Israel: A Jewish Nation-State?

Belonging to a Nation is not exactly a voluntary decision; instead, one is born into it

By abraham Weizfeld | 2014-10-01 12:00:00

Is Israel a “Jewish Nation-State”? Should it be? These questions are more controversial than one might naively suppose, and it is necessary to understand the implications of that term, with which Zionist Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described his country while addressing the UN General Assembly.

Zionism is the nationalist movement that promotes Israel as “the Jewish Nation-State”—the homeland of all Jewish people. A “Nation” or a “People” is defined as “a large group of people united by common descent, history, culture or language.” A “Nation-State” is “a sovereign state whose citizens or subjects are relatively homogeneous in factors such as language or common descent.” Thus, a “Jewish Nation-State” would be one whose citizens are Jewish. Netanyahu’s characterization of Israel as such is inaccurate, since more than twenty percent of its citizens are not Jewish but Palestinian Arabs, Druze, or Bedouins. Indeed, even Jewish Israelis are not homogeneous but varied, comprising people from North Africa, the Middle East, and even India, as well as the Jewish Ashkenazim from Europe.

This Zionist Nation-State concept also mis-characterizes the majority of the Jewish People, for they do not in fact live in the State of Israel, are not its citizens, and therefore are not Zionists in practice. The claim to have formed a “Jewish Nation-State” is actually a declaration by that State to have sovereign authority over the whole Jewish People. Indeed, the Zionist parties in the Jewish communities of Western countries try to actualize this, as when, for example, the Canadian Jewish Congress was dissolved to form a single organization named the Centre for Jewish and Israel Affairs.

Few other states claim to be “Nation-States” nowadays. Instead of prizing homogeneous populations, it is considered better today for a state to boast of its multicultural diversity and its commitment to equality of rights for its citizens. However, the “Nation-State” concept was admired for a long time as a political ideal. Indeed, when it was invented during the European Reformation, it was a progressive solution to a serious conflict. Wars of religion had raged for decades, as Protestants sought national independence for particular territories from the Holy Roman Empire. Finally, in 1648 the “Treaties of Westphalia” were achieved, creating a basis for national self-determination. Henceforth each territory would be sovereign and its ruler would decide its official religion. Political interference in the affairs of a different sovereign territory was prohibited. These treaties established the rule that states were to be entities within clear geographical borders, each with a population that should preferably be religiously homogeneous—a principle that grew into the “Nation-State” notion that each People should have its own state. But belonging to a Nation is not exactly a voluntary decision; instead, one is born into it.

The Nation-State notion would become idealized by the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, though he denied that the German provinces, when unified, should be considered the German Nation-State, since only Prussia was “racially pure” enough to be considered a Nation. Thus the Nation-State reflects a racialist concept in which each Nation or People should exclusively inhabit its own distinct State. This exclusivist doctrine was accepted by many liberals in the belief that it was somehow conducive to democratization by giving “self-determination” to each Nation. (Even Woodrow Wilson promoted the fragmentation of Europe after World War I in the belief that this would liberate various suppressed Nations.) But the doctrine also has xenophobic and racist implications. Its exclusivism has resulted in many wars for control of territory, and has had grievous consequences for national minorities. In Europe they were either ghettoized or initially forced to assimilate and then subsequently expelled, as in the Holocaust of the Jewish and Roma Peoples.

In such a situation, the minorities diverged into two different responses. One was the struggle for integration by acquiring civil rights—both individual and collective rights. It became apparent that an individual’s civil rights were dependent upon collective national rights, for the state might otherwise confine each person, both by legal norms and the prevailing majority opinion, to urban ghettos, admission quotas, and even territorial limits such as in Tsarist Russia’s “Pale of Settlement.”

Alternatively, there was a second political tendency for a given national minority—to attempt to replicate the prevailing Nation-State model by acquiring its own separatist entity. In the case of the Jewish People, this approach became codified as the theory of Zionism. While Europe was influenced by Hegel’s theory of history, it was generally assumed that humankind was progressing through higher and higher stages of development, of which the Nation-State was the most advanced system. Thus it seemed inevitable and historically justified for the Jewish communities to seek a Nation-State of their own. This Zionist Nation-State project was meant to replicate the European pattern. Lacking a Fatherland of their own, the Zionists would operate as a colonial project, and so they sought sponsorship among the prevailing powers.

National-Cultural Autonomy

Yet the first option—integration based upon collective rights—also had a large following, specifically as the Jewish Bund civil rights movement, which proposed a social constitution based on “National-Cultural Autonomy.” This proposal for the recognition of collective rights in terms of language, education, and culture-religion was well received by the Jewish communities but rejected by the prevailing theocratic Christian states and subsequently by even the Russian Marxist revolutionary state.

