The Jewish State Law:
Updated: Apr 28
In 1894 a young journalist named Theodore Herzl attended the Dreyfus Trial in Paris where a Jewish officer was accused of treason. The intensity of the anti-Semitism made the assimilated Herzl realize that the only solution for Jews was to leave Europe and to create a Jewish homeland in Israel. When Herzl began an unrelenting push towards that ends, he went to the Sultan of the Ottoman empire who was ruling over Palestine to receive permission for the Jews to return and he was rejected. Undeterred, he founded the Zionist Congress in 1897 with representatives from all over Europe to forward his goal. Six years after the first Zionist congress began the pogroms were pummeling Russian Jewry, who were then presented with a wrenching dilemma. The British foreign office, who wanted to colonize East Africa with Europeans offered what became known as the Uganda Plan. Jews were offered a homeland in East Africa, which was actually Kenya. Many felt that since this this would surely save Jewish lives, then the opportunity should be taken. If the goal was to create a State for the Jews, then any place could do to solve the ‘Jewish question.’ Others worried that it would derail the ideal goal of the Jewish peoples’ return to the historic and religious homeland. After a fierce debate, the Congress voted against the offer, even if it might have saved lives in the short term, because they understood that finding a refuge from anti-Semitism was not the only purpose of a Jewish state. Israel was not just to be a refuge for the Jews, a state for the Jews, but it was to be a Jewish State. And that state needed to be located in the historic homeland of the Jewish people, Israel.
The member of the Zionist Congress understood that the impetus for us to have our own country came from 3300 years of Jewish history, and from the Torah tradition that has ensured Jewish survival through the millennia. The journey to Israel started with Abraham and Sarah 3900 years ago, and was made by the Jewish people numerous times after that. It was made when we left Egypt, and when we came back from Babylonian exile. Besides these mass returns, throughout the past 2000 years there has been a constant Jewish community in Israel, and a small but steady stream of olim, of Jews moving to Israel including many of our great sages like Judah Halevy in the 12th century, Nahmanides in the 13th century, the Ari in the 16th century, the students of the Baal Shem Tov and the Vilna Gaon in the 18th century. The importance of living in Israel is highlighted by our Passover Haggadah which begins and ends with “Next Year in Jerusalem!” All of us here have had the privilege to make that journey to Israel, some for a short time and some making Aliyah. For me, and I imagine for most of you Israel has a special pull, one that we cannot quite fully explain. I would like to share with you my experience of the first time I came to Israel.
In the middle of college I decided to take a year off from school to travel. Europe was on the agenda, and by halfway through the year I had covered almost every country in Western Europe. At some point my mother suggested that if I ran out of money I could go volunteer on a kibbutz. Israel had never really been on the radar in my Reform upbringing, so this was simply a backup plan. After a detour to Africa for three months I finally arrived at the southern border of Israel, traveling overland from Egypt. As I approached and crossed the border the contrast was so stark, while Africa was dry and dusty, Israel was green and lush. Africa was run down and poor, in Israel I saw new Egged buses and smiling young soldiers. Something inside of me welled up and I felt a pride, an identification that I never knew even existed, a feeling that I was a part of something amazing going on in Israel. And now many years later I live here.
Each of us here has been touched by Israel, each in our own way, but what have we come here to build? What does it mean to have a Jewish state? Well we know that if you have two Jews you have three opinions, and it can mean different things to different people, but I would posit that a starting place that all can agree on is that it means to have a state for Jews to come to freely, a state in a historically Jewish location, and a state that in some way embodies Jewish ideals.
When modern Zionism set out to create a state for the Jews, it was a political movement whose goal was to build a country where Jews could come and live in peace and security, a sanctuary from anti-Semitism. They did not have a uniquely Jewish agenda to inform what would be the nature of that state. In fact, many of the early Zionists came out of the communist and socialist movements, and their vision was based on those ideologies. Today Israel has moved far from those roots and it is the Start Up Nation phenomenon that informs Israel’s world view. So where are we going?
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has a fascinating piece in his book Future Tense which can help us find a path to answer this question. He makes an important distinction between state and society. Rabbi Sacks explains that state is built on a contractual agreement where everyone agrees to abide by a series of laws which allows everyone to live in security. It is a pragmatic arrangement and is enforced with punishment and force if need be. It is the basis for forming government, and it is needed to run a state. The founders of the State of Israel worked towards setting up a state with a functioning government, with laws, courts, a postal service, an army and all the institutions needed to run a country.
Society on the other hand, says Rabbi Sachs, is built on a covenantal agreement which is predicated on a relationship built on trust, loyalty, dedication and giving of self. You can compare these two models to a business partnership versus a marriage. Judaism is predicated on a covenantal relationship with the Almighty and as a people, established at Mount Sinai 3300 years ago. After 70 years of focusing on building a state to ensure our survival, it is now time to start focusing on the next step, on building society, or a state with a Jewish society. This is the true Jewish state.
There is already a roadmap for such a place, a society built on Jewish values. We can turn to our Jewish texts to find it in the vision the prophets gave for the future. Isaiah formulates this vision:
· Learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice; Aid the wronged. Uphold the rights of the orphan; Defend the cause of the widow. (Isaiah 1:17)
And he tells us that it is through these very values that the ‘founding of the country will be brought about.
· Zion will be redeemed with justice, and its return will be through charity. (Isaiah 1:27)
Isaiah then goes on to describe this ideal society serving as a ‘light unto the nations. When Israel is first to respond to the earthquake in Haiti with a field hospital and humanitarian aid, or when it brings water saving technology to struggling countries, we are proud because we feel this this reflects what Israel should be. When we see organizations like Yad Sarah with 6000 volunteers helping 350,000 needy people in Israel, or Hatzalah with 4000 ambulance volunteers responding to over 350,000 calls a year, and then sharing that model with other countries and saving thousands of lives, we see this as a characteristic of a Jewish state. Next week Joe Gitler who founded Leket is coming to speak, and he feeds thousands with food that would otherwise be discarded, also an incredible fulfillment of Jewish values.
