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The question of the Jewish nation

Is Judaism only a religion or is it also a nationality?

Jewish men hold Israeli flags as they enter the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem's Old City, during Jerusalem Day celebrations on May 18, 2023. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Jewish men hold Israeli flags as they enter the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem's Old City, during Jerusalem Day celebrations on May 18, 2023. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Barry Tigay
Barry Tigay, Ph.D. is a retired psychologist and entrepreneur. Follow him on Twitter @TigayBarry.

In 1789, in the wake of the French Revolution, Stanislas Marie Adelaide, Comte de Clermont-Tonnerre, said, “We must refuse everything to the Jews as a nation and accord everything to Jews as individuals.”

A century later, Theodor Herzl concluded that this social contract had failed. Jews as individuals had received nothing and as a nation had given up everything.

Clermont-Tonnerre’s statement expressed an enduring theme in Jewish history. It is the simple question of whether Judaism is solely a religion or also a nationality.

From the moment God tells Abraham, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you, I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you,” the idea of a Jewish nation was established in Jewish tradition. Today, it has been energized by the rebirth of Israel.

Moreover, our tradition teaches that we are a particular nation with a special mission. We are to be a “kingdom of priests” that keeps “the commandments of the Lord your God” and “a light unto the nations.”

To stay true to this mission, our survival in the Diaspora often depended on avoiding assimilation by developing our own independent communal organizations and emphasizing differences in dress, diet, language, names and spiritual practice. Thus, while the Jewish nation remains vulnerable, it has an enduring tradition of survival.

Philosopher Yoram Hazony defines a nation as “a number of tribes with a shared heritage, usually including a common language or religious traditions, and a past history of joining together against common enemies—characteristics that permit tribes so united to understand themselves as a community distinct from other such communities that are their neighbors.”

A people can be a nation without a state. In fact, most nations are stateless. There are thousands of nations in the world but less than two hundred recognized states. But today, the Jewish people are a nation in the reborn nation-state of Israel.

Hazony defines a nation-state as “a nation whose disparate tribes have come together under a single standing government, independent of all other governments.” He continues, “A nation is a form of community, a human collective recognizing itself as distinct such from other human collectives. Such a community can exist independently of the state and does not have to include every individual living within the state. Second, these definitions [nation and nation-state] mean that the unity thus created is always a composite because the tribes united in this way continue to exist after national independence.”

Israel gives the Jewish nation a unifying connection. Most Jews share a love of the Land of Israel and its history, value its potential as a refuge and take pride in its accomplishments.

Like it or not, Jews may be held responsible for Israel’s actions. Much of today’s antisemitism is aimed at Israel (the Jew among the nations) rather than individual Jews or the Jewish religion. A Zionist can be vilified with impunity in certain circles by those who claim that their hatred is political, not religious, racial or cultural.

On May 31, at the Re-CHARGING Reform Judaism conference, Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in Manhattan said, “There is something innate in the philosophy of Western Jewish liberals that inclines us to elevate universal aspiration, not as complementary to or a reflection of Jewish peoplehood, but as a replacement.” This tendency, he declared, could be “devastating to the Reform movement.”

“If the North American Reform movement, in word or in deed, by action or silence, becomes in fact, or even in perception, an anti-Zionist, anti-particularistic movement that cares only or mostly about universal concerns, unanchored in and unmoored from the centrality of Jewish peoplehood, most American Jews will abandon us,” he predicted.

This ideological conflict within Reform Judaism resulted from the Pittsburg Platform of 1885. Echoing the view of many prominent Jewish leaders, the platform declared, “We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community.”

Perhaps because of this conflict, many Diaspora Jews retain an attachment to Jewish identity but their limited knowledge of Jewish history precludes full identification. They have an affinity for Judaism, but it is only one of many affinities. They are often unconnected to the language, land and security of the Jewish people.

Israelis tend to be much more aware of their Jewish identity. Possibly as a result, the Jewish nation’s demographic center of gravity has shifted from the Diaspora back to Israel. So has the national sense of purpose, which includes self-defense, building the state and educating self-aware Jews. Having a sense of purpose infuses life with meaning. This purpose and meaning may be the reason Israel was recently ranked as the fourth-happiest country in the world and has the highest birth rate of all developed democracies.

How can Jews understand each other better and become a more unified nation? This question is increasingly asked due to the current political debate in Israel. While ostensibly about judicial reform, the controversy has taken on broader dimensions. Simmering divisions have erupted between various classes and groups of Jews.

All nations face the challenge of honoring and respecting their diversity while fostering unity. In this regard, however, we have a rich heritage to draw on. Our sages valued argument for the sake of heaven—machloket l’shem shamayim. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks put it, “Argument for the sake of heaven is conflict resolution by honoring both sides and employing humility in pursuit of truth.” We must acknowledge the rifts between us and commit to reconciliation among the tribes.

The collective Jewish spirit is vigorous, Israel-centered and happy. The Jewish nation is moving confidently towards a future that remembers and builds on its past, despite disputes and uncertainty. Constantly going forth and returning, the Jewish spirit is one of reinvention anchored in language, land, Bible, family and self-defense. This spirit drives innovation in science, the arts, business, philosophy and human affairs. It is a light unto the nations. In embracing our place in the Jewish nation, we have everything to gain and nothing to lose.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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