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  • Anonymous '24

Why Do The Jewish People Need A State?

Updated: May 2

A friend of mine recently asked me why the Jewish people need a state. They had thought about the question before but hadn’t come up with any arguments that they found persuasive, and they wanted to hear my thoughts as a Jewish person. We had a long and productive discussion, and I’ve included my thoughts here for others who would like to hear one Jewish person’s perspective on the question.

I’ll cover a few interrelated arguments suggesting a need for a Jewish state; because all of these arguments directly or indirectly fall out of the rich history of antisemitism in the West, with ‘the West’ here including Europe, the Middle East, and the Americas in line with previous antisemitism scholarship, I’ll begin with a brief overview of the history of antisemitism.

Antisemitism’s History and Pervasiveness

Antisemitism has often been called 'the oldest hatred' in the West because of its millenia-old history and pervasiveness—whether it's government-enforced expulsions of Jews (much of Europe and the Middle East), government-enforced restrictions on what professions Jews can practice (Europe), attacks on Jewish communities based on accusations of poisoning Christian wells or using Christian baby blood to make matzo (Europe), pogroms (most famously in Russia, but also in other regions of the West, e.g., the Hebron massacre in what was then Mandatory Palestine under the British, or the Harelle in France), targeted boycotts of Jewish businesses (Ireland, Germany, and Iraq, among others), forced conversions of Jews (Europe and the Middle East), the expulsion of Jews from regions of the US under President Grant, limits on Jewish enrollment at universities (the US, Germany, and Iraq), limitations on Jewish participation in public life (most famously Germany), the targeted murder of Jewish civilians (throughout the West, including in the land that would later become Israel, e.g., in the Safed massacre), and of course the Holocaust.

Antisemitism’s unique combination of ubiquity, intensity, and consistency has made it reasonably clear that Jews cannot be confident in our safety in the hands of foreign governments. Take Nazi Germany—even a few decades earlier, many Jews were reasonably well-assimilated into German society, with some Jews even occupying prestigious positions in academia. Just a few decades later, we were being killed en masse in one of the most horrifying mass acts of dehumanization, torture, and genocide in human history.

A Place to Go When Things Get ‘Too Bad’

Having a Jewish state gives diaspora Jews a place to go¹ when things get 'too bad' in their country. For example, my great-great-grandparents lived in the Russian Empire (now Ukraine), where the local government officers insisted that Jews pay a bribe or be killed. One day my great-great-grandparents’ neighbors were unable to pay the bribe—the previous bribes, along with their regular expenses, had sapped their money. True to their word, the officers killed the entire family. The slaughter convinced my great-great-grandparents that they had to find a way out of Russia before the same happened to them; they found refuge in the Ottoman-controlled land that would later become Israel, and became flourishing members of their communities.

Having a place to go when things get 'too bad' is especially relevant for people who are more religious/less assimilated—I'm not particularly visibly Jewish, so I don't have to worry about anti-Jewish discrimination or hate crimes as much as someone who is Hasidic or who wears a kippa, for example.

A Nation Within a Nation

Another important piece of context is that, in part because of exclusion from non-Jewish society, Jews have often historically thought of ourselves as ‘a nation within a nation.’ We had a distinct language (Yiddish in much of central and eastern Europe, Ladino in Spain, etc.), a distinct culture, a distinct set of religious practices/laws, and so on, in addition of course to the fact that we were treated as outsiders, discriminated against, and often killed at the hands of the governments and civilians of our host countries.²

This idea that Jews have historically constituted a distinct people or ‘nation’ indigenous to the Levant and forced into diaspora by persecution is relevant when discussing the history of the call for a safe place for Jews in some portion of our ancestral homeland—it's not as if (to use a bit of an extreme caricature) a group of white Europeans decided that they wanted more land and moved en masse to an arbitrary region of the Middle East. It’s also important to note that some Jews never left the historical Land of Israel, though of course Jews continuing to live in Israel have faced persecution at various times in its history.

What Does This Mean Today?

Until this point I’ve focused on why I believe that Jews need a state—this was, after all, the question that my friend asked me—but because Jewish statehood and Palestinian statehood have historically been pitted against one another I’d also like to briefly discuss why I believe that Palestinians need a state. The past eighty years have provided ample evidence that Palestinians cannot be confident in their safety and civil rights in the hands of their neighbors, Israel, Jordan, and Egypt. This is to say that, like Jews, Palestinians have reason to fear for their safety and stability in the hands of foreign governments, and that the establishment of a Palestinian state would allow Palestinians to live and thrive without perpetually looking over their shoulder. Such a state would not only provide a place for diaspora Palestinians to go when things become ‘too bad’ in their country, but it would also provide the Palestinian people, like the Jewish people, with self-determination in some portion of their ancestral homeland. I’ll limit my discussion of the Palestinian need for a state to this very brief overview, as the purpose of this article is to provide one Jewish person’s perspective on the need for a Jewish state; I don’t have the lived experience to authoritatively present my perspective on the need for a Palestinian state, and I don’t want to speak over those for whom the subject lands closer to home.

Because I believe that both Palestinians and Jews need their own states, and because I have concerns about forcing two peoples with a long history of conflict to share a single state on the basis of Mandatory Palestine’s arbitrary colonial borders, I believe that a two-state solution is the best means of protecting both groups’ safety and civil rights.³ History has indicated that neither Jews nor Palestinians can be confident in their safety in the hands of foreign governments; history has also indicated through the case study of Israel that marginalized peoples—in this case, Jews—are far more difficult to oppress once they have a state. A two-state solution would provide both Jews and Palestinians a state that they can be confident will not abuse them, a place to escape to when things get ‘too bad’ in diaspora, and the self-determination that both groups have been deprived of for so much of their history.

[1] It’s important to note that Jews’ ability to immigrate to Israel is not based on ethnicity, but rather on Jewish peoplehood, which also includes elements of culture and religion; for example, converts to Judaism are granted Israeli citizenship like any other Jewish person (though of course it isn’t necessary to be Jewish to receive Israeli citizenship).

[2] It’s also important to note that culture, religion, and ethnicity are each facets of Jewish identity, but that none of them tell the whole story. Jewish identity can’t be reduced to religion—many Jews are atheists—or to culture, as some Jews are raised in non-Jewish households. Jewish identity likewise can’t be reduced to ethnicity: some Jews aren't ethnically Jewish, and 'ethnically Jewish' refers to several different ethnicities: Mizrahi Jews in the Middle East, Ashkenazi Jews in Eastern and Central Europe, Sephardic Jews in the Iberian Peninsula, Ethiopian Jews in Eastern Africa, and so on.

[3] I’m using the broadest possible definition of a two-state solution. In this article I’m not going to discuss whether a traditional two-state solution (in which Israel and Palestine are completely independent states) or a confederation (in which Israel and Palestine are equal parties under an EU-like central authority) would be most effective.

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