There are two ways to characterize the State of Israel in Hebrew. One is Ha-M’dinah Ha-Y’hudit (“The Jewish state”) and the other is M’dinato shel Ha-am Ha-Y’hudi (“The state of the Jewish people”). There is a significant difference between the two that we ignore at Israel’s peril.
To use the terminology “the Jewish state” is to imply it is exclusive to “certified Jews” (see below). To use the latter (“The state of the Jewish people”) is to be inclusive of Klal Yisrael (i.e. all of world Jewry, although Israeli citizens have duties, rights and privileges that Diaspora Jewry does not share), as well as of the 1.5 million non-Jewish Israeli citizens, currently 20 percent of Israel’s population.
The former challenges Israel’s democratic principles; the latter enables democracy to flourish.
The former allows the State of Israel and “Greater Israel” (i.e. biblical Israel) to be conflated as one; the latter allows for the establishment of two states for two peoples on land both claim as their historic legacy.
The former gives license to ultra-Orthodox politicians to determine Israel’s religious standards, practices and character; the latter promotes freedom of choice and equal rights for Israeli Jews and Israeli non-Jews in matters of religious preference without the state’s interference or preference for one religion or religious stream over another.
Israel’s Declaration of Independence articulates clearly the state’s democratic principles:
The State of Israel … will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions ... ”
Unfortunately, these values have been compromised. A recent article by Bernard Avishai in The New Yorker observed:
“ … neo-Zionist ideas and Ben Gurion’s rash compromises with rabbinical forces over two generations ago [resulted in] laws that have left Israel a seriously compromised democracy ... this Jewish state allocates public land … almost exclusively to certified Jews, creates immigration laws to bestow citizenship on certified Jews, empowers the Jewish Agency to advance the well-being of certified Jews, lacks civil marriage and appoints rabbis to marry certified Jews only to one another, founded an Orthodox educational system to produce certified Jews … assumes custodianship of a sacred capital for the world’s certified Jews — indeed, this Jewish state presumes to certify Jews in the first place. … In Israel, having J-positive blood is a serious material advantage ... a fifth (soon a quarter) of Israeli citizens are Palestinian in origin, and thus are materially, legally disadvantaged by birth.”
A “certified Jew” is what ultra-Orthodox rabbis confer upon an individual whose mother and maternal line is Jewish going back generations, or upon converts who meet the approval of those same ultra-Orthodox rabbis.
“Non-certified Jews” include individuals born of a Jew whose Jewish status is questioned by those ultra-Orthodox rabbis, or who converts to Judaism with a Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist or Renewal rabbi, or even with most Modern Orthodox rabbis in Israel and Diaspora communities.
“Non-certified Jews” cannot get married in Israel or be buried in a Jewish cemetery in Israel even if they are Israeli-born, have served in the army, paid taxes and/or were killed in battle or in a terrorist attack.
Ultra-Orthodox rabbis not only determine Israeli citizens’ Jewish status but have taken control of most Jewish holy sites, including the Western Wall and Plaza, Rachel’s Tomb, and the Cave of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs in Hebron. They have sought to separate the sexes in public areas and on public transportation, to shut down government services on Shabbat and Holy Days, to grant draft deferments to “certified Jews” studying in their yeshivot, and to disburse large sums of Israeli taxpayer money to ultra-Orthodox schools and synagogues.
Israel’s internal challenges are broadly three-fold: Maintain its Jewish majority, its Jewish character and its democracy.
For Israel to retain its Jewish majority, there needs to be a two-state agreement so that 1.5 million West Bank Palestinian-Arabs can be relieved of Israeli occupation and become citizens of a Palestinian state. Before Michael Oren became Israel’s ambassador to the United States, he wrote that Israel needs at least 70 percent of its population to be Jewish in order to assure its Jewish majority over the long term. This means that those advocating the annexation of the West Bank into Israel as a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would create a serious threat to Israel’s identity as the state of the Jewish people.
For Israel to remain a democratic society, it needs both a functioning judiciary and a Knesset that respects the separation of synagogue and state and assures equal treatment under the law for all Israeli citizens, Jewish and non-Jewish alike.
For all these reasons, designating Israel as a “Jewish state” compromises Israel’s democracy, Jewish majority and Jewish character.
To call Israel “the state of the Jewish people,” however, honors Israel’s Jewish diversity, preserves its Jewish majority, and protects and sustains Israel’s democratic traditions.
Rabbi John Rosove is senior rabbi of Temple Israel of Hollywood and national co-chair of the rabbinic cabinet of J Street.