Last week, a friend invited me to a political club where the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was being discussed. The lecturer, a fellow UCLA student, was explaining that many Israeli Jews are worried that the minority Arab population is growing at a faster rate than the Jewish population. This is significant considering if the Arab population surpasses the Jewish one, Israel will no longer have a Jewish identity. Another Bruin in attendance who was new to Israeli-Palestinian politics posed a question that caught me completely off-guard: “Why does Israel need to identity itself as a Jewish state?” This is a very simple and honest question, yet it completely confused me. For some reason, the question did not make sense and it took me a while to wrap my head around it.
However, I came to realize the legitimacy of the question. After all, almost all liberal democratic countries today lack a state religion. Why should Israel be any different?
I realized that this question, by itself, is a representation of the problematic relationship between Israel and the rest of the world. Answering the question of why Israel needs a Jewish identity also answers that much bigger question of why Israel needs to exist in the first place. And as with much else regarding Jewry, the answer to this question goes way back. Way, way back.
In the year 70 CE, the semi-independent Jewish state of Judea came to an end. Roman armies conquered Jerusalem and drove the Jewish inhabitants out of their ancestral homeland, where they had lived for more than a thousand years. The consequence of this was that the Jews were forced to live outside their homeland and with time, create Jewish communities all around the world. These Jewish communities became minorities in large empires, and were at the mercy of the governing people. Three centuries later, Christianity became the official religion of Rome and in the seventh century, Arab tribes erupted out of the Arabian Peninsula and Islam spread all over the Middle East and North Africa. These two events are important because from that point onward, the Jewish people were ruled by Christian powers in the West and Islam in the East.
The safety and welfare of the Jewish communities greatly varied based on where they lived and who was ruling them. For the most part, the Jewish population living in Europe fared much worse than living under Islamic rule.
With that said, however, the Jewish population under Islamic rule still faced persecution and sometims violence from the Muslim majority. Famous Middle Eastern historian Bernard Lewis wrote, “The Golden Age of equal rights was a myth, and belief in it was a result, more than a cause, of Jewish sympathy for Islam.” Part of the reason Jews under Islamic law were treated better than those in Christian Europe was because they were identified as “People of the Book” and were therefore were protected under Islamic law.
This protection for Jews, which gave them the legal status of dhimmi, was also extended to the Christian civilians. Dhimmi were still treated as second-class citizens and there was a long list of restrictions put onto them. The main ones included exclusion from public office and armed service, not being allowed to ride horses or camels, not being allowed to construct synagogues or churches taller than mosques, and not being allowed to build houses higher than those of Muslims or “pray or mourn in loud voices” – as that might offend the Muslim residents. In addition, dhimmi were not allowed to give evidence in court against a Muslim and a dhimmi would have to gain Muslim witnesses for legal defense.
There were long periods of time when Jews were relatively safe and could thrive economically, but such periods never lasted. As in Europe, anti-Semitism would fluctuate and many times it reached levels of violence. There are records of many large massacres where thousands of Jews, sometimes even entire communities, were killed by mobs. For example, on Dec. 30, 1066 the Jewish vizier of Granada, Joseph ibn Naghrela Ha’Nagid, was crucified by an Arab mob which then continued on to slaughter all 5,000 inhabitants of the Jewish quarter. For the most part, Middle Eastern violence against Jews was usually perpetrated by ordinary civilians and religious leaders rather than by political ones who did not see hurting Jews as furthering their interests.
This contrasts with the anti-Semitism that thrived in Arab countries during the 1940s, when Arab leaders used the public’s hatred for Jews to increase anti-Semitism in order to pursue their own goals. In 1945, there were around a million Jews living in Arab states; however, today there are only about 8,000. From 1947-1948, according to the Jewish Virtual Library, “Jews in Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Morocco, Syria, and Yemen were persecuted, their property and belongings confiscated, and they were subjected to severe anti-Jewish riots instigated by the governments.” More than a thousand Jews were massacred in these countries during the 1940s alone. This triggered a mass exodus of around 820,000 individuals between 1948 and 1972, most of whom fled to Israel.
Jews living in Christian Europe experienced anti-Semitism that was even harsher than that in the Middle East. This is partly due to the fact that most Christian rulers did not believe that the Jews should be a protected minority but a dangerous group, since they would not convert to Christianity. In addition, the rulers believed in collectively punishing Jews for the death of Jesus. Jews were forced to live in ghettos and, like under Islamic rule, were treated as second-class citizens. However, life was even more dangerous for European Jews, since whenever any misfortune would strike, Jews were often used as a scapegoat and subjected to violence. For example, in the 1300s when the Black Plague struck Europe, the Jews—as usual—were the ones blamed and accused of poisoning wells. Christian mobs continued to massacre countless Jewish communities across the continent. In addition, Jews were periodically expelled from their countries and forced to search for a new home.
During the Jewish emancipation of the mid-17th to late 19th centuries, many prominent Jewish thinkers believed that the answer to escaping persecution was to assimilate into European culture. Initially, Theodor Herzl was one of these believers. However, with time, Herzl realized that assimilated Jews were still persecuted in Europe and that they would never be truly safe in lands that contain hundreds of years of anti-Semitic influence.
The Holocaust proved he was right, and although the British tried to reduce Jewish immigration to Palestine in the White Paper of 1939, many European Jews were able to flee to Israel.
Since its inception, Israel has been a safe haven for Jews all around the world who need a place of refuge. As anti-Semitism grows in different parts of the world, Jewish communities are able to secure their safety by migrating to the Jewish state. The recent rise of anti-Semitism in France led the country to be the greatest source of immigrants to Israel in 2015.
If there is anything that Jewish history teaches us, it is that anti-Semitism is not constant, but rather continually fluctuating. Because of this, for most of Jewish history, life was unpredictable and often dangerous. When a country turned against its Jewish population, there was often no place the Jews could turn to. There was no country that could be counted on to protect them.
This changed in 1948. We now have a country that will always have our back, and will continue to be a place of refuge when the world turns against us, as it has many times before. After the Holocaust, the phrase “never again” became ingrained in Jewish culture. As long as we have a country, we can continue to say those words with certainty.