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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

The Jewish Nation-State Bill: Is There a Contradiction between  Judaism and Democracy?

Filed under: World Jewry
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review
Volume 26, Numbers 1–2

One of the reasons for the breakup of the Netanyahu government in December 2014 was a serious disagreement concerning the “Law of the Nation,” otherwise known as the Jewish Nation-State Bill. According to the prime minister’s fourteen principles for the drafting of the government bill, the purpose of this legislation was “defining the identity of the State of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people and anchoring the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state in the spirit of the principles contained in the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel.” On November 19, 2014, the government approved this text as a starting-point for the Netanyahu-Weinstein version of the bill.1

Historically, the ideological founders of the Zionist movement called for the creation of a sovereign Jewish state which would stand on an equal footing with its peers in the community of nations. These thinkers, most of whom wrote during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, were responding to the existential crisis which confronted European Jewry. The Czarist government launched a program of state-sponsored antisemitism and implemented a policy whose purpose was to drive the Jews out of the Russian Empire through systematic discrimination, forced conversion, incitement, pogroms and other forms of violence. Historian Gerald Soren described the massive scale of the dislocation and the human suffering which resulted: “Jews, …constituting about 5 percent of the population of the Russian Empire, made up to 50 percent of the Russian emigrant stream, 60 percent of the emigrants from Galicia, and an astounding 90 percent of the Romanian exodus between 1881 and 1910. These figures, when added to the high correlation between pogroms and Jewish mass exodus, strongly suggest that fear of violent persecution, while not the only cause, was critical in moving an extraordinary 33 percent of European Jewry to leave their countries between 1881 and 1920.”2 Furthermore, the shock and horror of the Dreyfus Trial, which took place in France, then reputed to be the most enlightened country in Europe, prompted Theodor Herzl, an assimilated Jew and correspondent for the Viennese Neue Freie Presse, to write his classic, The Jewish State and launch the Zionist movement. While Herzl presented a utopian vision of a new, secular and middle-class Jewish society in a Palestine which was then under Turkish rule, he was responding to the real threat of antisemitism. The very raison d’être and purpose of the Jewish state was to serve as a refuge for the Jewish people, to assure its continued existence and ethnic identity. This vision, incorporated in the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, is still widely accepted.3 In light of recent events in Europe, a century later, Herzl’s basic idea continues to retain its validity.

After the Netanyahu government placed the Jewish Nation-State Bill on the agenda, its opponents unleashed a shrill campaign which included ad hominem accusations and the public expression of partisan contempt. For certain groups in Israel and abroad, Jewish sovereignty and the bonds of Jewish religion and nationality prevent the attainment of their political objectives. During the past decades, and particularly after the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, an activist Supreme Court and the ideological opponents of Israel as a Jewish nation-state have endeavored to alter the purpose of the state by engaging in a coordinated program of lobbying, lawfare, and creating facts on the ground.

Two differing and competing visions of the future of Israel have been articulated, but the main issue has been overshadowed. Although the media have tended to frame the debate as a confrontation between the proponents of progress versus reactionary “right-wingers,” this approach does not contribute to our understanding of the issue. Beyond the rhetoric, the critics of the Jewish Nation-State Bill have called into question the legacy of Jewish self-government and the legitimacy of its modern fulfillment in the form of the sovereign state of Israel. It is more likely that the real objective of those who oppose the Jewish Nation-State Bill is to seize the levers of power in order to bring about a radical transformation of the political system.4 The purpose of this article is to give the reader an appreciation of the positions of each side in this debate and the respective political traditions to which they belong.