The liberals promoted an appealing approach: being assimilated into a liberal democratic civil society. Unfortunately, this required Jewish people to conform to the cultural norms of the Nation-State where they lived. These states pursued varying policies, including Russia’s Russification program, France’s Napoleonic civil code, Spain’s Catholic conversion demand, and Germany’s modernist assimilation. Such policies seem always to end badly—as in Stalinist anti-Semitism, the Dreyfus Affair, the 1492 expulsion from Catholic Spain, or Nazi extermination. Likewise, the subordination of the Jewish minority in Muslim theocracies as a “Millet” made Jewish people into a target during the reaction to the expulsion of the Palestinians. The historic lessons of such events are not forgotten.

In Europe the Jewish Bundist option was suppressed—first by the Marxist parties in 1903, when the Bundists were expelled from the Russian Social Democratic Party, and subsequently when the Nazis nearly exterminated them, leaving the Zionist parties in a controlling position within Jewish political culture.

When Israel was founded, it was not clear whether it was to be the kind of country that the Zionists wanted. In 1948 President Harry S. Truman did not endorse the “Nation-State” character of Israel in his letter of recognition. The words “Jewish State” were crossed out and replaced by the words “State of Israel,” as noted by John Judis2 and shown in the figure below.1

Truman … sent a State Department official Henry Grady to Britain to devise with British representative Herbert Morrison a specific plan for Palestine’s future. Truman conferred regularly with Grady and in late July approved what was called the “Morrison-Grady Plan.” It would establish a federated Palestine with autonomous Jewish and Arab regions. The British, or whoever the United Nations appointed, would retain control of Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and the Negev until the Arabs and Jews, who would enjoy equal representation in a national legislature, were ready to rule all of Palestine without going to war with each other. Truman and State Department were eager to publicly endorse the plan, but Silver and the Zionist lobby mounted a furious campaign against the proposal.

It may thus be considered illegal for the United States’ administration to accede to the Zionist government’s demand to be recognized as the “Jewish Nation-State,” even though it has become common parlance for Secretary of State John Kerry (during the negotiations of 2013) as well as of President Obama.

This concept is ingrained in Zionist theory, though it is legally codified by neither the governments of Israel nor the USA. It contradicts the social composition of the Israeli citizenry itself, and requires something that is absent: a standard criterion for Jewish identity. The liberal democratic notion of inclusiveness of all the citizens as being equal is incompatible with the notion of the Nation-State. Israel is not a liberal democracy, as it claims to be, especially in that the Palestinian refugees’ legal right to return is not implemented. The immensity of the dispersed Palestinian refugee masses is a burden for the countries providing camps for them, which include Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq, as well as minorities in Egypt, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. In the three principal countries of the Levant there are 7.2 million refugees whose great numbers destabilize those states and who lack the rights of full citizenship. The State of Israel’s rejection of the Palestinian Right of Return is an impasse arising from the nature of the Nation-State, with its principles of sovereignty and separatism.

Yet Israel is treated as if its political character were that of a normal modern state, like all the other remnants of the British Empire. Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper, addressing Israel’s Knesset, brazenly offered support for such a “Jewish Nation-State.” While speaking of Israel as the “Jewish Nation-State,” Harper conveys a parallel image of Canada as an English Christian Nation-State. (Though acknowledging that mistakes were made during World War II, Harper did not mention the Jewish refugee ship MS St. Louis, which Canada refused entry and sent back to Europe.)

Identifying the Zionist state with Jewish political culture has a tragic consequence; it encourages people (both internationally and in Israel) to associate the de-humanization of the Palestinians with the Jewish People itself. Also, populist Anti-Semitism reinforces the Zionist doctrine that the Jewish People’s isolation in their own Nation-State is necessary for their existence and security. Fortunately, a Jewish opposition to this notion is arising today, breaking down the Zionist hegemony of international political thought and offering an alternative to the monopoly of power in Israel-Palestine.


Until recently, the only model that was generally imagined as a future for Israel/Palestine was the “two-state solution”—the creation of two sovereign Nation-States—one for Jewish people and the other for the Palestinians. Since the latest conflict in Gaza, this prospect is dimmer than ever, yet the only alternative to it that is usually mentioned is “one-state”—a single country in which both Peoples are represented in the normal modern way, with “one person, one vote.” In a democracy where political preferences differ sharply between the two Nations, the one-state model is problematic for both groups: The larger group will always win elections and the smaller one will always lose. In a one-state Israel-Palestine the Palestinian voters would soon find themselves in the majority, though Zionists want, above all, for Jewish-Israelis to retain permanent control. Is there, then, a third possibility—one without the shortcomings of either the one-state or the two-state solution?

