Arab lawmakers stand in protest during a Knesset session in Jerusalem on July 19, 2018. Israel's parliament approved controversial legislation on Thursday that defines the country as the nation-state of the Jewish people but which critics warn sidelines minorities. (AP Photo/Olivier Fitoussi)

Let's talk about the nation-state

A few days ago, I was speaking to a salesman at a clothing store, and I happened to mention that I had just returned from Israel.

“I would love to visit Israel,” he said. “But, I can’t. I’m not Jewish. Don’t you have to be Jewish to visit Israel?”

“Of course not!” I said. “Israel is not a club with restricted membership! Anyone can visit – and anyone can live there.”

He was grateful to get that news.

But, still, I wondered: where had he gotten such an idea?

Ah — it happened on the day that the Knesset passed the Nation State Law, which defined Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.

So, let’s talk.

What is a nation-state, anyway?

Let’s go to the dictionary definition, as quoted by Daniel Gordis: “a form of political organization under which a relatively homogeneous people inhabits a sovereign state ... a state containing one as opposed to several nationalities.” It is a country created around a shared cultural heritage.

So, you’re saying that a nation-state is a country that has a “default” nationality or ethnicity?

That’s right. Take France, for example. France is a country that enshrines the French nationality. Its official language is French. It tells a particular story about itself that is French. Its flag is French; its currency is French; its national anthem is French. That is true about almost every other country in Europe. (Yes, I am being Euro-centric here, because that is the history that I know the best.)

Can a nation-state contain more than one nationality?

Yes — except that one nationality shapes the identity of the country. Or, to use the current buzz word: one ethnic group dominates the narrative.

By the way, this is why many Americans — and American Jews — don't really understand Israel. The concept of a nation-state is foreign to them.

By the way, this is why many Europeans don't really like Israel. The concept of a nation-state is all too real to them. They didn't like it. During World War Two, in the hands of the Germans, it was lethal. Hence, the Euro. And, for pushback, Brexit.

So, is the United States of America a nation-state?        

No. Neither is Canada – with Quebec being the exception that proves the rule. True – America’s national holidays celebrate our common history. But, there is no one American ethnicity, and attempts to force that inevitably result in bigotry.

Is there anything inherently wrong with nation-states?

No, if it is done "right." The only challenge (only!) in a nation-state is this: how does that state treat and accommodate and include those who are Other to its national identity? And, how do those who are Other perceive themselves in relationship to the state?

Meaning what?

Take the Jews, for example.

A paragraph summary of modern Jewish history, starting in the nineteenth century.

  • Jews thought that they could be citizens of the emerging western and central European nation-states.
  • That worked for a while – if the Jews were willing to shed some of their particular identities and try to fit in.
  • Except, at a certain point, those nation-state identities became nasty and exclusive – and anti-Semitic. The Jews could never become “real” Frenchmen, for example — or Germans, or Englishmen. (As for eastern Europe, pervasive anti-Semitism made it both impossible, and unattractive, for Jews to want to become, say, Poles).
  • That leads to the Dreyfus trial in Paris.
  • And that leads Theodor Herzl to realize that there is no future for the Jews in Europe. Forty years later – the Shoah.

European history shows that the nation-state "thing" did not work for the Jews.

So, that’s where Zionism comes from?

Basically, yes – though not entirely. Zionism, in its political and cultural form, basically says: We need a state that is as ethnically and culturally Jewish as France is French.

Is there anything wrong with that?

Speaking as a Zionist – no. The only glitch becomes the way that Israel treats the Other, and how the Others perceive themselves within Israeli society.

Which is why you are angry about the demotion of Arabic as an official language of Israel?

Yes. Arabic is on most street signs in Israel. It is the language of a huge number of Israeli citizens – not to mention Palestinians in the territories. It is the default name of many neighborhoods in Jerusalem that were largely Arab before 1948.

What harm was there in having Arabic as an official language of the state?

Or, to be more precise: is it really worth the hurt, pain, and anger in saying that it is not an official language of the state?

So, how is Israel the nation-state of the Jewish people?

  • Israel functions according to the Jewish calendar.
  • On the recent fast day of Tisha B’Av, most restaurants were closed.
  • You’re not going to find bread in the Jewish areas of the state during Pesach.
  • Everything basically shuts down on Shabbat.
  • On Purim, people dress in costume on the streets.
  • The national anthem speaks of nefesh Yehudi – the Jewish soul. (And yes, I know that Israeli Arabs choke on those words?)
  • The boys’ clothing department in stores advertises jackets and suits that are appropriate for bar mitzvah.
  • Israeli rock music blasts forth Jewish poetry and other texts.
  • Jewish values -- ideally, and not always — inform public life in Israel.

So, what about a nation-state for the Palestinians?

Without going into the security issues, and ideally, the Palestinians “deserve” a state that will enshrine their national identity. In a perfect world, all peoples would have their own states that will allow them to celebrate their cultures – as long as those who are not part of the official story have the opportunity to find themselves in that story, and/or have their own stories honored.

So, those who want a Palestinian state …


You can’t love the idea of a Palestinian state and disdain the idea of a Jewish state.

Is there a word for that?

Yes. It’s called hypocrisy. But, we Jews are used to that.

The world is confused.

On the one hand, you have those, like the author Michael Chabon, or John Lennon in "Imagine," who want a world without national boundaries.

On the other hand, you have those who are so invested in their own identities that they want to exclude or harm everyone else.

And, on the third hand, you have those who believe in national-identities — but only some national identities. The Jews have as much right to a nation as, say, Tibet — and, say, the Palestinians.

But, I will say it again: you can proclaim your identity as loudly and as vociferously as you want.

Just watch how you do it. Watch your words.

And, keep your hands to yourself.