The Israeli Basic Law, controversially passed in 2018, specifies that

The State of Israel is the national home of the Jewish people, in which it fulfills its natural, cultural, religious, and historical right to self-determination.

Are there similar laws in other countries, or is it unique in explicitly favouring an ethnic group over all others? AFAIK most countries in the world are nation-states, but are there examples of them codifying this into law?

I'm aware that other countries have in the past favoured an ethnic group for migration purposes only, such as Germany, Armenia, Finland, etc. However, I'm interested more in a country's explicit self-identification.

EDIT: The only other analogy I could think of is Russia, which following the 2020 Constitutional referendum, designated ethnic Russian nationals as "state-forming".

  • 4
    How are you defining "nation-states for a particular ethnic group"? If you count jus sanguinis nationality laws, there are lots of ethnic nation-states. But if you mean laws where only one ethnic group can be citizens, I don't know if there are any at all. (Even a quarter of Israeli citizens are non-Jewish.)
    – dan04
    Nov 15, 2023 at 23:31
  • 1
    @dan04 I mean countries that define themselves "nation-states for a particular ethnic group", whatever they themselves mean by that. I'm not talking of depriving other ethnicities of citizenship, but about a country's self-identification. Nov 15, 2023 at 23:35
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    I don't see why these matter. There are entire countries calling themselves "Islamic Republics", even a nuclear one, but somehow Israel gets the attention.
    – whoisit
    Nov 16, 2023 at 14:38
  • 2
    It might be a bit simplistic to reason in terms of solely "ethnic group". There also seems to be a religious dimension that, mostly, maps to what we think of as Jews. But not always exactly: see Ethiopian Jews Nov 17, 2023 at 3:05
  • 2
    Your description 'in Western parlance' severely misrepresents the issue. Israel self-describes as a Jewish state and other countries including in the West adopt that. This is very common in diplomacy, most countries refer to other countries by the name these countries want to be called, even in cases where say North Korea self-describes as democratic.
    – quarague
    Jan 19 at 9:00

7 Answers 7


Yes, many countries have laws of return. The list of bona fide states, which are listed in the Wikipedia article is

  • Armenia
  • Austria
  • Finland
  • France
  • Germany
  • Ghana
  • Greece
  • Hungary
  • Ireland
  • Israel
  • Latvia
  • Poland
  • Portugal
  • Romania
  • Russian Federation
  • Spain

The conditions for return vary from country to country, but central to all of them is some idea of having ancestral origin in the country. Some of those countries have additional requirements. And the definition of "origin" also varies among them. The Wikipedia article itself has more details. I'll leave them out here for the sake of brevity because, regardless of how the "origin" is defined, having a law of return based on origin essentially answers the question.

  • 1
    You could add Australia with respect to Australian aboriginal people.
    – ohwilleke
    Nov 16, 2023 at 1:03
  • 4
    @wrod the question does call out "explicitly favouring an ethnic group over all others". Some of the examples in the list do not fit that criteria. Nov 16, 2023 at 7:56
  • 3
    For example, the criteria for Austria are essentially having been (or being a decendent of) a citizen persecuted during the Nazi era, not ethnic. Actually, many of those for which this applies are from ethnic minorities.
    – Hulk
    Nov 16, 2023 at 13:33
  • 1
    Russian Federation's return laws are not ethnicity-based so the answer is inaccurate at least once.
    – alamar
    Nov 16, 2023 at 19:42
  • Also, Japan and Korea. See especially Zainichi (Koreans in Japan), many of whom may have been born in Japan, have never been in Korea, speak only Japanese and not a word of Korean, yet are Korean citizens and not Japanese citizens.
    – user103496
    Nov 17, 2023 at 1:11

In case of Israel, the major ethnicity of its population is not immediately obvious from the name of the state. Hence the (relatively rare) description of Israel is the Jewish state.

In many other cases, the major ethnicity of the population is immediately obvious from the name of the country, for example:

  • Germany - Germans,
  • France - French,
  • Italy - Italians,
  • China - Chinese.

Thus, there is no obvious need to describe, say, Italy as the Italian state (it just sounds odd).

In rare cases, the ethnicity is part of the name of the country, for example:

  • Russian Federation,
  • German Democratic Republic (GDR) - the territory of Germany formerly occupied by USSR.

Note also that the formation of Israel as a Jewish state was closely associated with the preceding genocide of the Jews, singled out by Hitler on an ethnic basis. The British Mandate territory was divided specifically into the Jewish and the Arab states. This is an additional reason for the (still relatively rare) usage of the term "the Jewish state".

