Israel at 60: Jewish State or State of the Jews?

Strong religious and secular themes of Zionism spotlighted

Is Israel at age 60 a state of the Jews, a people united by shared historical traditions and experience, or is it a Jewish state, whose essence is integrally related to religious faith?

The issue was explored at a Brandeis University Spotlight Forum held at Boston’s Old State House on June 17.

``The assumptions are terribly important,’’ said Ilan Troen, founding director of the university’s Schusterman Center for Israel Studies. ``When you take a look at Israel’s Declaration of Independence, Jehovah, God, is not mentioned, just something called the Rock of Israel.

``This is one of the oldest debates in Judaism: What kind of state are we going to create?’’ Troen said. ``It’s quite like the Seder, isn’t it? At some point each and every year we ask the same questions, don’t we? And we get some of the same answers, don’t we. And we feel compelled to keep asking the questions.’’

The relationship of religion and ethnicity to national identity is debated n many places, not just Israel, he said, but the issue has particular force in discussions of Israel, Troen said.  Some even argue that if Israel is either an ethnic state or a religious state, it cannot be democratic, and therefore should not exist, he said.

In the main, Zionism has oscillated between more-religious and more-secular poles, Troen said, noting that ``throughout the history of Zionism there has been a strong religious base. Religion is inherent to the Zionist movement. It is almost impossible to imagine Zionism without it.

Troen pointed out that most Zionists in the generation that preceded Theodore Herzl were rabbis, but many founders of the state of Israel were in rebellion against the religious tradition because, they felt, if God was omnipresent in the lives of the Jews, how was Jewish suffering to be accounted for.

The founders, Troen said, were people who said ``we can’t wait for God for salvation, we can’t wait for the end of history, we must take our fate in our own hands.’’

``It was a secular humanist revolution that understood that this would be a state for the Jews, a refuge,’’ Troen said. ``But it also understood that this would be a Jewish state, a state where the language would be Hebrew, a state that would draw on the traditions that had been formed over the centuries.’’

Asher Susser, a senior fellow at Brandeis’ Crown Center for Middle East Studies and former longtime director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, said he sees Israel as the state of the Jews rather than a Jewish state.

But, said Susser, a specialist in Arab affairs who for the last year has sat on Brandeis’ Robert and Myra Kraft chair in Arab politics, from the perspective of the great majority of Arabs ``it doesn’t really matter’’ whether Israel is considered the state of the Jews or a Jewish state. Either identity ``is equally unacceptable.’’

To Muslims, ``Jews are not imaginable as a people,’’ Susser said. ``Judaism is a religion, a tolerated religion.’’ As a tolerated religion under Islam, Jews fared far better than in Christian lands, he said, ``but Jews as a people with self-determination? Unimaginable!’’

Further, he said ``Israel is a state in which Muslims have become the tolerated minority…. This is an upsetting of the cosmic order.’’

Returning to the Israeli identity theme, Susser criticized Arab intellectuals who are calling for Israel to change in fundamental ways so that they can feel it is ``a state of all its citizens.’’ This, he said, ``is a euphemism for the destruction of Israel as the state of the Jewish people.’’

``One of these Arab intellectuals said Israel should be as Jewish as Sweden is Christian,’’ Susser said. ``That is a complete rejection of my national identity… Israel is as Jewish as Sweden is Swedish. Our Jewishness is parallel to Swedishness, not to Sweden’s Christianity.’’

Rachel L. Fish, a doctoral candidate in Israel studies, addressed American Jewish perspectives on the question of Israel’s identity.

Modern Orthodox Jews have long considered Israel the spiritual center of the Jewish people, she said, and Conservatives consider the state a central pillar of Jewish identity.

Reform Jews, the largest denomination of American Jews, initially distanced themselves from Israel as a religious or spiritual center, asserting that they no longer considered themselves a nation, but a religious community.

This changed markedly in 1937, when Reform leaders supported Israel’s becoming both a refuge for the oppressed and a center of spiritual life for Jews, she said, and by the late 20th century the Reform movement was encouraging aliyah.

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