There has been ongoing debate in Israel on the character of the state, regarding whether it should enshrine more Jewish culture, encourage Judaism in schools, and enshrine certain laws ofKashrut and Shabbat observance. This debate reflects a historical divide within Zionism and among the Jewish citizens of Israel, which has large secular and traditional/Orthodox minorities as well as a majority of people who lie somewhere in between.
Secular Zionism, the historically dominant stream, is rooted in a concept of the Jews as a people that have a right to self-determination. Another reason sometimes submitted for such establishment was to have a state where Jews would not be afraid of antisemitic attacks and live in peace. But such a reason is not a requirement of the self-determination right and so is subsidiary to it in secular Zionist thinking.
Religious Zionists, who believe that religious beliefs and traditional practices are central to Jewish peoplehood, counter that assimilating to be a secular "nation like any other" would beoxymoronic in nature, and harm more than help the Jewish people. They seek instead to establish what they see as an "authentic Jewish commonwealth" which preserves and encourages Jewish heritage. Drawing an analogy to diaspora Jews who assimilated into other cultures and abandoned Jewish culture, whether voluntary or otherwise, they argue that the creation of a secular state in Israel is tantamount to establishing a state where Jews assimilate en masse as a nation, and therefore anathema to what they view as Jewish national aspirations. Zionism is rooted in a concept of the Jews as a nation, in this capacity, they believe that Israel has a mandate to promote Judaism, to be the center of Jewish culture and center of its population, perhaps even the sole legitimate representative of Jews worldwide.
Partisans of the first view are predominantly, though by no means exclusively, secular or less traditional. Partisans of the second view are almost exclusively traditional or Orthodox, although they also include supporters who follow other streams of Judaism or are less traditional but conservative and would not object to a more prominent state role in promoting Jewish beliefs – although not to the point of creating a purely Halachic state.
The debate is therefore characterised by significant polarities. Secular and religious Zionists argue passionately about what a Jewish state should represent. Post-Zionists and Zionists argue about whether a Jewish state should exist at all. Because Israel was created within the sphere of international law as the instrument for Jewish self-determination, these polarities are captured by the questions Should Israel maintain and strengthen its status as a state for the Jewish people, or become a state purely for "all of its citizens", or identify as both? And, if both, how to resolve any tensions that arise from their coexistence. To date, Israel has steered a course between secularism and Jewish identity, usually depending on who controls the Israeli High Court of Justice.
On 19 November 2008, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni addressed the United Jewish Communities General Assembly in Jerusalem. In her speech, she announced: "These two goals of Israel asa Jewish and a democratic state must coexist and not contradict each other. So, what does that mean, a Jewish state? It is not only a matter of the number of Jews who live in Israel. It is not just a matter of numbers but a matter of values. The Jewish state is a matter of values, but it is not just a matter of religion, it is also a matter of nationality. And a Jewish state is not a monopoly of rabbis. It is not. It is about the nature of the State of Israel. It is about Jewish tradition. It is about Jewish history, regardless of the question of what each and every Israeli citizen does in his own home on Saturdays and what he does on the Jewish holidays. We need to maintain the nature of the State of Israel, the character of the State of Israel, because this is the raison d'etre of the State of Israel.