Israel, Judaism, and the Treatment of Minorities

Israel’s Declaration of Independence[i] states that “by virtue of our natural and historic right and on the strength of the resolution of the United Nations General Assembly (we) hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz Israel, to be known as the state of ISRAEL.”[ii]  The Declaration promises that the new state will be open to the immigration of Jews and will uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of race, creed, or sex. It includes an appeal to the Arab inhabitants to return to the ways of peace and to play their part in building the state, “on the basis of full and equal citizenship.”[iii]

The duality of being both a Jewish and democratic state is a basic part of the Declaration.  Signers of the document ranged across the political spectrum, including Orthodox rabbis representing both the Agudah and the Mizrachi parties. The 1992 Israeli Basic Law[iv] on “Human Dignity and Liberty” includes an amendment that founds human rights on the sanctity of human life and the spirit of the principles set forth in the Declaration of Independence.

Rabbi Isaac Herzog, the State’s first Ashkenazic chief rabbi, wrote extensively on Israeli law’s foundation in traditional Jewish law. He provides the facts that Israel was created on the strength of a United Nations resolution and is committed to being a democratic state as the bases for giving full rights to non-Jewish minorities. He analyzes halakhic perspectives on Islam and Christianity, and concludes that both religions are to be given full religious freedom in the state.[v]

During the First Lebanon war, controversy arose over possible Israeli negligence in allowing its Lebanese Christian allies to massacre Palestinian civilians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila.  The Israeli cabinet was divided on whether to conduct an independent inquiry.  Mafdal, the religious Zionist party, was also split until Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the leading religious Zionist halakhic authority, broke from his pattern of not publicly commenting from the United States on Israeli religious questions and demanded that Mafdal support the inquiry. When Rabbi Yehuda Amital in Israel took the same position, it aroused a great deal of criticism. This was indicative of a shift in perspective with concern for the welfare of non-Jews, seen by many religious Zionist rabbis as less important than preserving the moral image of the Israeli military.

In recent years, attitudes toward treatment of the non-Jewish (Arab) minority in Israel in religious Zionist circles have diverged from the positions of Rabbis Herzog, Soloveitchik, and Amital.  Some leading rabbis now oppose renting apartments to Arabs;[vi] a few have endorsed books that differentiate between Jewish and non-Jewish lives.[vii] Some consider the transfer of Arabs from the Jewish state a legitimate proposal.[viii]

Remarkably, the idea that the treatment of a non-Jewish minority in a Jewish country is a test of Judaism appears in a medieval Jewish work, the Kuzari.  This book, written by the famed Jewish poet and thinker Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, has been a major influence on prominent religious Zionist thinkers such as the Rabbis Kook, father and son.  In this work, the Jewish People is seen as being a higher order of humanity. Because Rabbi Halevi’s life and writings reflect a profound love for the land of Israel, his book remains popular in religious Zionist circles.

In the Kuzari, the king of the Khazars searches for a way of life for his people.  He consults representatives of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and philosophy, becomes convinced of the superiority of Judaism, and leads his people to convert to Judaism.

The Jewish scholar has a powerful argument against the representatives of Christianity and Islam regarding their descriptions of their religions. He points out a contradiction between doctrine and actual behavior: They talk about religions of love and justice but, in reality, whenever Christians or Muslims captured a country, they mistreated its inhabitants and killed their opponents. There is an implied contrast with Judaism. Yet, the king questions the Jewish scholar: How do you know that Jews will act differently? You are not in control of any country and your behavior when in charge has not been tested.[ix]

In 1948 this changed. The Jews now have a country, Israel, which has a significant non-Jewish minority. The king’s question is no longer theoretical. What is Israel’s response?  What is Judaism’s response?

Rabbi Yosef Blau is the Senior Mashgiach Ruchani of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary.



[i] Various different English titles are used to refer to this document, including Declaration of Independence (most sources), Proclamation of Independence (Knesset website), and Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel (Ministry of Foreign Affairs website). This article will use Declaration of Independence, which is both the most common and the closest to the original Hebrew, Megillat ha-Atzma’ut.

[ii] Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “The Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel: May 14, 1948” (English text), available at:

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Available on the Knesset website, at: The fourteen “Basic Laws” (Hukey ha-Yesod) of Israel, passed by the Knesset between 1958 and 2001, are the basis of Israel’s immutable constitutional law, and are intended to serve as draft chapters for the eventual composition of a full constitutional document.

[v] Rabbi Isaac Herzog, “Te’hukah le-Yisra’el al pi ha-Torah,” chapter 2, pp. 12-22.

[vi] See for instance, Kobi Nahshoni, “50 municipal rabbis: Don’t rent flats to Arabs,” Ynetnews, July 12, 2010, Jewish World section, available at:,7340,L-3995724,00.html.

[vii] On the topic of Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburg’s Torat Ha-Melekh, see Daniel Estrin, “Rabbinic Text or Call to Terror?,” The Jewish Daily Forward, January 29, 2010, available at:

[viii] See, for instance, Richard Silverstein, “Israeli Rabbis Favor Right of Return…to Saudi Arabia,” Eurasia Review, April 27, 2011, available at:

[ix]  Kuzari (tirgum Yehuda Even Shmuel), 1:114.