Chemi Shalev hits it right on the head in this piece in Haaretz, in which he writes, “The name Israel differentiates between the sovereign Jewish people in its homeland, called by the name of Israel, and the Jewish people in the world, in all the generations and in all the land, who are called the “Jewish people” or the “people of Israel.” That’s what David Ben-Gurion wrote to Brandeis historian and philosopher Simon Rawidowicz in 1954.” In “modern Israel” not so long ago, before the big Russian aliyah and the Second Intifadah (?), it used to be that most Israeli Jews thought themselves to be Israeli first, Jewish second. In contrast, “contemporary Israel” is turning into a nasty little Jewish identity state formed into an ideological lockstep.
Modern Israel makes more sense, more rational and pragmatic, in that it’s hard to see how “Israel” and “Jewish” could constitute a strict identity. The relation between the two forms or figures would be better understood in terms of the overlap of a Venn Diagram since, after all, not all Jews are Israelis and not all Israelis are Jews. Can we leave it at that? Israel is often referred to, particularly in the press, including the Arab press, as “the Jewish State.” And there’s nothing wrong with that in terms of a shorthand. But perhaps this phrase is less descriptive than it is “nominal,” i.e. Israel as a Jewish State in name only.
Now what’s in a name is always determined and re-negotiated, according to the need to the hour. As is the way with words, however, the more you repeat and insist upon “Jewish State, Jewish State” the more surreal it sounds, the less real it “is.” If the Jewish rightwing in Israel and the U.S. genuinely wanted to secure and sustain Jewish cultural “hegemony” in Israel they would repeat the phrase less often, not more. As per Gramsci, hegemony tends to operate when it’s least noticed and named, when the figure blends across the operations internal to its own system and out into its environment.