war, and the entry of isolationist America was essential.
(By the way, the British rejected the words “the turning of Palestine
into a national home for the Jewish people”, insisting on “in Palestine”
– thus foreshadowing the partition of the country.)
IN 1947 the UN did decide to partition Palestine between its Arab and
Jewish populations. This said nothing about the character of the two
future states – it just used the current definitions of the two warring
parties. About 40% of the population in the territory allocated to the
“Jewish” state was Arab.
The advocates of the “Jewish state” make much of the sentence in the
“Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel” (generally
called the “Declaration of Independence”) which indeed includes the
words “Jewish State”. After quoting the UN resolution which called for a
Jewish and an Arab state, the declaration continues: “Accordingly we …
on the strength of the resolution of the United Nations General
Assembly, hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz
Israel, to be known as the State of Israel.”
This sentence says nothing at all about the character of the new state,
and the context is purely formal.
One of the paragraphs of the declaration (in its original Hebrew
version) speaks about the “Hebrew people”: “We extend our hands to all
neighboring states and their peoples in an offer of peace and good
neighborliness, and appeal to them to establish bonds of cooperation and
mutual help with the independent Hebrew people in its land.” This
sentence is blatantly falsified in the official English translation,
which changed the last words into “the sovereign Jewish people settled
in its own land.”
As a matter of fact, it would have been quite impossible to reach
agreement on any ideological formula, since the declaration was signed
by the leaders of all factions, from the anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox to
the Moscow-oriented Communist Party.
ANY TALK about the Jewish State leads inevitably to the question: What
are the Jews – a nation or a religion?
Official Israeli doctrine says that “Jewish” is both a national and a
religious definition. The Jewish collective, unlike any other, is both
national and religious. With us, nation and religion are one and the same.
The only door of entry to this collective is religious. There is no
Hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish Russian immigrants have come to
Israel under the Law of Return with their Jewish relatives. This law is
very broad. In order to attract the Jews, it allows even distant
non-Jewish relatives to come with them, including the spouse of the
grandchild of a Jew. Many of these non-Jews want to be Jews in order to
be considered full Israelis, but have tried in vain to be accepted.
Under Israeli law, a Jew is a person “born to a Jewish mother or
converted, who has not adopted another religion”. This is a purely
religious definition. Jewish religious law says that for this purpose,
only the mother, not the father, counts.
It is extremely difficult to be converted in Israel. The rabbis demand
that the convert fulfill all 613 commandments of the Jewish religion –
which only very few recognized Israelis do. But one cannot become an
official member of the stipulated Jewish “nation” by any other door. One
becomes a part of the American nation by accepting US citizenship.
Nothing like that exists here.
We have an ongoing battle about this in Israel. Some of us want Israel
to be an Israeli state, belonging to the Israeli people, indeed a “State
of all its Citizens”. Some want to impose on us the religious law
supposedly fixed by God for all times on Mount Sinai some 3200 years
ago, and abolish all contrary laws of the democratically elected
Knesset. Many don’t want any change at all.
But how, in God’s name (sorry), does this concern the Palestinians? Or
the Icelanders, for that matter?
THE DEMAND that the Palestinians recognize Israel as “the Jewish State”
or as “the Nation-State of the Jewish people” is preposterous.
As the British would put it, it’s none of their bloody business. It
would be tantamount to an intervention in the internal affairs of
But a friend of mine has suggested a simple way out: the Knesset can
simply resolve to change the name of the state into something like “The
Jewish Republic of Israel”, so that any peace agreement between Israel
and the Arab State of Palestine will automatically include the demanded
This would also bring Israel into line with the state it most resembles:
“The Islamic Republic of Pakistan”, which came into being almost at the
same time, after the partition of India, after a gruesome mutual
massacre, after the creation of a huge refugee problem and with a
perpetual border war in Kashmir. And the nuclear bomb, of course.
Many Israelis would be shocked by the comparison. What, us? Similar to a
theocratic state? Are we getting closer to the Pakistani model and
further from the American one?
What the hell, let’s simply deny it!