Is the Jewish State Good for the Jews?

Yakov Rabkin
August 2001

August 2001

Is the Jewish State Good for the Jews?

by Yakov M Rabkin*

Many believe that the Al-Aqsa intifada, started in September 2000, confronts the State of Israel with its most serious existential threat. In view of Israel’s military superiority, this belief suggests that even the most potent military cannot compensate for moral fragility, for doubts as to the justice of Israel’s very existence. The days of ostentatious Jewish unity are gone, the cycle of violence is deadlier than ever, and quite a few people come to wonder: Is the Jewish state good for the Jews?

Indeed, the very idea of “a Jewish state” was rejected by many prominent Jewish thinkers, even more expressed doubts about its viability. It is time to examine costs and benefits of the State of Israel in the context of Jewish continuity. To do so, one must take a step back from the quotidian turmoil of the conflict.

Modern Israel has attracted constant attention from both media and chanceries around the world. Jewish organizations have tried to affect their respective countries’ positions on the Middle East. The idea to establish the State of Israel stems from an encounter, some would say a conflict, between Judaism and modernity. A clearer understanding of the place of Israel in Jewish continuity should open new vistas on an important foreign policy priority: how to arrest the most persistent cycle of violence inherited from the last century.


Jewish continuity has largely developed in the diaspora which has existed for at least twenty-five centuries, ever since the Jews were exiled from the Land of Israel to Babylonia. Links among different diasporas have developed in response to a wide variety of needs: commercial interests, marital ties, education, scholarship, exchanges of rabbinical jurisprudence. Jewish diasporas heralded the concept of global village well before the 20th century. They were united by common, albeit varied, practice of the commandments and a collective commitment to return to Zion and Jerusalem.

Jewish scholars have viewed the Jews’ eventual return to the Land of Israel as a spiritual concept, dependent on the behaviour of the Jews and, above all, on divine grace. The Torah posits that the land is entrusted to the Jews, or rather, the Children of Israel, on certain conditions, namely to live up to the standards enunciated in the Torah, to practice morality, to pursue justice, to obey certain agricultural rules.

This is why the Jewish tradition attributes the exile to abandoning Torah commandments, and thus does not view the Jews as hapless victims but, rather, as makers of their own fate. The exile that followed the destruction of the two Jerusalem temples has been seen as divine retribution that only the Messiah will end. According to this view, it is wrong to “rebel against the surrounding nations” in order to re-occupy the Land of Israel by force.

The exile is not seen as a military defeat whose effect can be effaced by a military victory, and some scholars see Israel’s military exploits not as a sign of impending messianic redemption but rather as a blasphemous act of rebellion. Judaism has developed a strong prejudice against false messiahs and misguided enthusiasm. False messiahs, such as Bar Kokhba in the 2nd century Israel or Shabbetai Zvi in the 17th century Ottoman Empire, awoke and inspired the Jewish masses but, ultimately, led to despair and demoralisation.

The modern ideology of Zionism postulates that Jewish history is essentially a sequence of expulsions, massacres and forced conversions. According to this view, the Shoa, the deliberate science-based murder of six millions Jews by Germany’s National Socialists, is a constant of history. The Shoa is often portrayed as an ultimate proof of the untenability of Jewish diasporas, rather than a unique tragedy interrupting the progression towards a more tolerant and pluralistic society. Most Zionists see no intrinsic value in maintaining the Jewish continuity beyond the borders of Israel. The traditional model of autonomous diasporas possessing a common spiritual focus has largely given way to a centre-periphery model with the State of Israel assuming political, administrative and representative functions of a centre with respect to diaspora Jews.

Consequently, Israeli policies often convey the impression that Israel represents Jews from other countries. Political use by Israeli leaders of the Judaic term “the People of Israel” (Am Yisrael) tends to blur distinctions between Israeli and diaspora Jews, presenting the latter as “temporarily away from the country”. This affects diaspora Jews to the extent that certain Israeli policies, such as the proclamation of Jerusalem as “Israel’s eternal capital”, are presented as policies formulated on behalf, and for the benefit, of both Israeli and diaspora Jews. However, not all Jews have agreed to be represented by Israel, and quite a few oppose Israel’s policies under the slogan: Not In Our Name!


