As Israel celebrates the 75th anniversary of its founding, and nearly a century and a half after the first Zionists came to Palestine from Europe, the core tension behind the country’s establishment – whether a Jewish state could be a democratic state, whether Zionism could accommodate pluralism – is more obvious than ever.
Israel today is a military powerhouse and one of 38 members of the influential Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, formed in 1961 to promote cooperation among democratic, free-market-oriented governments.
Such strength and economic viability would be unfamiliar to the Jews whose identity was forged in the European diaspora. There, Judaism and its practitioners shunned political and military power. They saw themselves as a minority facing discrimination, persecution and violence. Power was the domain of gentiles.
Jews, often separated from the non-Jewish world, focused instead on developing social institutions to help the poor and weak, not asserting their will as a political community.
This attitude toward the state and politics began to change for Europe’s Jews in the aftermath of the French Revolution, when the majority of Jews lived in Europe, especially central and Eastern Europe. As some of the traditional legal and political barriers that kept Jews outside of mainstream society began to crumble, Jews began to integrate into broader…