Yes, the Jewish Bund’s solution: a federation of autonomous Peoples. Ordinarily, of course, a federal system is based on separate provinces or territorial units that have a degree of political autonomy. But federations can comprise units whose citizens do not cluster together in specific districts. When addressing certain issues, all the Jewish residents in a federated Israel-Palestine might constitute a political entity and all the Palestinians might constitute another, regardless of where they live.

There are historic precedents for such a system. Various Nations always co-habited in ancient lands. Today, each Nation has a civil society—a plethora of non-governmental organizations, clubs, unions, schools, cultural, religious, health, and service organizations—that can function compatibly within the formal structures of government, if they are each recognized as representatives of their People. This possibility calls for a rejection of the obsolete Nation-State approach and a renewed consideration of the Bundist proposal for a “Federation of Peoples.”

Such a Federation would avoid many difficulties, such as population displacement. Since the ethnic groups co-habiting in the land of Palestine-Israel—originally Kana’an—are geographically intermixed, to carry out the “Separation Principle” advocated by the founders of Zionism such as Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky would require wholesale ethnic expulsion and segregation. Such a strategy has been condemned by most of the world’s Peoples and States. This was apparent in the warm response to the President Mahmoud Abbas’s speech to the General Assembly on September 23, 2011 (followed in 2012 by Palestine’s recognition in the General Assembly).

Israel’s military power cannot stop the rapid population growth in Palestinian lands and camps. Because of its continued expansion, the state that is known as Israel now covers in effect the entire territory of Palestine. It could be divided only with great pain and only for the immediate relief of the Palestinian population living in the territories. But federation remains possible, for social integration also remains possible. Indeed, it is a reality in some Israeli cities such as Yaffa and Accre, where the Palestinian and Jewish populations are equal.

A federation of Israel-Palestine would provide national autonomy to both Peoples. Each Nation would be largely self-governing, with its own legislature, judicial codes, policing security, educational systems, and religious institutions. Property and civil disputes could then be settled by tripartite commissions. Overall security would be maintained by a joint security force able to intervene instead of either national police force.


The Palestine Authority’s formulas of a “democratic secular Palestine” or of an “Arab Palestine” are of limited value as an alternative to the notion of the “Nation-State.” Such formulas offer only a liberal version of the existing Zionist Nation-State. To redesign actual social structures in Palestine-Israel, one must revive the “Principle of Federation” whereby the national character of each Nation is preserved, but not to the detriment of the other. If an ordinary liberal democratic system were adopted, the majority rule criterion would destroy any such mutual confidence, since it would result in the domination of one or another Nation, since holding a majority of votes confers advantages. It is far better to reconstitute Israel-Palestine as a federation of two Peoples who share the same territory. Then the return of the refugees would not be a threat to the autonomous majority of the Jewish Israeli population. Likewise, international social organizations within a given Nation would be represented proportionally as well.

A federation in a common land of Palestine-Israel could be negotiated by a Constitutional Assembly, reflecting consensual direct democracy. The delegations could be representatives chosen proportionally from the civil society institutions of both national cultures. After all, it is civil society that exists above and beyond the State. The Palestinian Nation has existed without a state and the state that exists has lost its legitimacy and credibility before the world, according to international law. However, civil society is more durable, and civil society would elect representatives as members of the Constitutional Assembly, which would also establish the permanent upper house of both Nations’ political apparatus.

Still, in Israel-Palestine the populations are not entirely mixed and there are some culturally homogeneous local clusters too. There may be a need for some political decisions to be made for specific localities. The constitution should therefore set up such political entities as municipalities and their surrounding agricultural areas. These political bodies can be elected by territorial constituencies, in addition to the national collective institutions of civil society that transcend territory. Where one or another Nation is predominant in a given municipal context, there could be a degree of territorial autonomy as well. The guiding principle of “National-Cultural-Territorial Autonomy” would ensure the cultural tools required for group survival, without infringing on the rights of the other nations that co-exist in the unified society. Within a Federation, it becomes possible to reconcile both the one-state and the two-state conceptions.

Various such suggestions have continued to emerge throughout the past seven decades from a variety of surprising sources, including Arabic political analysts, the anarchist Israeli Left, and even the US State Department. Now, perhaps, it’s an idea whose time has come.

Abraham Weizfeld’s thinking on this subject, Nation, Society and the State : the reconciliation of Palestinian and Jewish Nationhood, is available as a PDF or ebook download:


1 (accessed : 2014-01-29)

2 ‘Seeds of Doubt: Harry Truman’s concerns about Israel and Palestine were prescient—and forgotten’, by John B. Judis, New Republic, January 15, 2014.

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2014

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