Most rabbinical authorities reacted to the emergence of Zionism with undisguised hostility. A recent book Zionism and Religion (Brandeis University Press, 1998) offers ample evidence of points of confrontation between Judaism and Zionism. Prior to the establishment of the Jewish state, most rabbis and scholars objected to the political appropriation by the Zionists of spiritual concepts such as “Jerusalem”, “Zion” or “Land of Israel”. Prominent leaders of European Orthodoxy were adamant in their opposition. Thus, Rabbi Isaac Breuer wrote in 1918: “Zionism is the most terrible enemy that has ever arisen to the Jewish nation. …Zionism kills the nation and then elevates the corpse to the throne”.

Perhaps, the most important point of confrontation was the definition of the Jewish nation. The Zionists view the Jews as a nation in the modern European sense of the word. Conversely, the Jewish tradition defines them as a nation only in the sense, and to the extent, that the Jews remain loyal to the Torah. According to it, there is little meaning to a Jewish nation without Judaism. Just as the Muslim concept of umma is based on the loyalty to the Koran and transcends boundaries of nation-states, the Jewish concepts of Am Yisrael or Kelal Yisrael refer to communities that have the Torah as their common denominator; they are not confined to any particular territory, let alone to a nation-state.

The transformation of this moral and spiritual notion into the modern concept of nation is a major departure from the Jewish tradition. It is little wonder that prominent European rabbis declared as early as 1905 (well before the United Nations’ resolution equating Zionism with racism) that “Zionism is a purely nationalist-racist movement without the least commonality with religion”. Zionism based its definition of the Jew on biological provenance rather than on religion, quite in line with modern anti-Semitism which also discarded religion as the distinctive trait of the Jews.

Opposition to Zionism has not disappeared since the times when Zionism was a minority movement shunned by most Jews. Most principled opposition from certain Hassidic groups, centred in Jerusalem and in New York. Intellectual Jewish circles in many countries also keep a distance from Zionism. A few Jewish thinkers believe that the Zionist state born in sin, and which it has never repented, has no legitimacy in terms of Jewish values. According to them, Jews had lived in the Land of Israel before the state, and they will remain there after it comes to an end.


One of the proofs used by these critics, is that, in spite of the might of Israel’s armed forces, Israel remains the only country to experience regular anti-Jewish violence since 1948. Today the life of a Jew is in greater danger in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv than in Paris or London or even in Damascus or Tehran. This is not an irony or a paradox: this danger had been understood by a few Jewish thinkers well before the establishment of the state. They had foreseen the impasse in which Israel finds itself today.

“In the long run,” wrote the political philosopher Hannah Arendt when the idea of a Jewish state became dominant in Zionist circles in the mid 1940s, “there is hardly any course imaginable that would be more dangerous, more in the style of an adventure. […] It will not be easy either to save the Jews or to save Palestine in the twentieth century: that it can be done with categories and methods of the nineteenth century seems at the very most highly improbable”.

The refusal to heed the prognosis about the durability of the Arab resistance to the Jewish state may be seen as “a triumph of the will” or, conversely, as a major failure of its founders and rulers. Jews used to believe in the power of their ideas unsupported by material power. Today many Israeli leaders cling to material power for want of ideas.

It is often said that Herzl’s vision of a state for the Jews came to life in spite of an inhospitable terrain and an implacable hostility of the local inhabitants. However, it may well be that it is precisely this implacable hostility that forged the new Hebrew nation in Palestine. Since the Zionists discarded Judaism as a common denominator of the ingathering exiles, a shared “fear of the Arabs” became the ultimate factor of national unity. Resorting to education as the primary tool of forging “the new man”, the Zionists made consistent ideological use of the military conflict, a natural consequence of their initial vision of Palestine as “a land without a people for a people without a land.”

