Is the idea of a Jewish State anachronistic, based on 19th century ideology, and incompatible with 21st century values?

Essay, 2006

16 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Is the idea of a Jewish State anachronistic, based on 19th century ideology, and incompatible with 21st century values?

When we look at the contemporary discussions inside and outside Israel, we see a tendency to question the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish State. This criticism comes from two different perspectives. On the one hand it is questioned if a Jewish State – defined by the law of Halakha in important personal matters like marriage and divorce and in several public affairs, such as no public transportations on Shabbat[1] - is contradicting individual rights, such as freedom of religion and women’s rights. On the other hand it is questioned if the idea of a Jewish State is compatible with the value of democracy, equal citizen rights for all citizens – including the Arab Israelis – and incompatible with human rights.[2]

This essay aims to prove that a Jewish State is an essential part of the world community in order to ensure human rights inside and outside of Israel and justified from the perspective of 21st century values.

In order to make this point, we have to examine three things: First: Are the values that led to the Zionist demand of a homeland for the Jewish people still values of the 21st century and is this demand still justified? Second: Does the Idea of a Jewish State contradict the values of the 21st century? Third: Does the reality of all civilians inside the Jewish and democratic State of Israel contradict the values of the 21st century?

In this essay we will first define the term “Jewish State”, as it was defined in the early ages of Zionism[3] by Herzl in his book “Der Judenstaat”[4] (1896) and the Basle Congress in 1897. We refer to Herzl because he is regarded as the founder of modern Jewish nationalism, as expressed in the Zionist idea, and as the father of modern Israel.[5]

The main idea of early Zionism was the necessity to build a national homeland for Jews, as they were a nation without a land and threatened by anti-Semitism, persecution and discrimination. Herzl understood after the Dreyfus trial that any struggle for integration could not ensure the life and security of Jews in non-Jewish countries as anti-Semitism will always be virulent. Herzl defined the Jewish problem already in the 19th century as a “world problem”.[6] The pogrom of Kishinev in 1903 was another proof for this assumption.[7] He understood that Jews need a national homeland in order to develop a free culture and lifestyle that is not determined by discriminations, like bans from special occupations; and that these discriminations enforce them to develop an unnatural lifestyle[8] which would destroy Jewish culture and contribute to anti-Semitism.[9]

The ordinary translation of the title of the book “Judenstaat” to “Jewish State” is a mistake. A more accurate rendering is “Jews’ State”. This non-religious translation, stressing the aspect of a homeland for the nation of Jews rather than a state operating according to Jewish laws, expresses the ideas of Herzl´s Zionism much more than the translation “Jewish State”.[10] The struggle of the Zionists was a secular-national struggle, opposed by most of the Orthodox.[11]The latter claimed that devoted Jews should await the coming of the Messiah to guide them to the holy land. Speeding up the process of restoration, as the Zionist proposed, was regarded as a sin.[12]

Since the Zionist idea was not a religious one but rather a secular that sought to find a compromise with the religious in order to include them in the building of Israel, we will not attribute our further reflection on the problems between Halakha law and individual rights, namely the problems of a split in the Israel society between secular and religious and the discriminations that Halakha law implements on women, secular Jews and non-Orthodox Jews. These problems are a matter of a contract within the Jewish society rather than related to the Question of the right of a Jewish State[13] - in a national meaning - to exist.

After the definition of “Jewish State” we have to define the values of the 21st century. We come from a western perspective and will, hence, define this term from a western understanding of values. Nevertheless we have to mention that the Arab world today is facing a revived Islamic fundamentalism and might set other standards than the West does. The Western values of the 21st century are according to most of the western scholars the values of Human Rights, democracy and civil rights[14]; as well as individual values of personal freedom and hedonism. These values emerged together with a change from a community- and duty-orientated society to a society of individualisation and Americanisation.[15]. The value-change, as described e.g. by Etzioni-Halevi, is furthermore reducing the will to give up personal freedom for the welfare of the community and accept state interference in the daily life.[16] These values include the right of a nation for self-determination and a homeland.

Re-visiting the right of a Jewish State to exist in the 21st century:

The Jewish nationalism emerged in the wave of nationalism and enlightenment in the 19th century but the existence of the Jewish nation preceded most other nations by thousands of years. According to Anthony Smith, nations existed long before the term nationalism emerged and he dates the emergence of the Jewish nation in the time of the second temple.[xvii]

While the so-called “imagined political communities”[xviii] are today in a process of disintegration, as we see in the case of Yugoslavia, Eastern Germany or the Soviet Union, Nations based on a common religion, culture, language, territory, myths and historical ties begin to emerge (Serbia, Croatia, Armenia, the “Kurdish question[xix]”, the “Tibetan question”[xx]).

