Nation-State Law & Ontological Security


Abstract from my MA thesis written in 2015. "French Aliyah. A Contribution to Israel's Securitization?", Oriane Cohen -relevant to the last dramatic political developments in Israel.

This law comes to clarify an ambiguous identity: although it was claimed in the independence declaration, suggested in the law of return, it did not have any political or "constiutional" value. Today, the Nation State Law comes to define clearly the Jewish nature of the state of Israel.

Zionism reconstructed collective memory of the Jewish People into a nationalist approach. Quite logically, it appears in a more global resurgence movement of nationalisms in Europe. Zionism is the result of a growing awareness in the European Jewish community that Jews should not expect emancipation but should instead build their own emancipation.

Thus, the main Zionist leaders rebuilt myths and Jewish history to give it a logical sense, to build the “New Hebrew”. This reconstruction of the past is mainly based on a periodization of the Jewish history as claimed by Zerubavel[1] and the birth of national myths. This periodization highlights three different and distinct times for Jewish history:

  • The antiquity refers to the time Hebrew People was a strong and autonomous people, many battles are mentioned as well as wars and massacres.

  • Then come the time of Exile where the Hebrew becomes the Jew. This period is presented negatively in the Zionist mindset emphasizing the weak aspect of the Diaspora Jew, assimilated or living under the persecutions and discriminations of the country where he/she had to live.

  • Therefore, Zionism come as the third time of this periodization to restore and recreate a “New Jew” or even a renewed Hebrew.

Israeli society seems embroiled in what some call “siege mentality” or “crusader anxiety” because, according to Abulof[2], the collective memory reconstructed by Zionism is based on remembrance of destructions, massacres, battles (Massada, Bar Kohba revolt, Destruction of the Temples…), the trauma of the genocide of six million Jews during World War II and the ongoing clashes with its Arab neighbors. All these elements then fostered a general angst into the Israeli society. Therefore, this culture of threat gave a very fertile ground for deep securitization. Since the creation of the State, Israel is considered as in a continuous struggle and survival. Between wars, operations, bombing attacks in buses and cafés, knife attacks, car ramming attacks, kidnappings, the Iranian nuclear threat, the European boycott, the Israeli public perceive the existence of Israel as endangered.

This perception is erroneous as Israel, since 1973, is not fighting for survival anymore[3]. The Israeli democracy is legally and publicly recognized. Moreover, since the Kippur War, Israel only led new types of war with different goals and different means. Indeed, since Lebanon war in 1982, Israel entered the era of the asymmetric warfare. Thus, Israel is more into a war of attrition than a survival challenge. This public speech exacerbating the survival of the state of Israel is also in contrast with the possession of the nuclear weapon[4]. Moreover, multiplication of armed conflicts with the neighbors and the necessity to secure the space led the founding fathers of the state of Israel to a territorial strategy, based on dispersion of new immigrants on the territory[5]. Golda Meir, famous Prime Minister of the State of Israel, stated that “the frontier of the State is where Jews are”. Thus, the creation of a “human web” in peripheries such as South Negev or norther Galilea generates a social and spatial fracture or segregation.

The “culture of threat” is very present in the Zionist ideology. That’s why it become crucial for Israeli policy maker to preserve its ethnic and political majority. It is an exclusive definition of the nation, based on the Jewishness¸ as testifies the law of Return of 1950. Aliyah, the migration of Jews from Diaspora to Israel, is one of the central plank and raison d’être of classical Zionism[6]. “The Government will place the issue of immigration and immigrant absorption at the top of its list of priorities and will work vigorously to increase immigration from all countries of the world” phrased in 2009 the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Israel. Therefore, we can understand that migration is a very serious concern in Israel. Hence, the demographic stake or “demographic demon” as called by Uriel Abulof, is central and strategic because it would jeopardize the existence of the State and its Jewish identity.

As stated by Oren Yiftachel[7], the notion of “ethnocracy” might be relevant to explain and understand Israel’s political regime. This concept suggests a political regime that facilitates expansion and control by a dominant ethnicity in contested lands. Thus, he devotes in his book Ethnocracy: Land and identity politics in Israel/Palestine a long analysis on the impact of Jewish immigration and settlement on collective identities. In his opinion, the Law of Return and the Jewish immigration to Israel participate to counter the “demographic demon” and hence prove the ethnocratic characteristic of the State of Israel – redefined lately by the Nation-State Law.

This notion, brings us directly to the notion of "ontological security". In the Realist approach of International Relations, states are mainly seeking for physical security.. However, if we go further as Jennifer Mitzen argues[8], physical security is not the only kind of security that states seek; States are also looking for ontological security, a case perfectly illustrated by Israel.

Ontological security refers to the security of the self, the subjective sense of who one is, which enables and motivates action and choices according to Giddens. In her essay Ontological Security in World Politics: State Identity and the Security Dilemma, Jennifer Mitzen first argues that human beings need this ontological security and then shows that states too, even though they might be subject to different logics. The first argument she points out is that, if States seek physical security, this raises many questions: physically security should not be opposed to ontological security, but it should be analyzed as state personhood more generally. A second argument is that the members of the States need ontological security.

Therefore, security has different meanings in different societies: for instance, an ethnically homogeneous society may consider a higher priority to preserve its political and cultural identity, and as a consequence regard an influx of migrants as a threat to its ontological security.

It is interesting to observe that most of the literature on this subject will emphasize the impact of a migration as threatening the nation/collective identity, therefore endangering the security of the state. However, if we look at the issue in the other way, we face Israel "law of return", which instead of refraining immigration, is actually promoting, inciting a very precise and idiosyncratic migration into the country in order to reinforce its ontological security.

[1] Zerubavel (Yael), Recovered Roots, Collective memory and the making of Israeli national tradition, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. 360 pages

[2] Abulof (Uriel), “Deep Securitization and Israel’s ’Demographic Demon’”, International Political Sociology, Vol 8, n°4, 2014, p. 396–415.

[3] You may refer to my BA thesis, directed by Prof. Myriam Aït Aoudia, written by Oriane Cohen, untitled De la place de l’armée dans la société israélienne. Evolutions et enjeux. May 2014.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Berthomière (William), Sionisme et immigration en Israël, Mouvements n°33/34, mai-juin-juillet-août 2004

[6] Lustick (Ian S), “Israel’s Migration Balance: Demography, Politics, and Ideology”, Israel Studies Review, Volume 26, Issue 1, Summer 2011

[7] Yiftachel (Oren), Ethnocracy, USA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006. 368 pages.

[8] Mitzen (Jennifer), “Ontological Security in World Politics: State Identity and the Security Dilemma”, European Journal of International Relations, Vol. 12, n°3, 2006, p. 341–370.


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by LK (2018)

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