Jewish, Democratic—and Israeli

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We should simultaneously define Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people and at the same time---the state and home of all its citizens.

Illustration | Flash 90

Sometimes it’s a good idea to listen carefully to what demonstrators are saying. The representatives of Israel’s Druze community who protested against the Nation-State Law were not so focused on the fear that the new law would deal a blow to their equal legal rights. Indeed, they argued that even before the new law was enacted, and despite the formal equality which is in place in practice--they don't enjoy equal rights. Instead, their main objection to the new law was that it strips them of their identity as Israelis. Similarly, the Muslim Arab journalist Lucy Aharish, who uploaded a very moving clip in which she explains why the law is so harmful, was more concerned with being excluded from the Israeli collective than with the prospect of her legal rights being curtailed.

Thus, while the Jewish supporters and opponents of the law are locked in conflict over its legal implications—whether or not it will jeopardize the equal rights of non-Jewish minorities in Israel—many of those very same minorities are more concerned about an entirely different issue, one that might seem to be only symbolic: their sense of inclusion in the Israeli collective. This is at the core of their anger over being made “second-class citizens.”

If we were sufficiently sensitive to nuance, we might be able to appreciate this as a groundbreaking and positive moment in Israeli history: 70 years after independence, it is not only ultra-Orthodox Jews who are becoming more and more Israeli, but also many of the country’s Druze, Circassian, Bedouin, Christian Arab, and even Muslim citizens.

This situation should be understood as an important milestone in tackling the thorny issue of Israeli identity, and certainly—with regard to the current crisis over the Nation-State Law. Clearly, we must recognize that Israeli identity is anomalous. As a rule, countries define their national identity according to territory and citizenship: whoever resides in French territory and is a French citizen is automatically considered a member of the French nation. By contrast, Israel’s national identity is defined by ethnic, religious, and cultural affiliation: Israel is the nation state of those who belong to the Jewish people, and whose religion and culture are Jewish, regardless of where they reside or what citizenship they hold.

This anomaly can be justified by another anomaly--- the unusual trajectory of Jewish history. The Jewish people did not create its state as a part of a historical continuum —in the way that other native, territorial, and national collectives consolidated and founded their own states—but rather overcame a truncation of its history--- and returned to its historical homeland after almost 2,000 years of exile. Moreover: the majority of the Jews did not reside in that homeland at the time the state was founded. However, we should be wary of taking too much advantage of this anomaly and having it serve as a justification for widespread exclusion of non-Jews. On the contrary: the Nation-State Law crisis proves that alongside the nurturing of the state’s Jewish identity from cultural and legal standpoints, it is no less essential to nurture the “togetherness” of a broad Israeli collective.

Thus, for example, we should simultaneously define Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people and at the same time---the state and home of all its citizens. Alongside Independence Day, which is ultimately a day of celebration for the country’s Jews and a day of mourning for its Arabs, we should create a new national holiday that celebrates our shared civic identity. On a cultural level, we should seek to invest not only in strengthening each group’s distinct foundations—Jewish, Muslim, Druze, Christian, and others but also in strengthening our common base: that is—a close connection and love for the land; a familiarity with both our languages, Hebrew and Arabic; and the study of the entirety of the history of the Land of Israel, not just its Jewish chapters.

During the early decades of the Zionist movement, there was a nativist trend that sought to disassociate Jewish identity (which was perceived as linked to the Diaspora) from the Hebrew identity of the “new Jews”—those who would become a proud majority in a sovereign Jewish state, which would boast not only political independence, but also economic and cultural independence. This trend peaked in the creation of the Canaanite movement—interestingly, a product of the Revisionist right wing rather than of the Labor movement—which sought to completely erase Jewish identity from the Zionist enterprise in the Land of Israel, and replace it with a shared nativist identity that would be both post-Jewish and post-Arab.

Needless to say, this was both an extreme position from an ideational perspective, and an unrealistic one, given the historical and cultural affinities of the two peoples living in this land. That said, it also held a significant grain of truth, in its understanding that Jewish identity in a sovereign nation state cannot be the same as Jewish identity held by Jews as a religious minority in the Diaspora. In recent years, the Middle East has undergone a very problematic process of dissolution of several nation states along ethnic and religious lines. Against this backdrop, excluding non-Jewish minorities from the Israeli collective is a particularly dangerous mistake, as it creates a risk of a similar disintegration here in Israel. Events in our own “neighborhood” which echo those in the Soviet Union and the Balkans highlight the importance of investing greater efforts in strengthening the concentric rings of Israeli identity, rather than only Jewish identity.

The article was first published in the Jerusalem Report.