When Jewish babies are killed in the West Bank or Gaza, most Israelis are outraged. However, a few also wonder what kind of parents would endanger their children by keeping them in Hebron or Netsarim. This sacrificial rite is beginning to awake doubts as to the very nature of the State of Israel which had extorted hundreds of human sacrifices from Jews and their neighbours well before it was established, and tens of thousands since. Was it wise to establish it? Is it worth defending with heavy sacrifices? These questions, quite unimaginable in other countries, are hardly rhetorical in Israel. The fact that the majority of the Jews, on whose behalf the State of Israel was established, enjoy more tranquil lives elsewhere and are reluctant to join their brethren in Israel, make it appear less and less as “the only solution of the Jewish question”.

Residual nostalgia for Zionist exploits largely explains many Israelis’ reluctant approval of the settlers whom they tend to admire from afar. The settlers accuse of hypocrisy those who argue that the conflict can be solved by evacuation of the West Bank and Gaza. They claim that there is no difference between Jewish settlement in Hebron and in Tel Aviv. And it appears that this view is gaining ground. Why should one rid Hebron of Jews but leave them in Jerusalem’s neighbourhoods of Katamon or Baka, which used to be no less Arab prior to 1948? Why should one oppose Israeli occupation of Hebron and condone the destruction of an Arab village, replaced by the University of Tel Aviv, nowadays, ironically, the citadel of liberalism and pacifism? If Jewish settlement is illegitimate in Gaza why is it legitimate in Jaffa or Haifa? Such questions convey a powerful message: we are all in the same boat. They argue that the legitimacy of the entire Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel is in jeopardy once you start to examine its recent record carefully. This polemic strategy, aided by the sense of physical insecurity, keeps large segments of Israeli population hostages to fear.


Israel’s military operations, particularly against civilians, have embarrassed Jews both in Israel and in the diaspora for many decades. Since Israel promotes itself as the representative of the Jews, and most diaspora Jewish leaders enthusiastically support this claim, many tend to associate the State of Israel with local Jews. Jews are thus put in a difficult situation of defending the morally indefensible, of bending their ethical standards in order to justify Israel’s actions in Nablus, Khan Yunis or Beirut. Indeed, Israel routinely, and perhaps inevitably for any state, acts against the morality embodied in Judaism, the very Judaism that distinguishes diaspora Jews from their fellow citizens of the respective countries.

Conceptual disparities between Israel and diasporas become more pronounced since the countries with sizable Jewish communities have all adopted a liberal system of social and political values. It is quite common in Israel to talk about building a Jewish neighbourhood or to discuss plans for settling Jews in the Galilee so that Arab citizens do not outnumber their Jewish compatriots in the region. Israeli official documents routinely identify the bearer as a Jew or a non-Jew. Structural segregation of Jews from non-Jews is common in Israel. So is occupational discrimination, all of which is justified by the Herzlian denomination of Israel as a state for the Jews.

However, in the context of Western societies it would be inconceivable to practice ethnic or religious discrimination in such a manner. One could imagine an international outcry if the Front national mayor of a French town were to promote a public housing development designated solely for Catholics. Israel’s discriminatory practices, while often opposed by the country’s Supreme Court, conflict with the liberal values that underpin the stability and welfare of Jewish diasporas around the world. It is only a matter of time before diaspora leaders, at least those who overtly identify with the State of Israel, will face the challenge of explaining their obvious double standard.

It is too early to define the place reserved for the State of Israel and for Zionism in history. While for many Jews the desirability of the State of Israel constitutes an article of faith, quite a few come to question this new faith in an ethnic state. It may indeed be hard to justify the State of Israel as a tool to enhance the spiritual and material welfare of the Jews and, particularly, to offer them a sense of physical safety.

The primacy of the State is a dangerous belief to hold. A few decades after the Shoa, Jews remember what happens when the raison d’état becomes a transcendental principle that supersedes individual morality. It may be illusory and even dangerous to confuse the profane centrality of Israel with the sacred centrality of the land: in order to affirm the first aspect one has to reject or distort the second one, and vice versa.

