The Nation of Israel?

The famous phrase that serves as the title of this book has long been a touchstone of debates about the purpose of Zionism and the character of the State of Israel. For some Zionists, the transformation of the scattered and oppressed Jewish people into “a nation like all the nations” has represented the epitome of their aspirations. For others, these words have denoted a debased and impoverished version of the Zionist ideal, one that falls far short of the goal of being a “light unto the nations,” let alone the first stage of our redemption. The author of this book, the Israeli social scientist Moshe Berent, belongs to the former group. He wants above all to see the State of Israel catch up to the Western states on which it ought to be modeling itself. In order to do so, he believes, it will have to abandon its self-declared but unfortunately self-contradictory aim of being a “Jewish and democratic” state. Indeed, it will have to cease to be a Jewish state altogether and become an “Israeli republic.”

To people who keep a close watch on Israeli political discourse, none of this may sound very new. Readers with long memories may wonder if Berent’s work marks a return of the notorious “Canaanism” of the 1950s. To others, Berent may sound like nothing more than a run-of-the-mill post-Zionist who has figured out a new way to package the familiar idea of a single “state of all its citizens.” But Berent does not fall so easily into either of these categories. If one had to pigeonhole the man, it would be most accurate to identify him as someone who has followed in the footsteps of his teacher, Joseph Agassi.

A philosopher married to the granddaughter of Martin Buber, Agassi took his bearings in Israeli politics from Hillel Kook, a.k.a. Peter Bergson, who was himself the less than orthodox nephew of the celebrated Abraham Isaac Kook. Best remembered in the United States as the leader of the “Bergson Boys,” who during World War II loudly and unsuccessfully demanded more vigorous action on behalf of Hitler’s victims, Kook was someone who also, in Agassi’s words, “demanded all his life that we establish an Israeli republic that will be a normal nation-state in the Western liberal democratic pattern.”

In the preface to his new book, Berent lauds Hillel Kook as “the last link” in the chain of political Zionists that stretches back to Theodor Herzl. He credits Agassi with having supplied the philosophical argumentation that enabled him to “see that nationalism is not only compatible with liberal principles, but can serve as a most important instrument for the solution of political problems in general and the problems of Israel in particular.” He also takes a bow in the direction of Ernest Gellner, whom he describes as having taught that “nationalism is a necessary precondition for the establishment of liberal democracy.” Berent describes himself as an Israeli patriot, and applauds Zionism’s great success in creating an Israeli nation. He only regrets that this victory has not been accompanied by the formation of a truly Israeli—and not merely Jewish—state and national identity.

Aware that this kind of language could lead to him being mistaken for one of the “Canaanites,” Berent makes a special point of parting company with them. He acknowledges that his thinking resembles theirs insofar as it concentrates on the Hebrew culture of modern Israel, not Judaism or Jewish identity, as the force that ought to bind together all the citizens of the State of Israel. Unlike the Canaanites, however, he refuses to spurn the Jewish past in favor of some deeper and more ancient Middle Eastern cultural identity, and unabashedly recognizes that Israel is the product of the “historical Jewish people.” While he admits to being, in a certain sense, a “post-Zionist,” he strongly criticizes most post-Zionists for advocating the creation of a state that would assume an entirely “neutral” or “universalist” cultural stance devoid of all particularistic elements. This historically unprecedented notion of a “non-national state” leaves no room, Berent complains, for Israelis to exercise their democratic right to cultural self-determination.

So far, Berent might sound like a typical liberal Zionist. But it is important to observe that it is not the Jewish people’s right to self-determination that he upholds, but the Israeli people’s. While Jews constitute by far the largest component of the population of the State of Israel, this does not entitle them, as far as Berent is concerned, to have a Jewish state. In a normal nation-state, there must be a complete match between the demos (body of citizens) and the nation. Israel must therefore be an Israeli state, one whose citizenship is open to all without any distinction being made on the basis of ethnic origin or religion. The people who make up this demos, and only these people, ought to be considered members of the “Israeli nation.” Jews who are citizens of other states are members of their own civic nations and do not belong to the Israeli nation. By defining itself, as it now does, as the state of the Jewish people, Israel positions itself improperly with regard to foreign Jews at the same time that it discriminates against its non-Jewish citizens, and even against its non-religious Jewish citizens. But if Israel were to redefine itself as the state of the Israeli nation, it would have every right to utilize governmental means to fortify the state’s primarily Hebrew culture, a culture largely derived from—but by no means identical with—Jewish culture.

Such a transformation of Israel would bring with it, according to Berent, many theoretical and practical advantages. For one thing, it would allow Israel’s Arab minority to integrate itself fully for the first time into the Israeli nation-state, in which it could be included while holding onto its separate cultural identity. Not only would this be good in itself but it would also contribute greatly to the restoration of Israel’s legitimacy in the eyes of its critics around the world. The redefinition of Israel would also contribute significantly to the improvement of relations between Israeli Jews and Jews living in other countries, Jews who feel deeply and primarily connected to the non-Jewish nations of which they form a part but who nevertheless wish to maintain a special bond with Israel. It would likewise diminish the constant pressure placed on diaspora Jews to immigrate to Israel, especially those who regard themselves as Zionists.