Many scholars argue like Smith, who proves that the Jewish nation has all attributes that fit into the rise of the new kind of nations and is not an “imagined community”. Nations artificially cobbled together are incompatible with the values of the 21st century; nations based on common religion, history, culture and language are rising.

Furthermore the right of a nation, which is also a unique religion and race, to live in freedom and self-determination is in accordance and derived from the values of human rights, like the freedom of religious expression or the prohibition of racial discrimination; values of the 21st century. In the case of Tibet we see a tendency to support smaller nations in their struggle for national freedom and the right to express their culture, language and religion without restrictions. In the case of the Kurds we saw the dangers of a people without a state: When the Iraqi army was using chemical weapons against Kurds in 1987-1989, the Kurds had no army and the United Nations found no way to intervene.[xxi] In addition the Turkish government neglected for many years the existence of “Kurds”, prohibited the language and culture and insisted on defining them as “Mountain-Turks”. Similar processes are reported from other nations without a state, like Tibet[xxii], and led to a strong support of the struggle for national self-determination by human rights groups in the West.[xxiii]

All these examples prove that the existence of a Jewish nation does not contradict contemporary developments but is in accordance with the contemporary striving of smaller nations to gain self-determination and independence in order to be free from domination of a foreign nation. Israel was one of the nations in the Middle East, fighting in an anti-colonial struggle against the British domination in the 1940’s and has the right to maintain its self-determination just as other countries that freed themselves from colonization. The League of Nations Mandate and the United Nations in 1948[xxiv] re-affirmed the pre-existing right of the Jewish Nation for a state in its ancient homeland.[xxv] This agreement was answered by an attack of the Arab States in violation of the UN-decision. The right of existence of a Jewish State was already confirmed and is still valid, equal to the right of a Palestinian State to exist next to it.

The second issue we have to examine is the existence of anti-Semitism in other states, where Jews live as a minority. This anti-Semitism did, according to Herzl, not only endanger the life of the Jews but also forced them into an unnatural existence, determined by their special status and fears (“the close-fisted money-maker”, “the degenerated urban Jew”…).

A brief look at the contemporary developments in Europe, Russia and the USA proves that anti-Semitism does not only still exist, it is on the rise. After the Jews lost their status of victims during the 67-war they were an object of a new wave of anti-Semitism, often masqueraded as anti-Zionism, as Greenspan or Haury prove in their examinations of this new anti-Semitism[xxvi].

Eight Jews were injured in January 2006 in an attack of a Russian Neo-Nazi on a synagogue in Moscow, who called “Heil Hitler” when stabbing the visitors[xxvii]; a Belgian Jew, 24, was shot dead in the head in Antwerp in November 2003, this took place after several other attacks on Orthodox Jews in this town in the preceding months left two others injured.[xxviii]. The Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labour, part of the US Dept. of State released a report on global anti-Semitism that claims an increasing frequency and severity of anti-Semitic incidents since the start of the 21st century, particularly in Europe.[xxix]

Attacks on Synagogues and Jewish cultural institutions are reported from all over the world, but they are only the most visible signs of this anti-Semitism. Dangerous is also the effect of this anti-Semitism on the ordinary Jewish life in the Diaspora. Jews who are hindered to enter their universities by Palestinians in the USA[xxx], humiliations and anti-Semitic attacks, like the punching of a Jewish student in the face with “Heil Hitler” are reported from Berkley University[xxxi]. At least with the same concern we should watch tendencies to influence the academic discussion and research that develops under these circumstances: When students are asked to concentrate on the attempt of the Jews to prove that a temple was existing in a class report about Jerusalem, when the ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ are discussed in class as part of the contemporary academic discussion it will influence the academic world in the future and aggravate the studies for Jewish students. Jewish culture will not be able to develop inside this society and Jews will live in a permanent situation of abnormality.

Hence, we see that the conditions that reaffirmed the right of the Jewish nation to build a state in their ancient homeland still exist in the 21st century: Jews are a nation, a nation needs a homeland and Jews in the Diaspora are endangered of anti-Semitism.


