Saturday, October 30, 2010

"The" Jewish State versus "a" Jewish State

Israel's 1948
Declaration of

Allen Z. Hertz was senior advisor in the Privy Council Office serving Canada's Prime Minister and the federal cabinet. He formerly worked in Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs and earlier taught history and law at universities in New York, Montreal, Toronto and Hong Kong. He studied European history and languages at McGill University (B. A.) and then East European and Ottoman history at Columbia University (M. A., Ph.D.). He also has international law degrees from Cambridge University (LL.B.) and the University of Toronto (LL.M.).


This posting's references to the modern political and legal doctrines of aboriginal rights and the self-determination of Peoples build on ideas explained in my April 2009 Jerusalem Post article "Aboriginal Rights of the Jewish People." Also appearing separately on this website are versions of "Aboriginal Rights of the Jewish People" in Chinese (February 2013), English (October 2011), French (March 2012), and Italian (November 2009).


Where concepts are difficult, there must be exactitude in the use of language, which can also be employed as a weapon. For example, inaccurate reports about Israel diplomatically demanding recognition as “a” Jewish State are eagerly exploited by enemies, who feverishly search for anything that they think can be used to tar Israel and harm the Jewish People. This posting therefore seeks to correct some recent media references which wrongly attribute to Israel a diplomatic desire to be internationally recognized as "a" Jewish State, which many might misinterpret as a reference to the religion of Judaism.

Recognizing "a" Jewish State?

In Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's recent speeches and in some current exchanges with the Palestinian Authority, the Israel government does not seek international recognition of “a” Jewish State. Rather, the Israel government seeks Muslim and Arab recognition of the legitimacy and permanence of Israel as “the” Jewish State, i.e. as the political expression of the self-determination of the Jewish People in a part of its aboriginal homeland.

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
 demands that Israel be recognized as "the" Jewish State.

The Jews are a People

The more than six million Jews now living in Israel are over 40% of world Jewry and 75% of that country's population. Public-opinion polls consistently show that worldwide most Jews self-identify as part of the Jewish People. They see Israel as "the Jewish State." As in centuries past, Jews generally regard Israel as their aboriginal and spiritual homeland. Most Jews also see Israel as the political expression of their self-determination as a People among the world's Peoples.

Thus, Israel as “the” Jewish State is internationally not primarily about the religion of Judaism, but rather mostly about the modern political and legal doctrines of aboriginal rights and the self-determination of Peoples. This means that, in the diplomatic context, the adjective "Jewish" in the phrase "the Jewish State" largely refers not to the religion of Judaism, but mostly to the Jews as a People; just as there is a Japanese, an Italian and a Greek People.

For example, the phrase "a Jewish State" does not feature once in United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181 (1947) recommending the partition of what remained of Mandate Palestine after the 1946 treaty excising the Hashemite Kingdom of Transjordan. Significantly, the partition recommendation refers more than thirty times to "the Jewish State" which is juxtaposed to "the Arab State." This couplet powerfully supports the understanding that the adjective "Jewish" in the phrase "the Jewish State" internationally refers primarily to the Jewish People rather than to the religion of Judaism. Otherwise, the companion reference to the other part of Mandate Palestine would logically have been "the Muslim State" rather than "the Arab State."

The centrality of the notion of the Jewish People is also supported by the May 14, 1948 Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel. According to the English-language translation on the website of the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, this independence proclamation has more than a dozen references to the Jews as a People among the world's Peoples. By contrast, there are just two indirect references that perhaps point to the religion of Judaism.

Flag of Greece with cross for the Greek Orthodox faith
as the established religion of Greece.

The Jewish State also a Jewish State?

In addition to being “the” Jewish State internationally, at home Israel may also be more or less of “a” Jewish State, i.e. a country that chooses to domestically give the religion and values of Judaism a special role in the public space. And to be sure, a hotly debated topic among Jews, both in Israel and abroad, is whether Israel ought to follow the United States in a thoroughgoing observation of the domestic principle of the separation of Church and State.

The Greek Constitution establishes
the Eastern Orthodox Church of Christ
as "the prevailing religion" of Greece.

Does international law require secularism?

Internationally there is no legal norm that requires governments to be secular domestically, i.e. at home to observe something like the United States principle of the separation of Church and State. Nor internationally is there a moral or political consensus that there ought to be such a requirement of domestic secularism.

Not surprisingly, there are many countries like the Islamic Republic of Iran (جمهوری اسلامی ایران), Greece and the United Kingdom whose constitutions have a special place for the native religion. Accordingly, the extent to which Israel ought to be domestically more secular or more of "a" Jewish State is a matter of choice for Israel citizens who regularly argue all sides of the question, including with Jews in the United States and elsewhere in the Diaspora.

"Defender of the Faith" Queen Elizabeth II is
head of the Anglican Church.


Though the native religion has a special place in Israel, that country is hardly exceptional in this regard. Such special treatment for the religion of Judaism at home does not detract from Israel’s status as "the" Jewish State internationally, i.e. as the political expression of the self-determination of the Jewish People in a part of its aboriginal homeland. Accordingly, it remains important to carefully distinguish the meaning of "the" Jewish State from that of "a" Jewish State.

Both religious and political symbolism in Union Jack where
 Cross of Saint Andrew is counterchanged with
Cross of Saint Patrick, over all the Cross of Saint George.

Star of David on Israel's flag both a political and religious symbol.

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