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Is “Israeli” a Nationality?

Should the State of Israel recognize “Israeli” as a nationality rather than defining citizens as Jewish, Arab, and Druze? In an article published by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, II Vice President Prof. Yedidia Stern and Jay Ruderman assert that it is imperative for the State of Israel to continue distinguishing between citizenship and nationality.

For Americans, the definition of national affiliation is straightforward: it goes hand in hand with citizenship. If you are an American citizen, you are also American by nationality. The same applies to the French, Germans, and many others. In Israel, however, citizenship and nationality are—and should be—different.

The State of Israel maintains a national population registry in which every resident is classified by both “citizenship” and “nationality.” The citizenship of all Israelis is listed as “Israeli.” However, under “nationality,” they are defined as belonging to different ethnic and religious groups, among them Jewish, Arab, and Druze.

Several prominent Israelis—including a former Education Minister, a former Knesset Member, a celebrated playwright, and several Arab citizens—requested that the State recognize a new category of nationality: “Israeli.” This category would include all Israeli citizens, Jews and Arabs alike, rather than using the current ethnic-religious classification.

In a petition to the Israeli Supreme Court, they argued that the current categorization, which focuses on ethnic-religious origin, distinguishes between Arab and Jewish citizens and thereby contributes to discrimination and to infringement of the rights of Israel’s Arab citizens. In other words, in order to protect Arab civil rights, the petitioners want to create a new collective “Israeli” nationality to parallel the collective “Israeli” citizenship.

Israeli society, however, must differentiate from the necessary task of ensuring the equal rights of all citizens and abrogating the bond of peoplehood—the national bond—that ties together all Jews no matter their country of residence.

In an October 2013 decision, the Israeli Supreme Court denied the request to recognize “Israeli” as a nationality, and gave several essential reasons for supporting a specific “Jewish” nationality over a general “Israeli” nationality.

First, since it is reasonable to assume that a person cannot have two nationalities, this change would compel Jewish citizens of Israel to choose between being “Israeli” and “Jewish.” Most Israeli Jews would be forced into an impossible predicament: we see ourselves as both Jewish and Israeli, and one does not exclude the other.

Second, if the nationality of Jewish citizens of Israel were to be classified as “Israeli,” the implication would be that Judaism is not a nationality for them but is solely a religion. This idea is antithetical to the fundamental doctrine of Zionism and its main thinkers, from Herzl to Ben-Gurion, who saw Zionism as the national movement of the Jewish people.

Third, if the nationality of Jewish Israelis is defined as “Israeli” rather than “Jewish,” then the “national” bond we believe binds together Jews in Israel and Jews in the Diaspora will be severed.

The Court dealt with this last point extensively. It adopted the position that one of Israel’s essential characteristics as a “Jewish state” is its responsibility for the fate of the entire Jewish people—including the Jews of the Diaspora. For example, the Israeli penal code applies to crimes that are committed against Jews “because they are Jews” even if those crimes are committed outside of Israel, and applies to property of Jewish institutions that is vandalized because it is Jewish as well. The State of Israel has thus taken upon itself the duty of protecting world Jewry as a profound expression of global Jewish solidarity.

The responsibility of the State of Israel for world Jewry is an important expression of the fact that Israel is not an ordinary democratic state, but also a “Jewish state.” Though we may be divided by geography and citizenship, Israeli and American Jews—and their brothers and sisters around the world—are members of one nation.

Thus, it is imperative for the State of Israel to distinguish between citizenship and nationality. Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs share a common citizenship. They are both Israeli, and are therefore entitled to and must be accorded the same civil rights. But they are not members of the same nation.

Nationality, according to the Israeli Supreme Court, is derived from objective traits such as religion, culture, and collective historical memory. This is another manifestation of the puzzle of identities characterizing the Jewish nation state. As a country that holds itself as both a democracy and the homeland of the Jewish people, debates will continue as to who is a Jew and who is an Israeli. What matters most is that we approach these debates in a respectful and consistent manner. The future of Israel depends on it. 


Prof. Yedidia Z. Stern is Vice President of Research at the Israel Democracy Institute and a professor of law at Bar-Ilan University. Jay Ruderman is President of the Ruderman Family Foundation. 


This article was originally published by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency on March 3, 2014.