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On its 75th birthday, Israel still can’t agree on what it means to be a Jewish state and a democracy

Israel may no longer be a fledgling state – but it has yet to overcome the basic contradiction that has defined it from the very beginning.

Under a portrait of Theodor Herzl, David Ben-Gurion on May 14, 1948, declares the establishment of a Jewish state to be known as the state of Israel. Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

As Israel celebrates the 75th anniversary of its founding, and nearly a century and a half after the first Zionists came to Palestine from Europe, the core tension behind the country’s establishment – whether a Jewish state could be a democratic state, whether Zionism could accommodate pluralism – is more obvious than ever.

Israel today is a military powerhouse and one of 38 members of the influential Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, formed in 1961 to promote cooperation among democratic, free-market-oriented governments.

Such strength and economic viability would be unfamiliar to the Jews whose identity was forged in the European diaspora. There, Judaism and its practitioners shunned political and military power. They saw themselves as a minority facing discrimination, persecution and violence. Power was the domain of gentiles.

Jews, often separated from the non-Jewish world, focused instead on developing social institutions to help the poor and weak, not asserting their will as a political community.

This attitude toward the state and politics began to change for Europe’s Jews in the aftermath of the French Revolution, when the majority of Jews lived in Europe, especially central and Eastern Europe. As some of the traditional legal and political barriers that kept Jews outside of mainstream society began to crumble, Jews began to integrate into broader society and culture.

This process also brought about, for some Jews, new attitudes toward their Jewish identity.

Many no longer defined themselves as members of a religious community. As many other groups had begun to do in Europe, they saw themselves as belonging to a national community. For some, nationalism also offered a way out of the predicament that Jews faced in Europe: hatred and discrimination, which came to be known as antisemitism.

This nationalism was called Zionism. And the thinking went that if the Jews are a nation, then they should have their own nation-state, preferably in Palestine, the Jews’ ancestral homeland. There they could assume control of their historical destiny, not to be at the mercy of non-Jewish nations and rulers.

Zionism sought to solve a particular Jewish problem, gathering Jews dispersed around the world, ending the unique Jewish historical experience of centuries of life under the rule of often hostile governments, and universalizing the Jewish experience by creating a Jewish state and society like all other nations. It was the “natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State,” said Israel’s declaration of independence.

But just how universal would a Jewish state be? Could such a nation be both Jewish and democratic?

That is the central question that, more than a century later, has yet to be answered clearly and affirmatively.

An article by Zionist Theodor Herzl for the London-based Jewish Chronicle, Jan. 17, 1896.

Reconciling universal and particular

Theodor Herzl, an Austro-Hungarian Jew acknowledged as the father of modern Zionism, considered this tension in his 1902 utopian novel “Altneuland,” or “The Old New Land.” Herzl tried to envision what a future Jewish society in Palestine would look like.

One of the novel’s key plot lines involves a political campaign pitting a xenophobic rabbi who preaches the Jewish character of the community against a secular candidate who advocates inclusivity and cooperation between Jews and Arabs in this imagined Jewish society.

Herzl’s choice: the pluralist candidate prevailed.

But throughout the history of the Zionist movement and the state of Israel, what Herzl described has been a core source of tension. This duality was on full display in Israel’s declaration of independence, in many ways the quintessential manifestation of political Zionism.

On the one hand, the document offers a version of Jewish history that emphasizes the uniqueness of the Jewish experience and offers historical justification for the creation of a safe haven for the Jews.

After establishing the attachment of the Jews to their ancestral homeland, the authors of the declaration address the Holocaust, writing that, “the massacre of millions of Jews in Europe … was another clear demonstration of the urgency of solving the problem” of Jewish “homelessness” by “re-establishing” the Jewish state, which would “open the gates of the homeland wide to every Jew.”

At the same time, the document pledges that the state of Israel would be faithful to the U.N. charter, protecting the rights of all minorities: “The State … will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.”

David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, suggested that once the country was created, Zionism would wither away. The nation, as a Jewish state with laws that protect minorities, would resolve the contradictions inherent in Zionist ideology.

But as long as the majority of Israelis felt a sense of existential threat – both from neighboring Arab states and dire economic conditions – Zionism continued to provide a unifying ideological umbrella to most Israelis.

After 1967, a transformation

In the aftermath of the 1967 Six-Day War, when Israel conquered the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, the West Bank from Jordan and the Golan Heights from Syria, the country emerged as a regional military and economic power.

It was a time of significant social, political and economic change.

A growing number of Israelis – especially those from the more secular, upper classes – began to question the country’s particularism, which conceived of the country as a shelter for Jews that would protect them from external threats. For these upwardly mobile Israelis, known as the post-Zionists, the founding myths of a vulnerable young state no longer seemed relevant.

They wanted Israel to become a fully normal part of the American-led global order. They believed the country should integrate into the region by resolving the conflict between Jews and Arabs. And they wanted to participate in the global economic market as the country transitioned from a state-run economy to the free market.

At the same time, religious Jews and poorer Israelis, mostly descended from Jewish communities of the Arab Middle East and North Africa, resisted this cosmopolitan liberal shift. They held tightly to their Jewish identity, rejecting what they saw as compromises driven by alien ideals like democracy and pluralism. To this group, known as neo-Zionists, the ideal was a Jewish state as protection from the rapid changes engulfing the country.

Palestinians surrender to Israeli soldiers in June 1967 in the occupied territory of the West Bank, during what is known as the Six-Day War.
Pierre Guillaud/AFP via Getty Images

Palestinian question disappears

From the 1970s through 2000, much of the post-or-neo-Zionist divide was over the occupation of the West Bank, where 3 million Palestinians live. Could there be peace between Israelis and Palestinians?

Post-Zionists wanted peace, seeking a two-state solution that would see a Palestinian state next to Israel. Neo-Zionists rejected any territorial compromise with the Palestinians.

In the 21st century, in the aftermath of the peace process collapse and the second intifada, or Palestinian uprising, the Palestinian issue has virtually disappeared from Israel’s political landscape.

Instead, the country’s attention has returned to the old divisions between those advocating policies that would enhance the Jewish character of the country and those who champion universal policies more favorable to excluded minorities.

The Israeli government that came into power in late 2022 represents the nationalistic, particular camp most forcefully. Its main agenda has been a plan to diminish and restrict the Israeli Supreme Court’s powers. To the ruling coalition, the court has been a hindrance in pursuing policies advancing the country’s Jewish nature.

This so-called reform has driven hundreds of thousands of protesters to the streets. Their demand is a simple one: democracy.

Israel may no longer be a fledgling state – but it has yet to overcome the basic contradiction that has defined it from the very beginning: Can it be Jewish and democratic?

Eran Kaplan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.



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