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Jews in search of a homeland, aboard the SS Exodus

A homeland for the Jewish people was perceived as a solution to the widespread persecution of the Jews and the problem of anti-Semitism. In the 19th century, Theodor Herzl, later hailed as the founder of the Zionist movement, envisioned a Jewish state, which he described in detail in his book by that name, Der Judenstaat.[1][2][3][4][5][6]


The book Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State, 1896) by Theodor Herzl

The effort to establish a national homeland for the Jewish people began in earnest in 1839 when Sir Moses Montefiore petitioned the Khedive of Egypt for a Jewish homeland in the region of Palestine. The actual phrase "national home for the Jewish people" has evolved over the years since it was first used in official documents such as the Balfour Declaration of 1917.

Mandate era controversies

In 1919 the General Secretary (and future President) of the Zionist Organization, Nahum Sokolow, published a History of Zionism (1600-1918). He also represented the Zionist Organization at the Paris Peace Conference. He explained:

The object of Zionism is to establish for the Jewish people a home in Palestine secured by public law." ... ...It has been said and is still being obstinately repeated by anti-Zionists again and again, that Zionism aims at the creation of an independent "Jewish State" But this is wholly fallacious. The "Jewish State" was never part of the Zionist programme. The Jewish State was the title of Herzl's first pamphlet, which had the supreme merit of forcing people to think. This pamphlet was followed by the first Zionist Congress, which accepted the Basle programme - the only programme in existence.[7]

In 1942 the Biltmore Program was adopted as the platform of the World Zionist Organization. It demanded "that Palestine be established as a Jewish Commonwealth." In 1946 an Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry, also known as the Grady-Morrison Committee, noted that the demand for a Jewish State went beyond the obligations of either the Balfour Declaration or the Mandate and had been expressly disowned by the Chairman of the Jewish Agency as recently as 1932.[8]

The United Nations Special Committee on Palestine said the Jewish National Home, which derived from the formulation of Zionist aspirations in the 1897 Basle program has provoked many discussions concerning its meaning, scope and legal character, especially since it had no known legal connotation and there are no precedents in international law for its interpretation. It was used in the Balfour Declaration and in the Mandate, both of which promised the establishment of a "Jewish National Home" without, however, defining its meaning. A statement on "British Policy in Palestine," issued on 3 June 1922 by the Colonial Office, placed a restrictive construction upon the Balfour Declaration. The statement excluded "the disappearance or subordination of the Arabic population, language or customs in Palestine" or "the imposition of Jewish nationality upon the inhabitants of Palestine as a whole", and made it clear that in the eyes of the mandatory Power, the Jewish National Home was to be founded in Palestine and not that Palestine as a whole was to be converted into a Jewish National Home. The Committee noted that the construction, which restricted considerably the scope of the National Home, was made prior to the confirmation of the Mandate by the Council of the League of Nations and was formally accepted at the time by the Executive of the Zionist Organization.[9]

Founding of the State

The concept of a national homeland for the Jewish people in the British Mandate of Palestine is enshrined in Israeli national policy and reflected in many of Israel's public and national institutions. The concept was codified in the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel on 14 May 1948 as well as in the Law of Return, which was passed by the Knesset on 5 July 1950, and stated "Every Jew has the right to come to this country as an oleh."[10] This was modified in 1970 to include non-Jews with a Jewish Grandparent, and their spouses.

While nowadays the concept of a Jewish homeland means almost always the State of Israel under some variation of its current borders, in the course of Jewish history after ancient Israel and Judah there have been other proposals. While some of those have come into existence, others never came to be implemented.

Jewish state or a state of Jews?

There has been ongoing debate in Israel on the character of the state, regarding whether it should enshrine more Jewish culture, encourage Judaism in schools, and enshrine certain laws of Kashrut and Shabbat observance. This debate reflects a historical divide within Zionism and among the Jewish citizens of Israel, which has large secular and traditional/Orthodox minorities as well as a majority which lies somewhere in between.

Secular Zionism, the historically dominant stream, is rooted in a concept of the Jews as a people that have a right to self-determination. Another reason sometimes submitted for such establishment was to have a state where Jews would not be afraid of antisemitic attacks and live in peace. But such a reason is not a requirement of the self-determination right and so is subsidiary to it in secular Zionist thinking.