  • 1
    Well, there's the Czech Republic (although I think they prefer "Czechia" now). And the Dominican Republic. And the United Arab Emirates. So nothing unusual about countries being named "the (ethnic/national adjective) (country)". Even more if you include the endonyms that literally translate to "United Mexican States" and "French Republic".
    – dan04
    Jan 19 at 3:49
  • 4
    But if you’re a citizen of (for example) Italy then you are Italian. Being a citizen of Israel doesn’t make you Jewish, only Israeli. There’s a difference there.
    – Mike Scott
    Jan 19 at 6:36
  • 1
    "Russian Federation" is exactly the "federation" and includes many other ethnicities, some in notable numbers (Russian ethnicity makes somewhat 71.7%). This streams from the even older misunderstanding when all citizens of the Soviet Union was "Russians".
    – Stančikas
    Jan 19 at 8:24
  • 1
    @MikeScott See comments of Stančikas & dan04. Being a citizen of the Czech Republic doesn't mean you are an ethnic Czech, bc it is a multiethnic state with Czechs being the major ethnicity. Same goes for the Dominican Republic, the United Arab Emirates, the Russian Federation, German Democratic Republic, etc. What "difference" are you talking about? BTW, many countries have special laws of giving citizenship preferentially to immigrants of the major ethnicity. This is true for Germany for ethnic Germans, Slovakia for ethnic Slovaks, etc, - same as for Israel for ethnic Jews. Jan 19 at 12:53
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    "it just sounds odd". Not odd enough. Google "Hungarian state", "Italian state" etc. For the former, you even get hits on official pages 2015-2019.kormany.hu/en/doc/the-hungarian-state/… For the latter, there's a hit on history.state.gov/countries/italy Jan 20 at 20:47

Trivially yes. E.g.: the Azeri state -- appears as such in a UN document for instance, if a Google search is too vague for you. And yeah that's also the name of an ethnic group.

If you're willing to accept some combination of historical and modern hits/results, there's plenty more: "the Mongol state" etc. The CIA factbook even explains:

conventional short form: Mongolia

local short form: Mongol Uls

etymology: the name means "Land of the Mongols" in Latin; the Mongolian name Mongol Uls translates as "Mongol State"

And yeah, there's an ethnic group with that name.

The reason why this doesn't happen for "Anglo-Saxon" etc. is that there's more than one candidate country, so there would be some confusion as to what's being referred without more context. (Funnily enough though, modern Russian official rhetoric does treat them like one and the same, when they speak of "Anglo-Saxons" though.) Likewise for "Arab state", although if you peruse some of the results, there are some writeups that try to reify the latter concept.


The preamble of the German Grundgesetz declares itself the consitution of the German people, enumerates the federal states, and declares that those are all of Germany.

This must be understood in the historical context of state creation in Europe, where the Holy Roman Empire was not roman, not an empire, and not very holy. There are other German-language people in Europe, but after Reunification modern Germany rejects any further irredentist claims.

  • But the same law also defines "German" in non-ethnic terms: "a German within the meaning of this Basic Law is a person who possesses German citizenship" Possession of Israeli citizenship does decidedly not make one Jewish. Jan 19 at 11:16
  • @StandwithGaza, that is right on the individual level, yet the preamble (and especially the revision history of the preamble) show a different viewpoint as well, upholding the right of the German people to reunification. And with Reunification, it was felt necessary to point out that this was complete, no more to come. That's not an individual view.
    – o.m.
    Jan 19 at 14:29
  • It also presumably relates to the expulsion of Germans from eastern Europe after World War Two. While some of this was due to changing of borders, there had long been an ethnically German population in the Russian Empire/Soviet Union, Romania, and elsewhere, so Germany admitted stateless ethnic Germans (who often spoke German and followed German customs despite no recent German-citizen ancestry).
    – Stuart F
    Apr 15 at 12:49

Israel is described as a Jewish state because that is how it chooses to characterise itself, for example in its Declaration of Independence: “WE […] HEREBY DECLARE THE ESTABLISHMENT OF A JEWISH STATE IN ERETZ-ISRAEL, TO BE KNOWN AS THE STATE OF ISRAEL“.

So the interesting question would be whether any other nation states define themselves in religious or ethnic terms.


Most states profess stewardship over a specific nation and adheres to rules and principles governing who is and who isn't a member of that nation. Israel isn't different in that regard. In Israel's case, the essence of these rules are defined in the basic law that you cite and in the Law of Return enacted in 1950:

  1. Every Jew has the right to come to this country as an oleh**.

An "oleh" is a Jewish immigrant to Israel. Thus, in the state's eyes, the nation is the Jewish people, the members of the nation are the Jews, and wheter a Jew or non-Jew is a citizen of Israel or not is of secondary importance. See f.e:

The Law of Return views every Jew and his or her family as members as in potenia citizens of the State of Israel, thus establishing a formal, legal link between the State of Israel and the community of world Jewry, and expressing a fundamental Zionist value upon which the state itself is founded: that Israel should provide a home to any Jew who so desires. [...]

