Israel as a Jewish Nation-State and Antisemitism

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

“Judaism cannot be separated from Israel. Zionism is, simply put, the manifestation of that belief,” stated a recent message from Jewish students at Columbia University.

Israel’s politics are closely intertwined with its religious beliefs. Since 2018, Israel legally considers itself a Jewish nation-state with no separation between religion and politics. That explains why Israelis consider any criticism of the state to be antisemitic. If Israel is being transformed into a quasi-theocracy, as Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai warned in a 2022 interview, then any criticism of the religious state would be considered antisemitic. (Already in 2015, Uri Misgav warned in Haaretz that Israel was “on the road to theocracy.”)

One of the fundamental premises of current protests against Israel’s actions in Gaza and the West Bank is the protesters’ claim that they are demonstrating against Israel’s political actions and not against Judaism. The protesters make a distinction between politics and religion. For them, including many Jewish protesters, it is a central distinction since it justifies political protests as separate from more contentious religious condemnation. Being against the Netanyahu regime, they say, is not being antisemitic.

Israel’s Jewish nation-state quasi-theocracy is today enshrined in law. In 2018, the Israeli Parliament passed a Basic law that legitimized Israel as a Jewish nation-state. (The Basic laws of Israel are considered constitutional laws since there is no formal constitution.) The 2018 Basic law was entitled Israel –The Nation State of the Jewish People. It was passed by the Parliament (Knesset) by a vote of 62-55 with two abstentions.

The first three principles of the Basic Law are:

1. The land of Israel is the historical homeland of the Jewish people, in which the State of Israel was established.

2. The State of Israel is the national home of the Jewish people, in which it fulfills its natural, cultural, religious, and historical right to self-determination.

3. The right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.

The law was not passed without controversy. Israeli Arab members of Parliament shouted “Apartheid” on the floor of the Knesset when the law was passed. The leader of a coalition of primarily Arab parties in opposition said that Israel had “passed a law of Jewish supremacy and told us that we will always be second-class citizens.”

Inside and outside Israel many thought the Basic law went against recognized Israeli laws guaranteeing democracy and liberty. Nevertheless, in 2021, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled 10-1 that the law was constitutional. (The lone dissenting judge was George Karra, the only Arab member of the court.)

Answering critics about how the 2018 law threatened democracy and liberty, then president of the Supreme Court Esther Hayut, wrote for the majority of the Court that “Basic Law is but one chapter in our constitution taking shape and it does not negate Israel’s character as a democratic state.” Those supporting the Court ruling further maintained that said the law “anchors the essence and character of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people.”

The notion of any nation-state, whether the nation is a religious or ethnic group, must be challenged. The hyphen between nation and state assumes that an ethnically or religiously homogeneous group is similar to the citizens of a given state. But there is no reason to accept that there exists a homogeneous group and that the dominant group and the state are the same. As the eminent British-Czech political philosopher Ernest Gellner quipped; “Every nation should have a state and every state should have a nation, and hopefully they are the same.” Hopefully the same is part of a liberal ideal, and that ideal is outside historical reality.

Former LSE Professor Fred Halliday explained the critical distinction between nation and state: “One distinction is that between the state, in [a]…sociological sense, and society…Society itself may well not be homogeneous, comprising as it does different social classes and interest groups…” He went on to say: “The term ‘nation-state,’ based as it is on an assumption of ethnic homogeneity and political representativity is, in empirical terms, inappropriate to the modern world.” Halliday maintained: “No European state (let alone an imitation European state elsewhere in the world) has ever come within measurable distance of being a ‘nation-state.’”

How then to reconcile the state of Israel and a Jewish homeland with the heterogeneous modern world? How to reconcile Israel as “the historical homeland of the Jewish people” with Arab Israelis? According to a 2023 Council of Foreign Relations study by Kali Robinson; “Arabs represent one-fifth of Israel’s population.” How do they fit into a homogeneous nation? According to Robinson, “Systemic discrimination, outbreaks of communal violence, and the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict continue to strain their ties with Israel’s Jewish majority.”

All of the above are the result of Israel’s claiming to be a democratic nation-state for the Jewish people when one/fifth of its population is not Jewish. The “systemic discrimination, outbreaks of communal violence” are inherent in Israel’s attempts to forge a homogeneous nation-state that by the very nature of its Basic law cannot be inclusive and democratic to all those living in Israel. The ideal of a Jewish nation-state does not correspond to the empirical reality of Israel’s population.

As Gellner implied and Halliday argued, any correspondence between nation and state assumes an improbable symmetry. It assumes that those not members of the dominant group will be faced with constant discrimination. That’s what the concept of nation-state implies, and that’s what the Israeli 2018 Basic law and Supreme Court decision confirmed.

Former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami questioned “whether Anti-Zionism might not be a synonym for anti-Semitism.” The answer is yes if one considers the 2018 Basic law and Supreme Court decision. By formally legalizing Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, Israel has made any criticism of Israeli politics antisemitic. The Columbia students’ message highlights how the 2018 Basic law’s collapse of the distinction between Israeli politics and Judaism can lead to criticisms of Israel’s political actions being interpreted as antisemitism.

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.