Skip To Content

How Israel’s Nation State Bill Empowers The Alt-Right

There has come to be an almost Henny Penny “the sky is falling” array of pronouncements in the media portending a deteriorating relationship between Israel and American Jewry. Writing in the Forward, editor-in-chief Jane Eisner has described the divergence of political, social and cultural values that divide the two communities, particularly in response to the presidency of Donald Trump. Now we are confronted with the so-called “Jewish State” bill recently passed by the Knesset, which has led the prominent Jewish leader and erstwhile Netanyahu supporter Ronald Lauder to come out forcefully against the bill in a rather scathing New York Times op-ed.

But I would offer an even more disturbing portent that goes far beyond the divergence of values. There is in our day a troubling convergence of political and cultural forces that may have dire consequences for world Jewry. We now appear to have an alliance — albeit subliminal — between right-wing Zionism, Evangelical Christianity — particularly of the “end-days” variety — the so-called “alt-right” and the Trump administration. Were one to draw a Venn Diagram of these four political/cultural/religious entities, the one clear area of overlap would be the notion of the “ethno-state.”

The term “ethno-state” seems to emerge from the ideology of the “alt-right”. While Steve Bannon and Breitbart News are most frequently identified as the ideological mouthpieces of the alt-right, it would appear that Bannon and Breitbart are more like holding pens for the genuine alt-righters. The true heroes of the alt-right are figures like Richard Spencer and his National Policy Institute, or Greg Johnson and his Counter-Currents Publishing. One can learn a lot about these characters from the Southern Poverty Law Center, which partially quotes a statement from Richard Spencer issued during a 2013 leadership conference hosted by his National Policy Institute in Washington, DC, as reported by VICE News. Spenser tells VICE reporter CJ Ciaramella:

“In the mid 19th century, many Jews in Central Europe had an idea of an ethno-state, an idea of Zionism, and they were considered ridiculous and insane,” Spencer said. “But they had that dream, and that dream came into reality. Our dream is a new society, an ethno-state that would be a gathering point for all Europeans. It would be a new society based on very different ideals than, say, the Declaration of Independence.”

Is it not troubling — perhaps ironic — that Spencer uses the State of Israel as a model for an American ethno-state that would be “a gathering point for all Europeans”?

But this, in effect, is what Israel’s Nation State bill accomplishes: it aims to turn the democratic State of Israel, whose Declaration of Independence commits the state to “foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants,” and to “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex,” into an ethno-state.

Besides showing preference for Jewish citizens over non-Jewish citizens through the statement, “The right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people,” and further showing preference to Jewish citizens over non-Jewish citizens by prioritizing Jewish settlement of the land, the law has some serious implications for world Jewry.

Perhaps the most seemingly innocuous but most egregious aspect of the bill is contained in its title: “The State of Israel is the national home of the Jewish people.” What exactly gives the Israeli government — the Knesset — the authority to issue declarations regarding “the Jewish people”? The government of Israel is elected by the citizens of Israel, and represents and is responsible to those citizens. The government of Israel has no authority to make pronouncements with respect to “the Jewish people.” More significantly, however, this statement could potentially have much more serious implications for Diaspora Jews, including the possibility that it could eventually be used to challenge the citizenship statues of Diaspora Jews in a Spencer-style American ethno-state; or a French, or a British or a German ethno-state.

But let’s face it. The vision of the return of the Jews to the Land of Israel has always been key to the ideology of Zionism. The elephant in the room, however, is the degree to which this Zionist vision is something that the Israeli government encourages as simply a voluntary migration, and the degree to which it may be complicit in compelling this migration.

Consider the way in which Prime Minister Netanyahu responded to the terrorist attack against the kosher market in Paris in January 2015. According to the [Jerusalem Post](, Netanyahu responded to the attack in a speech delivered to his cabinet by declaring to the Jews of France:

“The State of Israel is not just the place to which you turn in prayer. The State of Israel is also your home… All Jews who want to immigrate to Israel will be welcomed here warmly and with open arms. We will help you in your absorption here in our country, which is also your country.”

He ended his speech to the Jews of France delivered in the Grand Synagogue in Paris in much the same manner, in reaction to which the attendees stood and sang the French national anthem, as if to remind Netanyahu that France is their home, not Israel.

A recent article in the Forward by George Washington University historian Michael Barnett asks why it is that the Israeli government seems to abide Polish and Hungarian anti-Semitism. He concludes that this is simply an aspect of Israeli realpolitik, the need to foster positive international relations. But this leaves hanging a troubling question. While no one is about to accuse Israeli leaders of harboring, aiding or abetting anti-Semitism, it could be viewed as a boon to the Zionist vision and the Jewish ethno-state in that it encourages Jewish immigration to Israel.

What about Evangelical Christians? It’s relatively easy to understand the appeal that the State of Israel has for them: Israel is the fulfillment of biblical prophecy. The problem is that for Christians, biblical prophecy does not end with the Book of Malachi, but with the Book of Revelation, which envisions an entirely Christian world ruled by the Messiah Jesus Christ sitting on the throne of King David.

Moreover, as Alex Altman and Elizabeth Dias write in a Time Magazine article titled “Moscow Cozies Up to the Right,” there appears to be a new love affair between certain elements of Christianity in America on the one hand and Russia on the other. This is particularly true with regard to Moscow’s stand on social issues such as abortion and gay marriage. Yet Altman and Dias see a deeper connection. According to these reporters, “Evangelicals have discovered common ground with Moscow’s nationalist and ultraconservative push — led by the Russian Orthodox Church — to make the post-Soviet nation a bulwark of Christianity amid the increasing secularization of the West.”

This, then, is the convergence that most troubles me. We have alt-righters and Evangelical Christians, the main base of support for Donald Trump, seeming to envision a white, Christian ethno-state in America — a bulwark of European Christianity — and Israeli leaders apparently moving toward building a Jewish ethno-state in Israel. At what point does an idealistic vision of Jews returning to the land of Israel become a right-wing desideratum — even demand — for the Jews to return to Israel? After all, according to Jewish nation-state law, Israel is “the nation state of the Jewish people;” not America, not France.

While it is crucial that Diaspora Jewry continue to support the right of Israel to exist, it may be time for Diaspora Jewry to confront the reality that, in some respects, the interests of the State of Israel diverge from the interests of Diaspora Jewry. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but I believe it is essential to the well-being of the Jewish people.

A message from our editor-in-chief Jodi Rudoren

We're building on 127 years of independent journalism to help you develop deeper connections to what it means to be Jewish today.

With so much at stake for the Jewish people right now — war, rising antisemitism, a high-stakes U.S. presidential election — American Jews depend on the Forward's perspective, integrity and courage.

—  Jodi Rudoren, Editor-in-Chief 

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.