If the Guardian or New York Times published a long essay about some tiny, obscure indigenous tribe in Africa with a language, culture, and religious tradition unique in the region, whose history extends several thousand years and was threatened with extinction, readers would almost certainly lament their plight. Further, it certainly seems unlikely that many readers would challenge the tribe’s vigilance in protecting its ancient traditions, or its fierce desire to prevent the erosion of their unique religious-ethnic identity.
Though this blog has been dealing of late with the specific false charge legitimized by Times of London that the new ‘Jewish nation-state bill’ proposed by Israel’s government will render non-Jews “second class citizens”, the broader debate about Israel’s right to identify with a specific religious tradition is the subtext underlying many online debates about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.
Whilst it seems beyond debate that Arab-Israelis – whether or not the current bill passes the Knesset – will continue to enjoy the kind of democratic political rights that their ethnic brethren in the region could only dream of, the debate over Israel’s Jewish ethos is often clouded by the implicit suggestion that the rest of the world has moved away from such particularistic notions of statehood.
This is not true.
Even in the democratic West, for instance, nations maintain codified systems of preference for those claiming some historic, ethnic, or linguistic connection with the state. Many countries provide immigration privileges to individuals with ethnic or familial ties to these countries – an immigration preference system known as “jus sanguinis“, a ‘Right of Return‘ of sorts for people determined to share a preferred common trait.
Moreover, a third of the world’s 196 countries, according to the Pew Research Center, have national flags that include religious symbols.
Of the 64 countries in this category, according to Pew, nearly half have Christian symbols and about a third include Islamic symbols. Regarding nationalism and Islam, it should also be noted that no less than 57 countries self-identify as uniquely Muslim states.
Israel is of course the only country to self-identify as a Jewish state, the only one with a Jewish majority, and the only one with a Jewish symbol on its flag.
The existence of a sovereign Jewish polity – with the economic, military and diplomatic means to protect Jews at home and abroad – is no mere religious, abstract, or ideologically driven desire. Rather, it is a rational approach to ensuring the safety of a small, historically persecuted minority who can no longer risk relying on the good-will of enlightened nations to ensure its well-being, and indeed its very (individual and collective) survival.
Whilst the debate over how best to achieve the correct balance between Israel’s Jewish and democratic character is indeed legitimate, it needs reminding that Jews are not at all unique in seeking to maintain a majority citizenry united by a similar historical memory and a common political & moral destiny.