what’s wrong with “The Nation-State” “of” “The Jewish People”

Jewish Nation-State

The precise language of the proposed Basic Law being debated in Israel does more than codify Israel as a “Jewish State.” The law’s purpose is to define Israel as “The Nation-State of the Jewish people.” It’s a peculiar and even tortured formulation. It is more exclusive a much more narrow in its framing than “Jewish State” or “Jewish and democratic.” Indeed, the actual phrase is a new one. At least it’s not one that I grew up with, and it’s not one I even recognize. The words indigenous to Israel’s Declaration of Independence are am (people), eretz (land), moledet (homeland), leumi (national), ha’medina ha’yehudit (Jewish State), and umah (people). The word leum (nation) does not appear, nor does the term nation-state (medinat le’um). The formula “nation state of the Jewish people” is a neologism.

What’s troubling about the proposed Basic Law is how “the nation state of the Jewish people” formula takes the more exacting and restricting genitive form. “Jewish” is no longer simply and solely a modifier used to describe the state according to the numerical majority of its citizenry. The Jewish people are now more than just “the Jewish people” bound up in relation to “its land” (artzo). The Jewish people are now formally posited as nothing less than a sovereign subject or entity whose possession the nation state Israel legally is.

It’s also incoherent. National indentiies are supposed to be tautological. Israel should be the nation state of the Israeli people, however constituted. Having said that, ethnic based nation states are tricky. To legislatively define Russia as the nation state of the Russian people or Turkey as the nation state of the Turkish people would exclude non-Russian or non-Turkish people of those two countries, which is what happens. Although we could add that (medieval) Rus is not the same as (modern) Russia.

The framers of the Declaration of Independence affirmed the bond between the Jewish people and the land of Israel as “historical,” “cultural,” and “traditional,” not legally or legislatively determined. Despite the fact that the Jews have historically carried the name “Israel,” the nominal distinction between “Jewish” and “Israeli” in modern times used to allow for creative tension between the country’s Jewish and democratic political components. The anti-democratic mischief begins here —with the attempt now and today to couple “Jewish” and “Israeli” in so tight a legislative formulation by means of a constitutional Basic Law in order to declare Israel as the exclusive nation state of a particular people, the Jewish people.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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