Israel as a Jewish State

Four years ago, on Kol Nidre night, I delivered a sermon on the subject of Israel as Jewish State. You can find the sermon at

During that sermon, I stressed, as I had done many times before, my belief in the importance of Israel being a “Jewish state”.

Israel was founded as the state of the Jewish people, dedicated to the concepts of peace, and justice for all of its citizens. Here is a section of that declaration translated into English:

THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open to the immigration of Jews and for the Ingathering of the Exiles from all countries of their dispersion; will promote the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; will be based on the precepts of liberty, justice and peace as invisaged by the prophets of Israel; will uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of race, creed or sex; will guarantee full freedom of conscience, worship, education and culture; will safeguard the sanctity and inviolability of the shrines and Holy Places of all religions; and will dedicate itself to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

These were noble and challenging goals and throughout its history, Israel has attempted to reflect the character of a “Jewish State” while espousing equality for all of its citizens and those under its authority. To say the least, it has not always succeeded but this has been the stated vision and the goal of the state.

The term “Jewish State” means different things to different people. As I stated in my sermon, I believe that  our values as Jews are all important in this term “Jewish State”. Our values would dictate that Israel must continue to reflect the principles of justice, equality and respect for all of its citizens. If Israel weakens its stand on democracy and equality, it ceases to be a Jewish State and becomes only “a state for Jews”. If Israel gives more rights, more protection and more respect to Jews than it does to other citizens, it is not acting according to the values of our tradition.

This week, the Knesset will vote on a controversial bill which will establish a law identifying Israel as “the nation state of the Jewish people”. This, in the opinion of many, is a dangerous law which could lead to further tension and further discrimination of non-Jews in Israel.

While one of the amendments proposed to the law would explicitly insure equal rights for every citizen, one has to ask why this law needs to be created when the status quo has existed in basic Israeli law for so many years. And, one must ask  why it has to be created especially now at a time of increased tension between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arab citizens.

There are many experts in Israeli Law and Jewish leaders both in Israel and in the Diaspora who point out that Israel’s Jewish character and its democracy have been established through laws dealing with specific situations.  This law, even if it is amended and “watered down” from some of its original text will only serve to heighten the potential difference in legal standing between Jews and non-Jews within the state. It clearly and unequivocally designates the non Jew as “the other” not worthy of equal consideration under the law.

I completely agree with those who oppose this law. It is the wrong law for the wrong time.

That Israel should continue to be a “Jewish State” is absolutely appropriate in my opinion and I consider that designation critical towards our continued relationship with the state. But, any law which seeks to emphasize that designation in order to draw distinctions between citizens is wrong. It is dangerous for Israel and runs counter to our belief as Jews in the equality of all human beings. To pass such a law would be a tragedy.

2 thoughts on “Israel as a Jewish State

  1. Laurel F.

    The law doesn’t say “a nation state of the Jewish people and only the Jewish people,” does it? So it doesn’t exclude others. From what I understand, that actually is what Israel was created to be. And if it weren’t the nation state of the Jewish people, then why would it be obligated to uphold the moral values that we agree a Jewish state should exemplify?

  2. I want to see Israel remain a Jewish state. If it is not, the entire idea of Zionism and the connection between Jews around the world and Israel becomes meaningless. But, the term is, as it has always been, ambiguous. The fear that is shared by so many about this bill (it is opposed by the current President of Israel, the Anti Defamation League, Conservative and Reform Movements and many others) is that it is divisive and antagonistic and serves only to inflame tensions and create mechanisms for discrimination. That there already is discrimination of non-Jews within Israel is a fact and must be confronted. This law seems to validate such discrimination and is an opening for deepening the divide between Jews and non-Jews in the State.

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