A garrison state inhabited by a desperate population and armed with nuclear weapons, represents a danger of a regional, perhaps a world, war. Zionism has brought about an unending confrontation with Palestinian Arabs. This cycle of violence has become a serious threat: it may spell a violent demise of the State of Israel and, more importantly, a spiritual and psychological crisis for Judaism. Just as foreseen by Hannah Arendt over fifty years ago, it appears growingly unrealistic to preserve “the state for the Jews”, an adventurous idea to begin with, against the violent opposition of the Palestinians. Of course, Israel’s army is capable of defeating the Palestinians but the moral cost of such a “victory” would be prohibitive and would not bring peace any closer. Many Israeli generals have learned this the hard way, and once in retirement, openly decry the use of force in settling the Israel/Palestine conflict.


The military gains of the last fifty years seem to evaporate as the situation on the ground, i.e. between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, has been reverted to 1948 when an ethnic conflict for the control of the land intensified between Jews and Arabs. In 2001, just as in 1948, there is no clear concept of national borders, and it is ethnic rather than political factors that play most potently. A growing number of Israel’s Arab citizens identify with their Palestinian brethren while the State of Israel often treats Arab Israelis as if they were enemy aliens. The euphoria that followed the victory in the Six-Day War, and which seemed to vindicate the Zionists’ vision and practice, has vanished altogether.

In order to stop senseless human sacrifices and to save at least parts of Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel, the structure and the ideology of a Jewish state ought to be replaced with a more flexible arrangement. This may emerge from an international peace conference, most probably in the wake of another major bloodshed. But conceptual changes in thinking about Israel/Palestine are needed now.

After decades of conflicting nationalist efforts from both sides, it is the entire area from the Jordan to the sea, not just the West Bank and Gaza, that requires a solution. New Jerusalem suburbs of Gilo or East Talpiot, Jewish cities of Ariel or Emanuel built on the lands conquered in 1967, are hardly different from cities in Israel proper. Their evacuation in an eventual territorial settlement would be a human drama of major proportions. Uprooting Arab population centres in Israel, as some Israeli politicians suggest, is equally cruel and senseless. The partition or separation that some Israeli policy-makers, including the former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, continue to support is no longer feasible since Jews and Arabs are too interspersed across the entire disputed territory. Israelis of very different political views, such as the more nationalist Moshe Arens, a former defence minister, and the more conciliatory Meron Benvenisti, a former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, agree that separation of the Jews from the Arabs is just a myth that regularly comes to the surface after major acts of terror.

The frustration of the Palestinian Arabs deprived of most avenues of political expression has naturally developed into a fixation on national independence à l’israélienne. Yet, another nation-state  – a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza – may only cause more pain and rancour. Dismantlement of settlements, forced transfers of population and other usual appurtenances of establishing nation-states in ethnically heterogeneous areas would likely ensue. Rather than a new nation-state, a liberal political structure based on citizens’ equal rights and, consequently, their self-interest may have more chances to succeed.


One promising arrangement is a confederation to be established in the area between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. Abrahamia (or Ibrahimia) may be a good name for the new confederate state since it would recall an important common ancestor recognised by Muslims, Christians and Jews. It can be modelled after Canada or Switzerland. Good use can be made of elements of the Ottoman rule which had managed diversity and preserved peace far better than most of its successor states (be it Serbia, Turkey, Israel, or Lebanon). Confederate structures are usually adequate to moderate ethnic or national tensions. Abrahamia should consist of cantons sovereign in matters of culture, education, worship, internal security, and local law. This would also enable Orthodox Jews and secular Hebrews, to name just the two most antagonistic groups, to live their lives according to their customs and beliefs, without the irritating interventions of the State.

Details of such a confederation may take a while to work out, and even longer to implement. What follows is a just suggestion, an outline. First of all, it is important to move Israeli and Palestinian political thinking away from the notion of nation-state towards the concept of confederation, an idea that was quite popular in both camps in the recent past.

