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Did Herzl Want A “Jewish” State?

By Yoram Hazony

Even after Herzl's deconstruction, the answer is still yes.



The centennial of Theodor Herzl’s 1897 founding of the Zionist Organization (ZO) met with hardly a tremor of public recognition in Israel,1 and in general it would be safe to say that Herzl’s works and ideas are of not much interest to contemporary Israeli intellectuals and culture-makers. Yet there is one point in the vast corpus of his writings that has become a recurring theme in public discourse: Leading Israeli intellectuals have, in the last fifteen years, been increasingly insistent that Herzl’s small book Der Judenstaat (1896)—traditionally known in English by the title The Jewish State—was not intended to inspire the establishment of anything like a “Jewish state.” Instead, it is claimed, Herzl has been misunderstood. What he really meant was to give his book the name The State of the Jews—a term intended to suggest a state with a Jewish majority, but which would otherwise not have any particularly “Jewish” characteristics.
Now, this issue would probably not be worth discussing were it not a subject of great ideological significance for many of those propagating this claim, and if their ranks did not include some of Israel’s most important legal scholars, academics, educators and civil rights activists—precisely those individuals with the inclination and ability to apply their reading of Herzl to the transformation of contemporary Israel’s national character. Consider, for example, the following assertions made by such prominent Israelis.
Former Education Minister and constitutional scholar Amnon Rubinstein, now Chairman of the Knesset Law and Constitution Committee:
Thus the Jews’ own state would... be, as Herzl entitled his famous booklet Der Judenstaat, a state of the Jews, hardly a Jewish state.2
Former Education Minister and civil rights leader Shulamit Aloni:
I do not accept the idea of a “Jewish state.” It is a “state of the Jews,” to be exact. Herzl wrote a book called The State of the Jews.3
Hebrew University historian and chairman of a key Education Ministry committee on history textbooks, Moshe Zimmermann:
In Israel... the Herzlian concept of a “state of the Jews” is developing in the direction of a blatantly ethnocentric “Jewish state”....4
The novelist Amos Oz:
Herzl’s book was called The State of the Jews and not The Jewish State: A state cannot be Jewish, any more than a chair or a bus can be Jewish....5
And this view has been repeated by a remarkable number of other leading intellectuals as well.