Historically, the political division of the present dates from the French Constitutional Assembly of 1789. The French Revolution brought an end to the Ancien Régime in France and introduced the model of the modern, secular and centralized state. This development which brought the Jews into modern European life is known as Emancipation. While the French Revolution granted civil equality to Jews as individuals,—as men,—it refused to recognize the collective status of a Jewish community or nation.5 Not the least, it created the model of the modern centralized state which could exercise unprecedented supervision over its citizens and restrict their personal freedom. Beyond the issue of the rights of a Jewish collectivity, as a community and nation, the new model of state power through its interpretation of equality rendered individual citizens more vulnerable and submissive to its authority. Although it is not generally appreciated, the French model provided the breakthrough which paved the way for the major totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century, namely the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. According to Conor Cruise O’Brien, the French Revolution was “the first great experiment in totalitarian innovation.”6

We may note that modern totalitarian states have opposed the existence not only of religious groups but also other organized bodies beyond their direct control. In fact, a sign of the restoration of freedom in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe was the rebirth of civil society, of a political, social, religious life existing independently of the state. Civil society is defined as the

sphere of society lying between the private sphere of the family and the official sphere of the state. As developed especially by the German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel it refers usually to the array of voluntary organizations and civil associations—parties, trade unions, religious organizations, cultural and educational bodies—that are to be found in modern liberal societies. A key aspect of these bodies is that, though public, they are not official or governmental. They enable individuals to discuss matters of public concern and to participate in the life of society without direction by the state. Civil society has therefore often been seen, as for instance by the French thinker, Alexis de Tocqueville, as the bulwark of liberties in free societies.7

Within the context of the political debate in Israel, the opponents of the idea of the Jewish sovereign state have formulated their own alternative program, with a slogan which is intended to serve as its antithesis. They have proclaimed that Israel should be the “state of all of its citizens.” One could argue that there is not necessarily a contradiction between the two ideas, because, in many respects, Israel is already the “state of all of its citizens” and also the Jewish state.

An Arab Communist member of the Knesset, Tewfiq Toubi (1922–2011), introduced the slogan, “state of all of its citizens,” in 1985.8 On first impression, this proposition seems reasonable. But within the context of Israeli politics its effective result would be to change the original purpose of the state and its very nature. Writing in Haaretz in January 2003, columnist Gideon Samet, one of its advocates, explicitly explained the significance of this slogan. Beyond including the state’s Arab citizens, it would legally open a back door for a large-scale immigration and the naturalization of non-Jews and of Jews who “suffer humiliation” because of “nationalistic-religious skepticism about their religion.”

But the formula [state of all of its citizens] does not only refer to the state’s Arab citizens. It is unavoidable in the eyes of those who think that Israel, especially since its Jewish majority has grown to a “European” size, can now allow itself to absorb some of the foreign workers in an orderly process of naturalization such as takes place in any properly run country.

And if Israel were to cut the problematic, unique connection between religion and nationality through the use of the “state of all its citizens” formula—in spite of the Haredim [ultra-Orthodox Jews] and the National Religious Party—it could also integrate hundreds of thousands of immigrants who suffer humiliation because of nationalistic-religious skepticism about their Judaism.9

While Gideon Samet wrote in 2003, one may observe that since then many Jews of supposedly unclear background have been successfully integrated into Israeli society. However, the idea of absorbing “some of the foreign workers in an orderly process of naturalization” has proved to be unrealistic. The European model, of encouraging the indiscriminate entry of large, foreign and culturally alien populations, has gone badly, as has also been the case with attempts to duplicate this experiment in Israel.

The Palestinian Authority which has refused outright to recognize Israel as the Jewish state is another interested party. The debate over the Jewish Nation-State Bill and the call for the Palestinian Authority to recognize Israel as the Jewish state represent a major ideological and religious challenge for Palestinian leaders and their avid apologists within Israel. From the outset, the Palestinians have rejected the principle that Jews, beyond belonging to a religion, legitimately possess the right of national self-determination. Bernard Lewis observed that “The PLO in its literature never uses the expression ‘Arabs and Jews,’ for to do so would be to admit the existence of a Jewish nation and it is cardinal to the PLO ideology that there is no such thing. The formula which they use is ‘Muslims, Christians and Jews.’ The Jews, in their view, are purely a religious minority who possess no separate national identity and have no right to a separate state….”10 The extensive discussion of Palestinian politicians, such as Mahmoud Abbas, Saeb Erekat, Yasser Abed Rabbo, and Nabil Shaath, reveals the same views and fears—real and imagined—concerning the implications of this fact. The internal discourse of the Palestinian Authority also reveals the projection of its own behavior toward Israelis. Beyond their total dismissal of Jewish nationhood is the baseless fear that formal recognition of the Jewish state would result in the disfranchisement and possible displacement of the one-and-a-half-million “1948 Arabs,” now living in the state of Israel. Here, the Palestinian refusal to recognize Jewish nationhood constitutes a serious barrier to achieving a positive peace.11