Foreign affairs, defence, monetary matters and communication would be entrusted to a confederate government elected by all citizens. The sensitive issue of defence can be resolved by stages. During the first years the armed forces should remain under the control of the Jewish cantons since Jews, not Arabs, have been threatened with the prospect of being thrown into the sea by neighbouring countries. But the army, a bulwark against foreign aggression, should be prohibited from being used within the confederation as a police force. Cantonal police units and a nominal confederate police, initially aided by an international contingent, should maintain public order and ensure peaceful relations between diverse cantons. As memories of the bitter past recede into history, and this may take less time than many imagine, the defence forces should fully incorporate all citizens.

The Law of Return, which now allows any Jew in the world to become a citizen of Israel upon arrival (and sometimes even before), should be broadened to include Palestinian Arabs who would be entitled to reclaim their homes or obtain compensation for lost property. Compensation for lost property would constitute a major source of funds that should help reduce the existing development gap between the two groups. Economic disparities fuel violence no less than nationalist passions, and income gaps must be bridged for such a confederation to take root. Palestinian Arabs should acquire equal rights and obligations, and be free to settle wherever they can rent or legally acquire property. This will give them, currently the most disenfranchised, a real stake in the success of the confederation.

Similarly, those Jews who want to live in the Land of Israel in order to fulfil Torah commandments can continue to live a fully Jewish life in the proposed confederation. They, just as any other citizens, should be free to settle anywhere between the Jordan and the sea, of course by legal means and without any special privileges. Individual safety and individual rights of citizens should become the central political priority of the new federation.

The majority of secular Israelis who simply want “to be a free people in our land” (as Israel’s anthem now puts it) can continue to live “Israeli style” in their cantons. Confederate authorities should do nothing to ensure their Jewishness, since matters of worship and education will be exclusive privileges of the constituent cantons. Such an arrangement will not only alleviate the conflict between Jews and Arabs, it will also eliminate the tension that the State of Israel has fomented trying to subject its Jewish citizens to the strictures of religious law.


“If the Jewish Commonwealth is proclaimed against the will of the Arabs, and without the support of the Mediterranean peoples” wrote Hannah Arendt a few months after American Zionists voted for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, “not only financial help but political support will be necessary for a long time to come. And that may turn out to be very troublesome indeed for Jews [in the United States], who after all have no power to direct the political destinies of the Near East. It may eventually be far more of a responsibility than today they imagine or tomorrow can make good.”

After five decades of exasperating conflict in the Middle East, world Jewry can play a major role in transforming the current situation along the proposed lines. Many Western Jews have been active for years in diverse rapprochement activities that bring Arabs and Hebrews, Muslims, Christians and Jews together. There are joint prayer sessions and interconfessional discussions. A friend of mine, a Jew from Paris, runs a joint Jewish-Muslim programme to teach tolerance on the basis of respective religious texts. European and American Jews have brought expertise, commitment and even-handedness to a number of non-governmental projects that foster understanding and respect of difference. Most of these joint activities have survived the current upsurge of violence which in itself is a sign of their success. Jewish academics, businesspeople, psychologists, rabbis, social workers have helped the cause of tolerance in Israel for years, and their role, as well as that of members of the Palestinian diasporas, can only gain in importance in the new confederation.

They should also make their voices heard not only in Israel but, more importantly, in the European Union, Russia and the United States. The vast majority of world Jewry are citizens of these political entities, which gives their governments more than a geo-strategic interest in settling the Arab-Israeli dispute. These governments, particularly when encouraged by their respective Jewish communities, can convince Israeli leaders to transform the nation-state, a dangerously outmoded political instrument, into a confederation and to ensure the safety of all its inhabitants. They can also make it clear to the Palestinians that such a confederation, rather than a quilt-like nation-state criss-crossed by Israeli highways, is in their best long-term interest. The challenge of making this conceptual shift is substantial. But it can and should be met once the parties to the century-old conflict have realised that it represents the best long-term prospect for peace.

P.S. As I was editing this article, another suicide bomber blew up himself and dozens of others in a crowded restaurant in Jerusalem. How much more violence will be needed to move away from the deadly obsession with the nation-state?

* Yakov M Rabkin is a Professor of History at the University of Montreal;  this article uses some ideas from a longer piece that appeared in Hebrew in Akdamoth, a journal of Jewish thought published in Jerusalem.

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Is the Jewish State Good for the Jews?