Conflict and Fragility


Israel in 2023: the nation-state that is not, but might be

22 Jun 2023 - 10:55
Source: Debbie Hill/Pool via REUTERS

Speeches and articles in Western media that consider the state of the “State of Israel” on the occasion of its 75 years of existence abound this year. Such reflections tend to laud the achievements of the Israeli people and spotlight the Israeli State as a flourishing and progressive beacon in the Middle East. They lament the current upheaval that results from the Israeli extreme right trying to make the country more autocratic and possibly more theocratic. In most cases, such pieces add that, regrettably, the Palestinian issue remains to be solved. But then go on to note that it has lost relevance. Finally, they finish on a positive note by stating Israel has all the means it takes to chart another 75 years of progress and only needs to get its act together. For European Commission president Von der Leyen it was sufficient to mention only Israel’s successes, while The Economist took a somewhat rounder view in its article “As Israel turns 75, its biggest threats now come from within.” In general, such reflections maintain an upbeat view of Israeli achievements and prospects.

But they fail to grapple with the key question that hovers over Israel turning 75, namely what kind of nation-state it will become next. This is a difficult query to respond to given the country’s many social cleavages: between secular and religious Jews, between left- and right-wing political convictions, and between the many different areas of origin of its inhabitants. Such complexity is furthermore interwoven with Palestinian identity and community, which have their own divisions. Viewed analytically, the core issue, arguably, is the shift that has taken place in the course of time from the concept of the “Judenstaat,” as outlined by Theodor Herzl, which featured a number of more cosmopolitan openings, to the reality of the present-day Israeli nation-state, which is Jewish-dominated. The problem lies in the single word “nation.” While the “State” does not care too much about the origins of those that reside on its territory – as long as they are law abiding – the nation-state does. The term “nation” stipulates that (a) particular community(ies) inhabit the State and demands, as a consequence, a granular definition of the characteristics and boundaries of that community, in order to establish who is part of it and who is not.

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This article is part of the IEMeD Mediterranean Yearbook 2023.