Is Israel a Jewish State? No. But it can be.
by Ha’Am Contributor
Groups like Bruins for Israel love to tout the idea that Jews, like all other national groups, deserve a state. That would be a good argument if it wasn’t for one flaw: Israel is not a Jewish state.
Before we were expelled from our homeland by the Roman Empire, the Jews had a magnificent civilization with its own language, religion, culture, and system of government. When we came back to Israel, many of us hoped to reestablish our civilization. Instead, all we created was an outpost of Western civilization in the Middle East.
In the years leading up to the foundation of our state in 1948, most Jews in the land of Israel collaborated with the British occupation. While small groups resisted, eventually driving out the British, the bulk of the Jewish Yishuv accepted foreign rule over our homeland. So, when the time came for us to establish a Jewish state, the British handed off the institutions of government to the Yishuv establishment. The Jewish leaders of Israel took down the Union Jack and ran up the Degel Yisrael (Israeli flag) and kept everything else fundamentally the same.
Israeli policy for the most part has followed the pattern of a Western state. While the modern West provides a very high quality of life to many of its residents, its governments also sometimes disregard the welfare of others. Western states adopt economic policies that protect and even celebrate inequality, consequently condemning a lower class to poor living conditions and lack of opportunity. They label large ethnic and religious groups locally and internationally as potential terrorists, allowing them to pay less heed to the groups’ rights and liberties in the name of security.
A nation that emerges from Western civilization, from Western values and beliefs, may be right to take these approaches. But Israel shouldn’t be a product of Western civilization because Jews are not a Western people. If we were Western, we would have no right to land in the Middle East. We are a Middle Eastern people with our own unique civilization that emerged in the Middle East three thousand years ago that has finally returned home. Thus, in guiding the policy of our state, we should look to the principles of our civilization.
Do we as Jews want to embrace capitalism, along with the West? Should we accept it as necessary while doing our best to mitigate the harms that it causes? Or should we look for an alternative way to organize our society?
There are no modern Jewish answers to these questions, so I will revert to the ancient ones.
The Torah in Vayikra 25 makes clear it that land should not be subject to the capitalist mode of exchange. Every forty-nine years, at the end of the Yovel cycle, the ancestral owner of every plot of land regains possession of it, even if he sold it to someone else. Effectively, land cannot be bought or sold but only leased. This policy consequently prevents the rise of a permanent class of non-landowning peasant farmers, similar to those that lived crushingly impoverished lives in Europe until relatively recently.
Also, the Torah repeats many times, as in Devarim 23:20, that one may not issue a loan that charges interest, at least to another Jew. It seems that, no matter what the free market dictates, exploitation of the needs of one’s fellow man is less than totally acceptable to our civilization.
We should also ask ourselves if we as Jews want to impose military rule on other peoples living in our homeland, as we have done to Palestinians in some areas. Again, I’m not familiar with any modern answers to this question that are particularly Jewish, but Vayikra 24:22 is clear: “You shall have one manner of law, as well for the stranger as for one of your own country, for I am the Lord your God.” In one region of our homeland, Samaria and Judea (the West Bank), Jewish residents are governed by a civil legal system while Palestinians are denied civil rights and subject to a military bureaucracy. Our ancestors clearly would have frowned upon this unequal pair of legal systems.
Finally, I wonder on which legal tradition our country’s legal system should be based. Currently, Israeli law is based on the common law system, as devised by the British, despite the fact that the British were the ones who closed the doors to our homeland to us during the darkest days of the Shoah (Holocaust). We have our own legal tradition, the Talmud, which could be used as the foundation of a new legal system that is both modern and Jewish. Also, our state contains hundreds of thousands of scholars, the Haredim, who refuse to do anything other than study our ancient legal system, and could possibly be offered employment managing our new one.
If we see ourselves as the continuation of the Jewish civilization who lived in Israel before us, we must decide how to make their answers to the questions of statecraft relevant to our systems of government. But until the Israeli government begins acting like a Jewish state, it has no right to call itself one. If we fail to integrate the values of our ancestors into the administration of our modern government, Israel will not be a Jewish state in our homeland, but rather a Western colony in the Middle East.
Is Israel a Jewish State? Yes.
by Rivka Cohen
Although it is idealistic to say that Israel should conduct itself according to Jewish law, the Talmud can also be extremely close-minded, including strict regulations of gender inequality and intolerance of LGBT communities. If we justify reclaiming this tradition on the basis that Jewish law should govern Israel, where do we draw the line? How do we ensure that only the regulations we deem appropriate for the modern state of Israel are adopted, and we do not allow for the implementation of other, less appealing laws? Additionally, how would we enforce laws justified by their religious right to a population filled with citizens either not religious, or not Jewish? While implementing some Jewish laws would prove practical, we risk the chance of descending down a very slippery and dangerous slope. Israel is a Jewish state because it is the historic homeland of the Jewish people, and we have finally returned.