There is another unique phenomenon in Israel that reflects Jewish values, which is that Israel has by far the highest birth rate of any modern westernized country. While Europe has a rate of 1.59 children per woman, well below the replacement rate, and the US is 1.9, close to replacement, Israel’s rate is 3.1. So another Jewish value which Israel embodies is family values and the importance of children. Once again quoting Rabbi Jonathan Sachs, he characterizes a country that has children as one that is optimistic about the future and that is a Jewish value.
Judaism has a two track system for building Jewish life, one that involves living Jewish values, however those values must be maintained, and this is accomplished through the living of Jewish traditions. A third way for Israel to be a Jewish state is by integrating Jewish traditions part of the foundation for civic life. People often tell me that one of the meaningful things about being in Israel is that the national holidays in Israel are the Jewish holidays, and you do not have to go against the current to maintain your Jewish lifestyle. In addition, the governmental offices all have kosher cafeterias and are closed on Shabbat, and Hebrew is spoken as the national language. However, there are aspects of these laws which are contested, such as should public transportation not be running on Shabbat, and should the government regulate the closing of movie theatres and stores on Shabbat. Furthermore, the lifecycle events go through the Rabbinate, which is also questioned by many. For those of us who come from the US, the lack of separation of church and state, or synagogue and state is something that we are not accustomed to.
These are very complicated issues, and we do not have time to discuss them in detail, however I do want to point out an important aspect of the religiosity of the population in Israel which may indicate that these Jewish values reflect the outlook of the people. Many view Israel as separated between the religious and non-religious populations, with fissures occurring between the two. But when you look at the country you see something very different. The statistics say that 20% of the population is orthodox, 40% is secular and 40% traditional. But even that is a misnomer because I know people who will keep some form of kosher, do Shabbat dinner with their family every week, and say they are secular. By American standards they are very traditional. So I believe it is closer to 20% orthodox, 20% secular and the 60% in the middle who are traditional. So in fact you have 80% of the population who are traditional in some manner. Viewed from that perspective, the Jewishness of the Jewish state is a reflection of the population. Yes, there are Israelis who will say they are secular, or even that they are Israeli but not necessarily Jewish, and say that they would leave Israel if the opportunity arose. However, when they do leave and live outside of Israel, many of them feel the need to connect to Jewish community and often they reconnect to Jewish religion.
The institutionalizing of Judaism in Israel has many implications, and I would now like to address the most recent debate over this question. This is what is known as the Nation-State law, passed almost exactly a year ago as one of Israel’s Basic Laws. It legislates the existing reality that Israel is a country that has Hebrew as its official language, Jewish holidays as government holidays, and has a law or return for Jews to be able to come live in Israel. It also calls for the promotion of Jewish settlement throughout the country. There are two main points that were raised about the law by those who objected. The first is that while the law does recognize Arabic as having a special status in Israel, it does not state explicitly that minorities have equal rights, a statement that is found in Israel’s declaration of independence. This objection does not have many practical implications because there are laws in Israel that ensure equal rights for all of Israel’s citizens, but I agree that this declaration should have been included. Perhaps it was not because it would have accentuated the issues that arise from the second objection. This objection is the part of the law that stipulates that the government plays a role in bringing Jews to Israel under the law of return, and it enables Jews to settle throughout the land. In practice this gives more government funding for housing and businesses to Jews. This particularly upsets the Druize citizens who serve in the army and consider themselves loyal to Israel. And so we have the need to build up a Jewish state coming into conflict with certain assumptions in a democratic state that the government will not favor any one sector of the population.
The fundamental premise of Israel being a Jewish state is questioned by some, beginning with the law of return which allows Jews to come to Israel. From 1975 to 1995, Zionism was designated as racism in the United Nations. This contradicts the setting aside of Israel as the homeland for the Jewish people which was endorsed by the League of Nations in 1922 and by the UN in 1947. Many argue that there are 25 nations that have Islam as its official religion, and that favor Islam over other religions, and no one accuses them of being prejudiced. In fact, in Saudi Arabia one cannot worship another religion in public. For Jews in Israel this point is non-negotiable, 98% of the Jewish population believes that we have the right to have a Jewish homeland.
While building a Jewish state is a long term goal, the Torah’s outlook on changing the world is that change first begins with us. If we are here to contribute to and build a Jewish society built on higher ideals, then the first step is to strive to live and embody those ideals. In Judaism that means engaging with Jewish life and with Jewish texts. In September we will be launching an initiative to engage in Torah study and Jewish texts, and I invite you all the take part in the ongoing dialogue of Jewish life which is meant to inform our outlook on how to build Jewish society. Some people come to Israel and they feel that now that they are in Israel they are actualizing their Jewish lives, but I believe that this is not the culmination of the journey, coming to Israel is when the journey really begins.
I would like to end with the story of Shmuel who lived in Poland and worked for Ivan on his farm. Every once in a while Ivan would get off his plow, put his ear to the ground and break into a sigh of contentment and a smile. When Shmuel asked what he heard, Ivan said he heard the land singing. After Ivan had gone home, Shmuel was curious about what Ivan had heard and put his ear to the ground. Nothing happened, he did not hear anything. Years went by, and Shmuel eventually made his way to Israel with his family. In Israel he was able to work land that was his, not Ivan’s. One day he recalled how Ivan had put his ear to the ground, and he tried it again. And now Shmuel had that sigh, that feeling of contentment, and he heard the land singing his song.