The Jews’ Right To Statehood: A Defense

By Ruth Gavison

A new look at Zionism from the perspective of universal rights.

I begin with the premise that peoples have a right to self-determination in their own land. Exercising this right, however, does not necessarily depend on establishing a sovereign state. Self-determination can be achieved, for example, by securing cultural autonomy within a multi-national political framework.5 Yet a nation state—a state whose institutions and official public culture are linked to a particular national group–offers special benefits to the people with whom the state is identified. At the same time, it puts those citizens who are not members of the preferred national community at a disadvantage. Whether it is just to give the advantage to one people at the expense of another is a question that cannot be answered a priori. Rather, we must take into account the competing interests of the different parties, as well as their relative size and the political alternatives available to each of them. The starting point for our justification of the Jewish state, then, is an examination of the advantages of such a state for the Jewish people—in Israel and elsewhere—as compared to the disadvantages it poses for other national groups within its borders.
While a vibrant Jewish state plays a variety of roles in the lives of Jews, we must not forget the circumstances that gave rise to the Zionist dream. It is well known that Zionism emerged as a response to two interrelated problems: The persecution of the Jews on the one hand, and their widespread assimilation on the other. Of the two, the concern for the security of the Jewish people predominated: For years, the Zionist movement claimed that only a Jewish state could ensure the safety of Jews around the world. Today, however, it is fair to ask whether this claim has really stood the test of time. After all, the Jewish people survived for two millennia without a state, often in the most difficult of conditions. In recent generations, particularly in Western countries, Jews have enjoyed an unprecedented level of security and freedom of cultural expression. Perhaps this recent success stems in part from the sense of belonging Jews feel toward Israel, and the knowledge that there exists in the world a country committed to their safety. It may also be a result of lessons the world learned from the destruction of European Jewry. But these alone do not seem to justify the claim that a Jewish state is somehow essential for Jewish survival. Even the clear rise in anti-Semitism throughout the diaspora over the last few years does not decide the issue. While some argue that this new trend is merely the emergence of previously suppressed anti-Semitic sentiments, we should not dismiss out of hand the claim that this renewed anti-Semitism is, at least in part, a response to Israel’s behavior in its ongoing conflict with the Palestinians. Moreover, Israel’s ability to protect its own Jewish citizens appears tragically limited–a fact made brutally clear by the murder of hundreds of Jewish civilians by Palestinian terrorists since September 2000. Nevertheless, there is one form of anti-Semitism that is inconceivable in a Jewish state: The state-sponsored, or state-endured, persecution of Jews. The trauma of systematic oppression that was the lot of every previous generation of Jews stops at the borders of the Jewish state.6
The problem of assimilation presents Israel with a different challenge. Israel offers the possibility of a richer Jewish life than could ever be found in the diaspora, and not merely because Israel is the only country with a Jewish majority. The public culture of the state is Jewish, the language of the country is Hebrew, national holidays commemorate Jewish religious festivals and historical events, and the national discourse is permeated with concern for the fate of the Jews. In addition, state lands, immigration, and the defense of the civilian population are all in the hands of a Jewish government. In just half a century, Israel has become home to the strongest Jewish community in the world–a role that is likely to become even more pronounced in the years  ahead, as assimilation and emigration gradually reduce the power and influence of Jewish communities in the diaspora.7
For observant Jews—even those who are opposed to Zionism—the advantages of a Jewish state are obvious. Certainly anyone who has practiced an observant lifestyle in both Israel and the diaspora knows how much easier it is in the Jewish state. In addition, Orthodox Jews in Israel fulfill the commandment of yishuv ha’aretz, of living in the land of Israel. While a Jewish state may not be absolutely necessary to fulfill this commandment, its absence might make it very difficult for Jews to remain here.8
A less obvious yet arguably greater advantage of a Jewish state is the cultural reinforcement it offers to secular Jews, whose Jewish identities are more fluid and generally lack the internal safeguards possessed by their Orthodox counterparts. For only in Israel, with its Jewish public culture, can Jewish identity be taken for granted as the default option, and the cultivation of any other identity require a special effort–the kind of effort all too familiar to diaspora Jews, who must struggle daily to maintain their links to Judaism.
In addition to offering Jews a safe haven from the forces of assimilation, a Jewish state offers the possibility of an exceptionally vibrant secular Jewish life. Since the rise of the Zionist movement, the Jewish people has witnessed the creation, in Hebrew, of countless new works of literature, poetry, and philosophy, whose wellsprings of inspiration are Jewish beliefs, customs, and history. This immense creative activity benefits Jews everywhere, for it offers wide new possibilities for a Jewish identity that is not dependent on halacha, or Jewish law.
For Jews in both Israel and the diaspora, then, the loss of the Jewish state would mean the loss of all these advantages. Without a Jewish state, the Jews would revert to the status of a cultural minority everywhere. And as we know from history, the return of the Jews to minority status would likely mean the constant fear of a resurgence of anti-Semitism, persecution, and even genocide—as well as the need to dedicate ever more resources to staving off assimilation. I do not feel that I am being overly dramatic, then, if I say that forgoing a state is, for the Jewish people, akin to national suicide.
The benefits of Israel for Jews are mirrored, at least in some respects, by the price it exacts from its Arab citizens. For in a Jewish state, Arab citizens lack the ability to control their own public domain. The national language and culture are not their own, and without control over immigration, their ability to increase their proportion in the overall population is limited. Furthermore, their personal and cultural security are dependent on the goodwill and competence of a regime they perceive as alien. All these are harder for Arabs to accept since they used to be a majority in the land, and have become a minority despite the fact that they remained on their land. The Jewish state is thus an enterprise in which the Arabs are not equal partners, in which their interests are placed below those of a different national group—most of whose members are newcomers to the land, and many of whom are not even living in the country. In addition, as we shall see, the establishment of Israel has had a major impact on the lot of Palestinians who are not its citizens. It follows, then, that the case for a Jewish state must weigh the advantages it brings to Jews against the burdens it imposes on its Arab citizens.
Balancing Jewish and Arab claims to self-determination in the land of Israel (or Palestine) is not a matter of abstract rights-talk. Rather, such claims must be addressed according to the demographic, societal, and political realities that prevail both in the Middle East and in other parts of the world. It thus follows that the degree to which a Jewish state in the land of Israel is justified does not remain constant, but instead varies over time and according to changing circumstances. Indeed, it is my contention that at the beginning of the twentieth century, when the Zionist movement was in its formative stages, the Jewish people did not have the right to establish a state in any part of Palestine. By the time statehood was declared in 1948, however, the existence of a thriving Jewish community with a political infrastructure justified the creation of a Jewish state. Today, Israel has not only the right to exist but also the right to promote and strengthen its Jewish character. Indeed, this dramatic shift in the validity of the Jewish claim to statehood is one of Zionism’s major achievements.

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