In other words, there is nothing equivalent to a naturalization process for in the case of "returning" Jews because, as with other family-related perceptions of ethnocultural membership, Israeli citizenship law views persons eligibile for return already belonging to the constitutive community; that is, they are considered to have a status equal to Israeli-born citizens. [1]

While Wikipedia claims that many countries have similar laws, that information is incorrect. For example, article 116 of the German Basic Law reads:

Former German citizens who between 30 January 1933 and 8 May 1945 were deprived of their German citizenship on political, racial, or religious grounds may have their citizenship restored. This generally also applies to their descendants.

That is, the right to have their citizenship restored is conferred are to people and the descendants of people who were stripped of their German citizenship by the Nazis. Most (Western) nation states works like this, the citizenship defines whether a person is in the in-group or out-group. But Israel is unique in this aspect as it is "being Jewish" that defines the in- and out-group.

  1. Whose Republic: Citizenship and Membership in the Israeli Polity
  • 1
    You are quoting Article 116 section 2, not the entire article. The German case is more complicated, see also Spätaussiedler after the fall of the Iron Curtain.
    – o.m.
    Nov 16, 2023 at 5:30
  • 1
    Can you explain? Article 116(1) reads "a German within the meaning of this Basic Law is a person who possesses German citizenship". So it's clear that nationality is based in the possession of citizenship. Shachar quoted above argues that is not the case for Israel as Jews "already belong to the constitutive community". Nov 16, 2023 at 6:32
  • 6
    Germany in the 1990s accepted 400k ethnic Germans from the former Soviet Union, whose ancestors left modern-day German territories in the 17-18th centuries. They never possessed German citizenship in the modern sense of the word. Similarly, Armenia nowadays gives citizenship to anyone of 'ethnic Armenian origin', while denying it to the Azeri expelled during the 1992 war. Nov 16, 2023 at 9:53
  • 2
    Fair enough, but I think there are key differences. The German laws will eventually expire as they don't apply to persons born after 1992 and is explicitly regulated by a quota system. They also subject would-be immigrants to language tests and non-USSR emigrants has to prove that they were discriminated against in their host countries. In contrast, the LoR is applicable in perpetuity and the right it confers are essentially only withheld to criminal convicts and Jews who have converted. Nov 16, 2023 at 13:06
  • @Stand with Gaza, it's actually more similar than it seems from the current text of the German Basic Law: During cold war, [West] Germany held that also East Germans already were Germans, so not even an immigration procedure needed. (GDR also referred to their citizens being "German", but had a definition that excluded West Germans until IIRC 1967, when they changed it to chitizenship: GDR). It's just that with reunificiation the occasion to pronounce this point of view vanished. Apr 15 at 18:39

Arab Republics
The straightforward answer something like:
the Arab Republic of Egypt
Syrian Arab Republic
Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic
as well as now defunct Arab Republics in Libya, Yemen and elsewhere.

Here Arab:

The Arabs, also known as the Arab people, are an ethnic group mainly inhabiting the Arab world in Western Asia and Northern Africa. A significant Arab diaspora is present in various parts of the world.

It is worth mentioning a common mistake of conflating Arabs and Muslims:

  • Not all Arabs are Muslim - a significant part of them are Christians (of various Christian denominations) as well as Druze and Jews
  • Not all Muslims are Arabs - the obvious examples are Turks and Persians, but in general Islam spreads well beyond the Arab World.

Frame challenge: what "Jewish" really means?
However, it is incorrect to interpret "Jewish" as a purely ethnic term: as it may refer to religion, ethnic origin, culture, nation, and whatever other reasons for which people are identified and identify themselves as Jewish.

The term Jewish state was coined by Theodor Herzl, whose 1896 pamphlet about the solution to the Jewish question in Europe was called Der Judenstaat (The Jewish state) and serves as the departing point of the Jewish movement for national self-determination, commonly known as Zionist movement.In this respect Herzl used the term Jewish in the same sense as France is the French State, Germany is the German state, and so on.

Emergence of nation-state
Indeed, XIX-th century was characterized by the emergence of the concept of nation state, which would be later codified in by the League of Nations and the UN charter as self-determination, but which was largely non-existent before XIX-th century. Indeed, up to then one's "nationality" was determined by the ruler of the territory - of the territory was ruled by the French King, one was French, if by Russian Czar - one was Russian. Most modern states didn't exist at all - either because they were split into many small principalities (like Germany) or because they were part of larger empires (Finland, Baltic states, Poland, Hungary, Czechia, Slovakia, Serbia, Croatia, Bulgaria, etc.)