[1] The coexistence agreement of Ben-Gurion – the so-called “status quo” - tried to find a compromise between religious and secular Jews which worked well until the rise of individualisation and secularisation on the one hand and a growing fundamentalism on the other hand. This contract prohibited public transportation on Shabbat except in areas like Akko i.e. where it was established before. In addition it granted kosher food in all public institutions, national holidays according to the Jewish holidays and the control of Beit Din over family affairs like marriage, divorce and entombment ( for Jews). See:

[2] See: Morris,B., Righteous Victims

[3] Herzl was not the first one who wrote about Zionism. A forerunner of Herzl was Leo Pinsker (1821-1891), who wrote the book “Autoemanzipation- Ein Mahnruf an seine Stammesgenossen von einem russischen Juden” (1882), in which he demanded a Jewish State. Moses Hess (“Rom und Jerusalem”) and Moses Montefiore were two more forerunners of Herzl. All these authors were assimilated Jews, stressed the national rather than the religious aspect. But not all Orthodox groups opposed Zionism in the 19th century: Rabbi Zwi Hirsch Kalischer and Rabbi Yehuda Shlomo Alkalai, later Rabbi Kook were advocators of a religious Zionism, claiming that assimilation and emancipation will be the end of the Jews and Jews should return to Zion (Eretz Israel), establish a Jewish (religious) state under the law of Halakha and show all nations that:”…the laws of Torah are the key to true harmony and a socialist state (not in the Marxist meaning) that will be a light for the goyim and bring salvation to the world.” (Rabbi Kook, See:

[4] Herzl, Th., Der Judenstaat; translated into English: Herzl, Th., The Jewish State

[5] See: Doron/Peretz, Historical Origins of Israel, p. 18

[6] Herzl, Th., The Jewish State, p. 17

[7] After the assassination of Tsar Alexander 2. (13. March 1881) in Russia a cruel damnation of Russian Jews, followed by several cruel pogroms, destroyed the hopes for integration of many eastern Jews.

In the year 1903 the pogrom of Kishinev took place, during which 49 Jews were killed, 500 were injured and 2000 homeless. The pogrom of Kishinev inaugurated the 2nd Alyah, which brought 35.000 immigrants into Israel.

[8] See: Pinsker, Leo

[9] See: Herzl, Th., The Jewish State, p. 31; Herzl claims:” It is not our fault, not the fault of the Jews, that we find ourselves forced into the role of alien bodies in the midst of various nations. The ghetto, which was not our making, bred in us certain anti-social qualities….Our original character cannot have been other than magnificent and proud; we were men who knew how to face war and how to defend the state; had we not started out with such gifts, how could we have survived two thousand years of unrelenting persecution?”; See furthermore Marx,K., Zur Judenfrage, MEW Bd. 1, pp372-375, he links anti-Semitic stereotypes to the Jews, but claims they are just a matter of their unnatural status in the society. Marx also claims that Diaspora life formed an un-natural way of life and made Jews develop special characteristics that contributed to the anti-Semitic prejudices. Marx however suggests, in opposition to Herzl, to solve the problem by building up a secular socialistic system in which Jews can integrate. Marx asks: "Welches ist der weltliche Kultus des Juden? - Der Schacher. Welches ist sein weltlicher G´tt? Das Geld Welches ist der weltliche Grund des Judentums? Das praktische Bedürfnis, der Eigennutz... Der Wechsel ist der wirkliche G´tt des Juden. Sein G´tt ist nur der illusorische Wechsel."

[10] In 1988 the Supreme Court in Israel declared that the principles of a Jewish and a democratic state of Israel, mentioned in Art. 7a beside each other, are closely connected and not contradicting: "The existence of the State of Israel as the State of the Jewish people does not negate its democratic character, just as the Frenchness of France not negate its democratic character." This decision abolished the difference between a “Jewish state” and a “Jews´ State“, from this time on the term „Jewish“ should be understood as the basic values of Judaism, which are not contradicting the values of democracy. See:

[11] Zionists and Orthodox used to form two separated groups in the first decades of the 20th century, which means the Orthodox were not part of the Zionist movement. Doron/Peretz mentions that: “among the 133 members of the association of the Jewish Communities in Moscow, 53 were Zionists, 16 were Bundies, and 20 were Orthodox”. (See: Doron/Peretz, Historical Origins of Israel, p.25). Only some Orthodox joined the Zionist movement, such as the “Agudat Israel” – formed in 1912 with branches in Eretz Israel - or the group around Rabbi Avraham Kook, who argued that the Zionist return to Eretz Israel signified the beginning of the divine redemption and renewal of the Jewish people ( See: Doron/Peretz, Historical Origins of Israel, p. 26)

[12] See: Doron/Peretz, Historical Origins of Israel, p. 25; See: Shafir,G./Peled,,Y., Being Israeli: The Dynamics of Multiple Citizenship, pp. 137-155

[13] We will use the term “Jewish state” in the following text because it is more common than “Jews´ state”, but we want to stress that this is meant - according to Herzl´s definition – in a national way and not in a religious meaning. This definition was re-affirmed in the decision of the Israeli Supreme Court in 1988 regarding the compatibility of Jewish and democratic principles.

