Liberal Philosophers on Jewish State: It’s like Norway

Liberal Philosophers on Jewish State: It’s like Norway

Norway’s flag

In celebration of Yom Ha’atmaut, Israel Independence Day, the Manhattan JCC hosted a program moderated by Jane Eisner, editor in chief of the Jewish Daily Forward, with philosophers Moshe Halbertal and Michael Walzer, discussing: “Can you be a liberal and a Zionist? How does Israel navigate its identity as a Jewish Democratic State?” (This event was similar in subject matter, but neither in tone nor format to another we’ve discussed.) 

Halbertal is (among other things) a professor at Hebrew University and the New York University School of Law.  Walzer is an emeritus professor at the Institute for Advanced Study (in Princeton, New Jersey) and recently retired as co-editor of Dissent magazine (the socialist/social democratic journal originally founded by Irving Howe).

Both are known as liberal supporters of the State of Israel, who are also critics of right-wing government policies.  Halbertal has been a consultant to the Israel Defense Forces on its code of conduct, while Walzer is famous for his writings on “Just War Theory.”

The following is a summary of their discussion, paraphrasing their words: 

Prof. Halbertal began by listing four principles defining Israel’s Jewish character:

  1. The Jewish right of self-determination (the essence of Zionism).
  2. The Law of Return: actualizing the fact that Jews now have a home, remedying their historic misfortune of exile and homelessness.
  3. Public symbols attached to Israeli life: e.g., the Hebrew language, conformity with the Jewish calendar (Shabbat, holidays, etc.). 
  4. Its public education is dedicated to schooling students in Jewish culture(s).

Prof. Walzer:
It’s important to emphasize that Israel is not a religious state (e.g., not like an Islamic state).  But it’s also true that Jewishness is inextricably linked with religion; for that reason, it’s a hard struggle to disentangle religion and state.
He drew an analogy between Israel and Norway, which left its union with Sweden in 1905 to preserve its language and culture.   The Norwegian state became “an engine for generating Norwegian culture.”


There was some cross discussion about religious symbols forming the basis for national flags.  This is true of Israel’s flag, but also a number of Christian-majority states that use crosses and Muslim countries that employ crescents or Koranic quotations for their flags.  Halbertal pointed out that Norway’s flag also embeds a cross. [Blogmaster: It’s not clear, however, that the Norwegian cross has religious significance, because it’s lopsided on the right.]

Walzer continued:
It’s wrong to assume that because Jews for many centuries have not had a state of their own, that they had no politics.  The kehilla (organized Jewish community) took responsibility for governing its people on civil and communal matters, and representing their interests, wherever permitted by the non-Jewish state order.
But Israel as a state must also be responsible for its non-Jewish citizens and residents; this is essential for a liberal democratic state.

Arabic must remain an official language and Israeli public schools with Arab students should help reproduce their culture.  This is one way that Israel as a nation-state doesn’t necessarily undermine its democracy.

The speakers were asked by moderator Jane Eisner if Israel must choose among three options: retaining the entire land of Israel (i.e., including the West Bank), a Jewish state and a democratic state.

Yes, Israel can only choose two of these three.  It cannot remain Jewish and democratic while retaining control of the West Bank. 

Israel inherited the “millet system” from the Ottoman Empire: Muslim, Jewish and Christian courts adjudicate family law.  But this causes many secular Israeli Jews to go to Cypress to marry, a situation that’s “crazy.”

Moderator Eisner, as she turned for his response on religion & state, pointed out that Prof. Halbertal is a kippa-wearing Orthodox religious Jew.

The state should not adjudicate Jewish religious issues.  The Knesset must be separate from the Beit Knesset (synagogue).  Legislating for Jews to observe Shabbat (e.g., by curtailing public transportation) undermines Judaism.  Judaism should not be officially defined by Jewish Orthodoxy, something that alienates most Israeli Jews.

In the Q & A that followed, Halbertal advised American Jews who are unhappy with many Israeli policies that Israelis need to hear that they are not always in the wrong and that moving toward two states is not without risks.  Otherwise, he said, these criticisms are not taken seriously by most Israelis.   

By | 2013-04-17T14:38:00-04:00 April 17th, 2013|Blog|0 Comments

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