The politically correct wisdom which has become part of the present debate asserts that Judaism and democracy are inherently antithetical, but this is not necessarily true. Several great political thinkers have argued that under decentralized conditions both religion and democracy can work together quite well. For example, in his classic, Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville, argued that Christianity made a positive contribution toward creating a climate of good sense and moderation which permitted democratic habits to thrive. From the Colonial period, Protestant Christianity held a preeminent status in the United States which encouraged a positive civic culture and the responsible exercise of freedom. Not the least, religion fostered inner restraint and limited excesses of behavior.12 In his famous conclusion, Tocqueville observed that if the state possessed the tools of supervision, it could introduce a “democratic tyranny” which would bring an end to personal freedom.

I believe that it is easier to establish an absolute and despotic government in a people where conditions are equal than in any other, and I think that if such a government were once established in a people like this, not only would it oppress men, but in the long term would rob each of them of several of the principal attributes of humanity. Despotism therefore appears to me particularly to be dreaded in democratic ages.13

Like Tocqueville, George Orwell argued in Ninety Eighty-Four, that during the Middle Ages, when the Catholic Church exercised supremacy, there was more freedom of thought than under the centralized states of modern times:

…By comparison with that existing today, all the tyrannies of the past were half-hearted and inefficient. The ruling groups were always infected to some extent by liberal ideas, and were content to leave loose ends everywhere, to regard only the overt act and to be uninterested in what their subjects were thinking. Even the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages was tolerant by modern standards. Part of the reason for this was that in the past no government had the power to keep its citizens under constant surveillance….14

David Ben-Gurion anticipated the same problem in postwar Europe. In August 1945, he communicated his deep concern at the World Zionist Congress in London. He anticipated the expansion of the Soviet Union under Stalin and its dangerous consequences for the Jewish people. It is not generally known that during the 1920s Ben-Gurion had visited Bolshevik Russia where he personally observed the implementation of its anti-Jewish program, particularly the efforts to prevent the teaching of Hebrew, and the struggle between the Evsektsia and Hechalutz.15 His fear of the centralized secular state, combined with other urgent events, such as the distress of displaced persons in postwar Europe and the horrors of the Kielce Pogrom in Poland on July 4, 1946, prompted his decision to launch the mass migration known as Aliyah Beth to Mandatory Palestine, in defiance of the limitations which the British authorities imposed. Ben-Gurion declared:

…One of the dynamic factors which may interrupt the existence of the Jewish nation is the increased power of the State over the individual. The current tendency is for the State to secure complete control over the lives of their people, intellectually and morally, as well as economically, and such trends are likely to have disastrous consequences on a weakened and reduced Jewry. The Jewish people had struggled and suffered throughout the ages and resisted being swallowed up, but in the present time of closely organised States, the Jewish people…may not be able to continue resistance. The absorption of the individual by the State, whether it be good or bad for the peoples of their respective countries living in their own land, may lead ultimately to the complete extinction of the Jewish people outside Palestine.16

Ben-Gurion understood that a centralized state which possesses the apparatus of intimidation would have the power to oppress the individual and suppress Jewish national identity. One may safely say that, in the present debate and the context of historical precedents, those who want “to cut the problematic, unique connection between religion and nationality” effectively belong to the anti-democratic camp of the modern centralized state rather than to the well-established Western heritage of personal, religious and national freedom.