[14] These rights were written down in the International Bill of Human Rights by the United Nations,10.12.1948. Positive rights have been codified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in many 20th-century constitutions.

[16] These changes from a “We” to a “Me” society are described e.g. in: Etzioni-Halevi,E., No Longer Indivisible: Israeli Identity and Zionist Commitment, pp.131-132; Etzioni-Halevi refers to Israeli Poetry. One of the most famous songs in the Western World in the 1990-ies, written by Kurt Cobain, repeats the words. “Love myself better than you – know its wrong – what can I do” and was considered to be a typical expression of the “Generation X”, the generation of the 1990-ies.

[xvii] Many Old Testament scholars have regarded ancient Irael as a nation already in the first temple era, but Smith claims this is not sure, in contrast to the second temple era. See: Smith,A.D., The problem of national identity: ancient, medieval and modern?, p. 183

[xviii] See: Smith,A.D., The problem of national identity: ancient, medieval and modern?, p. 182

[xix] The Kurds are described either as an „ethnic group“ or a nation; their struggle for independence includes demands for a state as well as national autonomy inside Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Armenia and Iran. With the abolition of the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and a Kurd as a president - Talabani,D., the former president of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) - the Kurds of Iraq may prefer integration now, but the “Kurdish question” is still disputed..

[xx] See.; the official website of the “Central Tibetan Administration”, equalling an exile-government, not recognized by China but supported by many European and Western countries.

[xxi] Between 1987 and 1989 Iraqi army carried out a campaign against Kurds, characterized by the following human rights violations: the widespread use of chemical weapons, the wholesale destruction of some 2,000 villages, and killing of around 50,000 rural Kurds, by the most conservative estimates. The campaign also included Arabization of Kirkuk, a program to drive Kurds out of the oil-rich city and replace them with Arab settlers from central and southern Iraq. Kurdish sources report the number of dead to be greater than 182,000 and call it genocidal; See:

[xxii] See.

[xxiii] See e.g..:

[xxiv] Forerunners of this decision were the Balfour Declaration (1917), in whichBritain confirmed the Jews´right for a national homeland in Palestine; the San Remo Conference (1920), where the League of Nations re-affirmed, following World War 2, the Balfour Declaration. the conference's decisions were only finally confirmed by the Council of the League of Nations on 24 July 1922 and the 1924 Treaty of Lausanne.

[xxv] The UN decided that the former mandate Palestine will be divided into a Jewish state and an Arab state. The nation of Palestinians, however, is often regarded as part of the Arab world and the Arab nation or sometimes as a part of greater Syria. Because of this, the defeats of the Palestinians are regarded as a defeat for the whole Arab nation and many Palestinian national movements are fighting for a final goal of Arab unity; Palestine is only regarded as a part of the whole. See: Ibrahim Abu Rati, Constantine Zurayk and the Search for Arab Nationalism

[xxvi] See: Greenspan,M., What’s New About Anti-Semitism?, pp.38-40; See: Haury, T., Zur Logik des bundesdeutschen Antizionismus

[xxvii] See: Alter und neuer Rechtsextremismus in Russland,; at:,2144,1862240,00.html

[xxviii] See : Sela,R., Orthodox Jew shot dead in Antwerp, Jerusalem Post, 19.11.2004

[xxix] Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (2005), Report on Global Anti-Semitism

[xxx] Reports of exchange students from USA in a class on terrorism at Ben-Gurion University, Beer Sheva; 12/2005; Lecturer: Jonathan Fine

[xxxi] Rufus,A., Berkeley Intifada, East Bay Express, 19.5.2005; at:

Excerpt out of 16 pages


Is the idea of a Jewish State anachronistic, based on 19th century ideology, and incompatible with 21st century values?
Ben Gurion University  (Middle East Institute)
Politics and Society of Israel
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This essay examines the question, if the idea of a Jewish state, based on 19th century ideology, is anachronistic and incompatible with 21st century values. It differentiates between a Jews' state in a non-religious, national meaning and a Jewish state. It aims to proof, that a Jews' State is not contradicting 21st century values, such as personal freedom, human rights, civil rights and minority rights and essential for the guarantee of these rights, inside and outside of Israel.
Jewish, State, Politics, Society, Israel
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Dipl. Paed. Kathrin Nina Wiedl (Author), 2006, Is the idea of a Jewish State anachronistic, based on 19th century ideology, and incompatible with 21st century values?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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