French revolutions and other revolutions overthrowing monarchies created a need for a different principle of describing people as a single state, and this is where the nation appears. Initially it was largely treated in ethnic terms, and this idea lingered for a long time, before being fully discredited by Nazis. Thus, France was supposed to be state of French people, the descendants of Gauls (or at least Franks). This readily created problems, like:

  • parts of France did not consider them French and may speak dialects very different from French (like Breton in Brittany.)
  • How should one treat, e.g., Italians, living in France - do they become ethnically French after certain number of generation?
  • What to do with the border region, like Alsace, which is mixed German-French, and where one speaks Alsatian/Alemannic language similar to the German dialects of Swiss and Luxembourg?

Furthermore, the population typically didn't have any concept of national identity - e.g., Russia peasants were loyal to their village commune and the Czar, but had no idea of what Russia means. Nomadic tribes in the Arab peninsula had string sense of Clan allegiance, but no reason to feel themselves any more Arab than they were Ottoman (I recommend George Antonius' The Arab Awakening as an example description of national revival and emergence a national independence movement.)

It took more than a century before we reached the modern state, where being French/German/British is viewed simply a matter of citizenship, rather than one's ethnicity. But one still hears claims like "Dès que l'on devient français, nos ancêtres sont gaulois" (The moment one becomes French, one's ancestors are Gauls.)

How do Jews fit into a nation-state?
Another consequence of the European revolutions was the separation of the church and the state, rendering the religion a private matter. If until then the Jews were viewed as a group apart due to their religion, they now were becoming equal citizens, with the full civil rights. Indeed, many Jews believed that with disappearance of the religious discrimination they would be simply assimilated into the host nations. By the end of the XIX-th century it became obvious that this was not happening - that Jews were viewed as foreign/different, regardless of them living in their host nations for centuries, mastering local language and customs and even sometimes even converting to Christianity (Karl Marx' father is a notable example.) In other words, they began to be treated as an ethnic rather than a religious category. (Although in Russia the discrimination of millions of its Jewish population continued to be justified on purely religious grounds all the way up to the end of monarchy. Contrary to widespread misconception, it was not Bolsheviks, but the preceding Provisional government which granted Russian Jews their civil rights.)

This period was also characterized by Jewish cultural revival - known as Haskala - Jewish renaissance. In other words, Jewish people acquired all the attributes normally associated with a nation... except for the territory. It is in this context that Herzl spoke of the Jewish state.

Unfortunately even today some prefer to ignore the complexity of Jewishness, and describe it as a purely ethnic or a purely religious category. Many arguments aiming at smearing Israel are built along these lines, like:

  • Jews are an ethnic group, and therefore Israel is an attempt to create an ethnically pure state - then follows comparison with Nazis
  • Jews are a religious group, and Israel is a theocracy, like the Islamic Republic of Iran or the Handmaid's Tale - something distasteful to modern Europeans

A piece of trivia: Herzl's other book, in which he outlines the social, political and economic structure of the future Jewish state is called Altneuland (The Old New Land). The Hebrew translator had difficulty rendering the title in the target language, and changed it to Tel Aviv (The Hill of Spring) - the name of a geographic location somewhere in modern Iraq, mentioned in the Bible (Tel Abib). Altneuland makes a curious reading - it represents a very progressive vision... but progressive by the standards of the XIX-th century Europe. E.g., while Herzl pictures Muslims as citizens with equal rights in his new state, he describes them as Ottoman Turks, seemingly unaware of their Arab identity (to his excuse, the Arab national movement was only emerging in those times.)

A relevant quote from Rashid Khalidi's The Iron Cage:

This is not to say that there are not many myths worth debunk- ing in the Palestinian version of events: there are indeed, particu- larly ideas relating to the Zionist movement and Israel and their connections with the Western powers, the relation of Zionism to the course of modern Jewish history, particularly the central place of the Holocaust in this history, and the reductionist view of Zion- ism as no more than a colonial enterprise. This enterprise was and is colonial in terms of its relationship to the indigenous Arab popu- lation of Palestine; Palestinians fail to understand, or refuse to recognize, however, that Zionism also served as the national movement of the nascent Israeli polity being constructed at their expense. There is no reason why both positions cannot be true: there are multiple examples of national movements, indeed nations, that were colonial in their origins, not least of them the United States. Deconstructing these ideas will be crucially important to an eventual reconciliation of the two peoples.

  • 2
    It's hard to be sure what the OP is asking exactly, but one can't alas speak of "the Arab state" without confusion, because there's more than one. Jan 19 at 9:16

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