The price that the Jews of Israel will have to pay in order to obtain these advantages is not, in Berent’s eyes, a particularly high one. The secular Jewish national identity that they will need to abandon is not an age-old possession but a modern contrivance, the product of late 19th-century circumstances and dilemmas. As such, it was perfectly legitimate in its time. Berent does not, like Shlomo Sand and other post- and anti-Zionists, probe the roots of modern Jewish nationalism in order to discredit it. But he does regard it as obsolete and utterly disposable, an obstacle to progress in Israel. “It is important to remember,” he writes, “that national identities are not primary and are susceptible to change by constitutional means.” When Israel’s Jews “come to decide about their national identity, one has to persuade them to modify this identity and to revamp it in the way that such things are done in Western countries, to make it capable of encompassing within it non-Jews as well, and to show them that the need for a broad and inclusive national self-definition is an Israeli national interest of the highest order.”

This metamorphosis will not be as hard as it might sound. Indeed, Berent argues, it is to some degree already underway. He sees abundant signs, for instance, that even in an era when the old ideology of the “melting pot” has largely given way to a more multicultural outlook, “Israelification” remains a potent force, even among the country’s Arabs. “Here there is the interesting phenomenon of a community,” writes Berent, “that is not officially counted as part of the nation, i.e. that does not belong to the political nation, but more and more is identified and identifies itself with the sociological nation.” What is necessary, Berent argues, is that this process be brought to the level of consciousness and completed through the adoption of a new concept of the political nation.

Berent has presented a well researched and elaborately argued case for radical change in the State of Israel. It is one that is not altogether far-fetched. That some “Israelification” of the country’s Arabs is really taking place is indisputable, and it is not an unwelcome development. Whatever Berent says about the absence in Israel of any conception of a political entity that includes all of the state’s citizens, such an idea is very much present in Israeli life and discourse. It finds abundant expression in law, in administrative measures, and in Supreme Court decisions. I would not say that the state of affairs is entirely satisfactory. But there is a vast distance between deviations from an accepted ideal of civic equality and a situation in which such an ideal is unknown. What actually exists in Israel is a very delicate balance between integration and collaboration among Jews and Arabs, which creates both a common “Israelification” of the members of the two peoples and strongly defined areas of national and cultural separation.

This is the way that most Israeli Jews want things to be. Whatever aspirations some of the original Zionists may have had to distill a new Hebrew nation from the Jewish people, most Israeli Jews today believe that their state exists in order to create a framework in which it will be possible to live a full Jewish—not Israeli—life. A Jewish state provides the best possible arena, if not necessarily the only arena, for such a life, however one might choose to live it, and it is something that Israel’s Jews will not surrender willingly. As long as they constitute the large majority of the country’s population, and as long as they respect the individual and cultural rights of Israel’s minorities, they will have every right to refuse to do so.

For Israeli Arabs, too, Berent’s proposal may represent something less desirable than the status quo, with all its rough spots. With their transformation into categorically undifferentiated members of the Israeli nation, they would acquire not only all the rights but all the duties of other Israeli citizens. They would retain the right to preserve their separate Arab culture, but they would also have the duty to serve in the IDF and to be ready to fight against Israel’s Arab neighbors—or else, as Berent would have it, risk being deprived of citizenship. This prospect alone, it would seem to me, is enough to explain why Berent’s notion of an Israeli republic is one that will not win the support of the Israeli Arab leadership. Arab intellectuals may happily cite his statements with regard to the impossibility of Israel being both Jewish and democratic, but they won’t endorse his vision for the future.

Berent’s solicitude for the Jews of the diaspora is somewhat surprising. If he were consistent, it would seem, he would simply consign them to the foreign nations to which they now belong. But instead of disregarding them, he endeavors to liberate them from the dilemmas in which Jewish statehood supposedly places them. It doesn’t appear to me, however, that that is what they want either, at least not those who wish to remain Jewish. Based on what I know about the committed Jews of the diaspora, I would expect that if Israel were to disavow its identity as a Jewish state, they would be left more than anything with a feeling that they had been orphaned, or perhaps divorced, but at any rate abandoned.

Despairing of the possibility of preserving a state that is both Jewish and democratic, Moshe Berent has advocated that Israel shed its Jewish character in order to perfect its democracy. While it is entitled, he says, to remain the nation-state of a particular people, the people in question is not the one which created it but, rather, the one which the state itself has brought into being or, perhaps, has only begun to bring into being: the Israeli people. But what Berent proposes is not what today’s Israelis—Jews, Arabs, or otherwise—now want. His solution, as he himself readily acknowledges, is one that has already been put forth and rejected, and there is every reason to expect that it will meet with the same fate again. If this book is at all worthy of note, it is only to the extent that its sketch of the road that we cannot take sheds some light on the one that we must travel instead.


Suggested Reading