From the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville and George Orwell, who were outstanding political thinkers, and of David Ben-Gurion the state-builder, the real issue would be whether freedom of thought and civil society (which includes religious bodies) could withstand the challenge of the centralized state. From this point of view, there would not be a contradiction between Judaism and democracy. Both democracy and religion have much better prospects under the imperfect present than under centralized secular government. While the media have oversimplified the debate over the Jewish Nation-State Bill by framing it in terms of the left-right divide, between good and evil as it were, this distinction does not work.

The long-term implications of this important debate extend beyond the world of fast-breaking news. The central question is whether the idea of the Jewish nation-state, as such, is legitimate. The need for the Jewish state was recognized in pre-state history and thought. Its existence was proclaimed in the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel and decided in the costly wars which followed. Its continuity is regularly affirmed in public life and ceremonies. The existence of the state of Israel testifies to “the partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”17 One may ask if at this point in Israel’s history it is prudent and responsible to break from the past and gratuitously engage in a project of radical social engineering, whose assumptions are suspect and whose outcome is uncertain. There is a danger that this type of adventure could change the purpose and demographic composition of the Jewish state beyond recognition.

* * *


*      The editor extends his thanks to Professor Emeritus Jacob Landau, member of the JPSR Academic Advisory Board, for encouragement and critical comments. He also wishes to thank Johannes Gerloff, correspondent of the Christian Media Association, KEP, in Germany, for his perceptive and critical comments and Dr. Laurence Weinbaum, editor of the Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs, Jerusalem.


  1. Haviv Rettig Gur, “An idiot’s guide to the nation-state controversy,” The Times of Israel, December 1, 2014 .
  2. Gerald Soren, A Time for Building: The Third Migration, 1880–1920 (Baltimore: JHU Press/American Jewish Historical Society, 1992), 35.
  3. “…As scholar-diplomat Shabtai Rosenne observed: immigration is the raison d’être of the State of Israel, the answer to the general problem of continued national existence and the preservation of national cultural ideals….” Michael Brecher, The Foreign Policy System of Israel (London: Oxford University Press, 1972), 113.
  4. According to the teachings of classical political thought, if one changes the purpose of a state, one changes its very nature. “Everything which exists by nature exists for an end and one cannot grasp its nature without understanding that end.” Ernest Barker and R. F. Stalley, Aristotle: Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), Introduction, x-xi, and, Book I. Chapter 2, passage 1252b27, p. 10.
  5. Shmuel Trigano, The Democratic Ideal and the Shoah: The Unthought in Political Modernity, tr. Gila Walker (Albany: SUNY Press, 2009), 16.
  6. Conor Cruise O’Brien, The Great Melody: A Thematic Biography of Edmund Burke (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 596.
  7. The New Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought (London: Harper Collins, 1977), s. v. “civil society.”
  8. Gideon Samet, “The Battle for the ‘State of all of its Citizens,’” Haaretz, January 25, 2003.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Bernard Lewis, “The Palestinians and the PLO: A Historical Approach,” Commentary 59 (January 1975): 39. See also: Yehoshafat Harkabi, The Palestinian Covenant and Its Meaning (London: Valentine Mitchell, 1979), passim.
  11. Kobi Michael and Joel Fishman, “Building the Positive Peace: The Urgent need to Bring the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Back to Basics,” Jewish Political Studies Review, vol. 24, nos. 3–4 (Fall 2012), 7–29,
  12. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, tr. and ed. Harvey Mansfield and Delba Winthrop (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), Volume One, Part Two, Chapter Nine, 280.
  13. Ibid., Volume Two, Part Four, Chapter Seven, 666.
  14. George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (Penguin: Harmondsworth, 1954, 1966 reprint), 165.
  15. David Ben-Gurion, Zichronoth [Reminiscences] (Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 1971), I: 241. For a description of the Evsektsii and the Bolshevik assault on Jewish religion and culture, see: Richard Pipes, Russia under the Bolshevik Regime (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 362–366.
  16. “Report of the Proceedings, World Zionist Conference, London, August 1945,” The New Judaea, vol. XXI, nos. 11–12 (August-September 1945), 173.
  17. Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, ed. and intro. L. G. Mitchell (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 96.