Obviously, arguments over nomenclature do not receive this kind of attention unless the semantic question is merely a stand-in for a much larger struggle over history and culture. And this case is no exception. For partisans of a “state of the Jews” are deliberately seeking to replace a term—”Jewish state” (Heb., medina yehudit)—which until recently was a matter of virtually wall-to-wall consensus, a synonym for the State of Israel. In fact, the expression “Jewish state” had been in common use by Zionists all over the world, including the Jews of Palestine, for decades prior to the establishment of Israel. And when Jewish independence was finally declared by David Ben-Gurion on May 14, 1948, the term “Jewish state” was so unequivocally associated with the Jews’ political aspirations that it was inserted no fewer than five times into the Israeli Declaration of Independence—which was signed by every Jewish political party in Palestine, from the Communists to the ultra-Orthodox Agudat Israel.6 (In fact, the Declaration explicitly attributed the term to “Theodor Herzl, progenitor of the vision of the Jewish state.”7)
Not only was the concept of Israel as a “Jewish state” a matter of consensus at the time of Israel’s establishment; this concept had by that time become part of a political tradition so authoritative that it commanded the support of the overwhelming majority of Jews everywhere for decades. Indeed, as late as 1988, even a political radical such as Yeshayahu Leibowitz—who may have agreed with Ben-Gurion on nothing else—could still define the term precisely as it had been used by the Israeli founders four decades earlier:
A Jewish state... [is one that] directs the best part of its resources to dealing with the problems of the Jewish people, within the state and in the diaspora: To its social, sectoral, educational and economic problems; to the relationship of the state with the Jewish diaspora; to the relationship of the state to Judaism; and so forth.8
That is, the Jewish state is a state that is intrinsically Jewish in that the purpose it serves is to direct the powers of the state to “dealing with the problems of the Jewish people.” In practice, this principle meant the promulgation of a vast array of particularistic “Jewish” laws and policies, including the Law of Return granting the right of free Jewish immigration to Israel; the State Education Law mandating the inculcation of “the values of Jewish culture” and “loyalty to the Jewish people”; the involvement of the Israeli armed forces and security services in rescue operations of non-Israeli Jews in foreign countries; the use of Israeli courts to try and punish Nazi war criminals for “crimes against the Jewish people”; laws mandating the state’s adoption of Jewish symbols, as well as the Jewish holidays and Sabbath; and many others. Of course, one could argue about the specifics of any of these particular “Jewish” policies. But virtually all Jews embraced the idea that Israel had been established as a “Jewish state,” not only in terms of its demographics, but also in its purpose, values, policies and institutions.
The present effort to propagate the new concept of a “state of the Jews”—and to read it back into Zionist history beginning with Herzl—therefore represents a conscious choice to break with the most central concept in the Israeli political tradition, and to replace it with something else. As the historian Mordechai Bar-On of Yad Yitzhak Ben-Tzvi has described this movement recently:
In the debate over the Jewishness of Israel... [many] prefer to refrain from calling Israel a “Jewish state.” They prefer to use the more neutral term “the state of the Jews.” This preference implies that... Israel is best described factually as a state in which Jews are a majority....9
As Bar-On explains, the term “Jewish state” is being rejected by leading Israeli intellectuals and public figures due to a growing ideological discomfort with the normative implications of a state that is “Jewish” in its essential purpose. The term “state of the Jews,” on the other hand, is descriptive, relating almost exclusively to the fact that Israel is “a state in which Jews are a majority.” Although adherents of the term do not all use it in precisely the same way, the common denominator among them is that they are opposed to, or uncertain about, the idea that the State of Israel should be principally concerned with the interests and aspirations of the Jewish people. They prefer to understand Israel’s purpose as being identical to that of “all other states”—namely, providing for the welfare of the individuals living within its borders. As Amos Oz puts it: “The state is a tool... and this tool has to belong to all its citizens—Jews, Moslems, Christians.... The concept of a ‘Jewish state’ is nothing other than a snare.”10
It is this contemporary dissent from the political concept of Israel as a “Jewish state” that is in large part driving the insistence that Theodor Herzl never wanted such a state—and that his Judenstaat was supposed to be a “state of the Jews.” For if Herzl, as the founder of the Zionist Organization, never intended to establish anything other than a “state of the Jews”—a neutral state that would contain a majority of Jews, but would in other respects be an essentially non-Jewish state—then today’s “state of the Jews” partisans can portray themselves as advocates of the real Zionist tradition on which Israel’s public life rests. In other words, the claim that Herzl might have opposed the idea of a Jewish state is becoming a weapon in the struggle against the explicit intention of David Ben-Gurion and the signers of the Declaration of Independence to establish Israel as a “Jewish state.”
Obviously, one cannot argue that the movement to uproot the traditional concept of Israel as the Jewish state is illegitimate. But there is little to be said for enlisting Herzl in this struggle. For much as today’s “state of the Jews” activists may wish it, Herzl was not one of them. He named his book The Jewish State because he believed that this term accurately described the state he sought to establish. In order to establish this claim, I will consider three questions. First, I will examine the semantic issue of whether Herzl did or did not intend the title of his book to be The Jewish State. Second, I will ask whether, in terms of political ideals, the state that Herzl proposed in his book was in a significant sense an intrinsically “Jewish” state. And third, since many who have jumped on the “state of the Jews” bandwagon have linked this term with Herzl’s supposed belief in a “separation” of Jewish religion from the state, I will inquire whether the author of The Jewish State did in fact embrace such a doctrine. Once these various aspects are taken into consideration, I believe it will be possible to conclude that the argument that Herzl’s Judenstaat was intended to be a neutral “state of the Jews” is without merit.


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