Religious Zionists, who believe that religious beliefs and traditional practices are central to Jewish peoplehood, counter that assimilating to be a secular "nation like any other" would be oxymoronic in nature, and harm more than help the Jewish people. They seek instead to establish what they see as an "authentic Jewish commonwealth" which preserves and encourages Jewish heritage.[11] Drawing an analogy to diaspora Jews who assimilated into other cultures and abandoned Jewish culture, whether voluntary or otherwise, they argue that the creation of a secular state in Israel is tantamount to establishing a state where Jews assimilate en masse as a nation, and therefore anathema to what they view as Jewish national aspirations. Zionism is rooted in a concept of the Jews as a nation, in this capacity, they believe that Israel has a mandate to promote Judaism, to be the center of Jewish culture and center of its population, perhaps even the sole legitimate representative of Jews worldwide.

Partisans of the first view are predominantly, though by no means exclusively, secular or less traditional. Partisans of the second view are almost exclusively traditional or Orthodox, although they also include supporters who follow other streams of Judaism or are less traditional but conservative and would not object to a more prominent state role in promoting Jewish beliefs — although not to the point of creating a purely Halachic state.

The debate is therefore characterized by significant polarities. Secular and religious Zionists argue passionately about what a Jewish state should represent. Post-Zionists and Zionists argue about whether a Jewish state should exist at all. Because Israel was created within the sphere of international law as the instrument for Jewish self-determination, these polarities are captured by the questions Should Israel maintain and strengthen its status as a state for the Jewish people, or transition to being a state purely for "all of its citizens", or identify as both? And, if both, how to resolve any tensions that arise from their coexistence. To date, Israel has steered a course between secularism and Jewish identity, usually depending on who controls the Israeli High Court of Justice.

On the 19 November 2008, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni addressed the United Jewish Communities General Assembly in Jerusalem. In her speech, she announced: "These two goals of Israel as a Jewish and a democratic state must coexist and not contradict each other.So, what does that mean, a Jewish state? It is not only a matter of the number of Jews who live in Israel. It is not just a matter of numbers but a matter of values. The Jewish state is a matter of values, but it is not just a matter of religion, it is also a matter of nationality. And a Jewish state is not a monopoly of rabbis. It is not. It is about the nature of the State of Israel. It is about Jewish tradition. It is about Jewish history, regardless of the question of what each and every Israeli citizen does in his own home on Saturdays and what he does on the Jewish holidays. We need to maintain the nature of the State of Israel, the character of the State of Israel, because this is the raison d'etre of the State of Israel."

Sixty years have passed and unfortunately, because we did not make it clear enough in our education of the younger generation, there seems to be a new creation in the State of Israel - the new Sabra. That is a problem because being an Israeli is not only speaking Hebrew or serving in the army, which, by the way, is very important for us as a society. It is also about Jewish education and about history and tradition, because this is the common denominator, the common ground for the bonds between Israelis and Jews in the Diaspora.[2]

A Jewish commonwealth

Advocates of Israel becoming a more narrowly Jewish commonwealth face at least the following practical and theoretical difficulties:

  1. How to deal with the non-Jewish Arab minority in Israel (and the non-Jewish majority in the West Bank and Gaza).
  2. How to alleviate concerns of Jews in Israel who favor a relatively secular state.[12]
  3. What relationship should official Judaism hold vis-à-vis the Government of Israel and vice versa?[13]
  4. What role do schools play in supporting Jewish heritage, religion, culture, and state?[14]
  5. How will the government be organized (theocracy, constitutional theocracy, constitutional republic, parliamentary democracy etc.)?[15]
  6. Should the justice system be based on secular common law, secular civil law, a combination of Jewish and common law, a combination of Jewish and civil law, or pure Jewish law?[12]
  7. On what mandate or legal principles should the constitution of a Jewish state be based?[13]
  8. How to integrate the economy of the state in line with Jewish law.

