Secular Jews and the ‘Jewish State’

Ralph Seliger

American Jews remain, along with African Americans, the most left-leaning ethnic community in the country. While many support the State of Israel uncritically, some Jews express their concern for Israel’s welfare by joining organizations and activities that challenge certain policies and promote social change. 

While many support the State of Israel uncritically, there are Jews who express their concern for Israel's welfare by being involved in organizations and activities that challenge certain policies and promote social change.

Last November, The Other Israel Film Festival: Images of Arab Citizens of Israel” was inaugurated in a partnership with Manhattan’s Jewish Community Center and several other institutions. 

In January 2008, Meretz USA, a progressive Zionist group that I work with, along with the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace (Brit Tzedek v’Shalom), focused their annual Israel Symposium” on Israeli Arabs, who make up 20 percent of Israel’s population.

Another example of this trend of Jewish interest in Israel’s Arabs is the New Israel Fund (NIF), an American nonprofit that funds community organizing efforts and legal court challenges in areas such as environmental activism and the advancement of civil rights for Arab citizens of Israel, the physically disabled, women, gays and immigrant groups. 

In the fall of 2007, the NIF brought Israeli speakers to a series of forums around the United States to examine Israel’s ethnic, cultural and economic diversity. This was discussed in the context of a Jewish state” and how this concept resonates, if at all, with American Jews. Eliezer Yaari, the NIF’s executive director in Israel, stated a preference for describing Israel as a state of Jews” rather than the more ideological construct of the Jewish state.” 

For their part, Israeli Arabs increasingly identify themselves as Palestinian citizens of Israel.” Even as prominent an individual as Michael Mousa Karayanni, a professor of law and vice dean at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, speaking at the same NIF forum, indicated his sense of alienation as an Arab Israeli. Karayanni is one of the authors of a 2006 statement that demands Arab cultural autonomy, the elimination of the explicitly Jewish character of the national anthem and flag, and changing immigration policy to eliminate preferential treatment for Jews. 

This last point on immigration strikes at the heart of how and why most Jews feel invested in a Jewish state. Israel’s Law of Return, granting the right of entry and immediate citizenship to most people with at least a single Jewish grandparent (offering sanctuary to precisely those whom the Nazis persecuted as Jews), is a direct response to Jewish vulnerability during the centuries of degradation and oppression that culminated in the Holocaust. 

Most American Jews are uncomfortable with a theocratic state in the way that Iran and Saudi Arabia are Islamic, or that the Christian right envisions this country. The fact that the words Jew” and Jewish” refer both to a religious group and a historic people 3,000 years old causes confusion. 

Although half of American Jews have no religious affiliation, they are usually defined as followers of a faith rather than as a nationality or ethnicity (as they were regarded in the former Soviet Union). But Israel was founded in 1948 as a home for the Jews as a people, as well as all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex” – as stated in its declaration of independence.

Still, under Israel’s dysfunctional electoral system of proportional representation, which requires multi-party coalitions to obtain a parliamentary majority, religious parties exercise outsized power in such matters as marriage, divorce and conducting business on the Sabbath. (Under current rules, any minority interest that commands more than 2 percent of the vote may enter parliament with two seats.)

Progressive Israelis strive for a society that is Jewish” as a reflection of its majority cultural influences rather than by law. Even now, Israel has some bi-national and bi-cultural characteristics. Israel runs to the rhythms of both the Jewish and Muslim calendars. For example, its weekends are Fridays and Saturdays, the Muslim and Jewish Sabbaths. And although Hebrew is the preeminent tongue, Arabic is the second of Israel’s two official languages, and there is some Arabic programming on public television and radio. 

But Israel has a ways to go before all of its citizens feel equally at home. A significant number of progressive American Jews are open to learning more about this reality. Yet it is incumbent upon Israelis – Jews and Arabs alike – to negotiate a modus vivendi that satisfies all.

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Ralph Seliger specializes in writing about Israel and Jewish cultural and political issues. He was the final editor of Israel Horizons, the recently expired quarterly publication of Meretz USA, now known as Partners for Progressive Israel, for which he is blog co-administrator, and also blogs for Tikkun Daily.
Illustrated cover of Gaza issue. Illustration shows an illustrated representation of Gaza, sohwing crowded buildings surrounded by a wall on three sides. Above the buildings is the sun, with light shining down. Above the sun is a white bird. Text below the city says: All Eyes on Gaza
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