Theorists who grapple with these issues focus on the future of the State of Israel and realize that although the sovereign political state has been established, there is still much work to be done in relation to the identity of the state itself.[16]

Public opinion

A poll commissioned by the Israel Democracy Institute in 2007 found that 75% of Arab-Israelis would support a constitution that maintained Israel as a Jewish state with equal minority rights:

A vast majority of Israeli Arabs would support a constitution that maintained Israel's status as a Jewish and democratic state while guaranteeing equal rights for minorities, according to a poll whose results were published on Sunday. Among the 507 people who participated in the poll, some 75 percent said they would agree with such a definition while 23 percent said they would oppose it.[17]


The notion that Israel should be constituted in the name of and maintain a special relationship with a particular group of people, the Jewish people, has drawn much controversy vis-à-vis minority groups living in Israel – the large number of Muslim and Christian Palestinians residing in Israel and, to the extent that those territories are claimed to be governed as part of Israel and not as areas under military occupation, in the West Bank and Gaza. For example, the Israeli National Anthem, Hatikvah, refers to Jews by name as well as alluding to the concept of Zionism, and it contains no mention of Palestinian Arab culture. This anthem therefore excludes non-Jews from its narrative of national identity. Similar criticism has been made of the Israeli flag which resembles the Tallit (a Jewish prayer shawl) and features a Star of David, generally acknowledged as a symbol of Judaism. Critics of Israel as a Jewish nation state have suggested that it should adopt more inclusive and neutral symbolism.

In the course of the Cold War, the Soviet Union, its satellite states and agencies, as well as many African, Asian and Arab states, presented the concept of Zionism and the Jewish state as an embodiment of racism, imperialism and colonialism. In 1975, the UN General Assembly Resolution 3379, which equated Zionism with racism, was passed by a vote of 72 to 35. It was revoked by the US backed UN General Assembly Resolution 4686 in 1991 by a vote of 111 to 25.

Linguist and political commentator Noam Chomsky makes a distinction between the concept of "a Jewish ethnic homeland in Palestine" and "a Jewish state" in his interview on C-SPAN:"I have always supported a Jewish ethnic homeland in Palestine. That is different from a Jewish state. There's a strong case to be made for an ethnic homeland, but as to whether there should be a Jewish state, or a Muslim state, or a Christian state, or a white state — that's entirely another matter." As Chomsky has stated in numerous interviews, the concept of a Jewish State (or Muslim State or Christian State or white State) directly contradicts the concept of a democratic state as democracy is founded upon a principle in which there is no privileged citizen.

Some Jewish nationalists base the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state on the Balfour Declaration and ancient historical ties to the land, asserting that both play particular roles as evidence under international law, as well as a fear that a hostile Arab world might be disrespectful of a Jewish minority — alleging a variety of possible harms up to and including genocide — were Israel to become a post-national "state for all its citizens."


  1. The Avalon Project : Declaration of Israel's Independence 1948
  2. Dershowitz calls for dialogue on Israel-Palestine | - Cedar Rapids, Iowa City
  3. Jewish perspective: What Zionism is all about? - Yemen Times
  4. Rights and obligations - Israel Opinion, Ynetnews
  6. Canada-Israel Committee - This Week in Print
  7. See History of Zionism (1600-1918), Volume I, Nahum Sokolow, 1919 Longmans, Green, and Company, London, pages xxiv-xxv
  8. See Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry - Chapter V , the Jewish Attitude, [1]
  9. See the report of the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine, UN Document A/364, 3 September 1947
  10. Text of Law of Return
  11. Ahavat Israel
  12. 12.0 12.1 Halacha and Democracy (haGalil)
  13. 13.0 13.1 Israel as a Jewish State by Naomi Goldstein Cohen (WZO)
  14. Education and Ideology by Lawrence Kaplan (WZO)
  15. Halacha and Democracy by Joseph Grunblatt (WZO)
  16. The State of Israel in Halachic Thought by Gerald J. Blidstein (WZO)
  17. Poll of Arab-Israelis

See also

  • Jewish Autonomous Oblast
  • Land of Israel / Palestine
  • History of Israel / History of the Palestinian people
  • Jewish Question
  • Binational solution
  • 1947 UN Partition Plan
  • Christian Zionism

External links