A Nation Running from Itself

The State of Israel, perhaps unique among the countries of the world, may be the only that refuses to refer itself by its nationality – “Israeli.” It disbelieves the existence of an Israeli nation, and as it grows older it has become ever more entrenched behind its “Jewish state” definition and has rejected the idea of “Israeliness.”

“Israel’s 75th Independence Day is coming soon, and I’m wondering why we’re not seeing any preparations,” the ambassador of a major country told me late last summer, “I was sure there’d be a big fuss around the occasion, and there’s nothing.” You’re right, I told him, the truth is that I didn’t even notice. The ambassador pressed on: “Is it because the Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox, who are about a third of the population, do not celebrate Independence Day?” I don’t think so, I replied, they didn’t celebrate it before, either. Maybe it’s because of the political crisis, the frequent elections and the transitional government; maybe after the upcoming round of elections the festivities will begin. And perhaps it’s because the state, has been evading its Israeli identity since its founding, and prefers to exist as a loose framework of tribes that share little in common, and close themselves off in their own religious or national identity without mixing.

The State of Israel, perhaps unique among the countries of the world, may be the only that refuses to refer itself by its nationality – “Israeli.” It disbelieves the existence of an Israeli nation, and as it grows older it has become ever more entrenched behind its “Jewish state” definition and has rejected the idea of “Israeliness.” In the 1980s and 1990s, the “Jewish and democratic state” formula became anchored in Israeli legislation. That is, until passing the 2018 Basic Law: Israel – the Nation State of the Jewish People, which renounced the democracy and equality promised in the Declaration of Independence, and defined Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people, and of that people only.

Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for whom enactment of the Nation-State Law was the most important decision of the right-wing government he headed, justified the law in terms of the need to protect “our national identity” from “external and internal attacks” aimed, in his view, undermining the Jewish identity of the state. But that is just a smoke screen for the law’s effective purpose of the Nation-State Law, and of the “Jewish and democratic state” laws that preceded it: to provide constitutional justification for discrimination against non-Jews or to confer special rights to Jews in Israel; and to justify coercion of secular citizens by Jewish religious leaders, while granting broad autonomy and significant influence to the Jewish religious establishment, with state support and funding.

Examples of discrimination and religionization in Israel are numerous. Article 7 of the Nation-State Law reads: “the State views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and shall act to encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation.” This Basic Law – a building block of the emerging Israeli constitution – justifies the reality of land law and planning and construction policies that discriminate against Israel’s Arab citizens and localities, surrounding them with Jewish settlements’ superior infrastructure. The Arab education system suffers from under-budgeting and poor student achievement compared to the public education system for Jews. State archaeological research and historical studies are focused on uncovering the Jewish past in this land and, to a lesser degree, early Christianity, while obscuring 1,300 years of Arab and Muslim rule here. The institutions of the Zionist movement that preceded the state, such as the Jewish National Fund, the World Zionist Organization, and the Jewish Agency, have a special legal status that was not granted to any organization representing non-Jews. Israeli immigration policy opens the country’s gates to Jews and their immediate families while keeping all others out, from Palestinians to Ukrainian war refugees.

Religious coercion – the denial of individual freedom in order to uphold Jewish traditions, and making the Shulchan Aruch (the Code of Jewish Law) a hidden part of Israel’s unwritten constitution – is reflected in the country’s personal status laws, which are subordinate to religious law (not only for Jews) and recognize civil marriages only if they were conducted outside the country, and in the absence of public transportation in most parts of the country on Shabbat. This religious coercion is also reflected in restrictions on archeological excavations , in the huge emphasis on the study of Jewish tradition in the education system, in the ban on employing Jews on Shabbat and holidays, and in the laws forbidding pork, chametz and the importation of non-kosher meat. Because, as “logic” has it, if this is a Jewish state, there is justification for enforcing Jewish tradition and refraining from enacting legislation that violates Halacha (Jewish law), such as LGBTQ rights which are currently protected only by Supreme Court rulings that could change if the conservative reform promised by the right-wing parties is implemented. Religious coercion is justified, even by a legal luminary such as former Supreme Court President Aharon Barak, according to the “Jewish and democratic state” formulation: “A ‘Jewish state’ is a state in which […] the values of Halacha are among its most basic values.”

All of these expressions of discrimination are dwarfed by the big elephant, the mammoth waiting just outside the room in the form of the “one-state solution” – the day that millions of Palestinians in the West Bank (and perhaps in the Gaza Strip) give up on the idea of a separate Palestinian state and seek instead to integrate into Israel as citizens with equal rights, after years of military occupation and partial autonomy. Should that day come, the principle of “a Jewish, and only Jewish, state” may be expected to justify Israel’s refusal to naturalize all these Palestinians, and its insistence on perpetuating their status as second-class subjects as they have been since 1967, surrounded by the Jewish settlement guaranteed in Article 7 of the Nation-State Law.

But opposition to the idea of an “Israeli nationality” long preceded the Netanyahu era. The first to formulate it in a reasoned legal argument was former president of the Supreme Court, Shimon Agranat. Justice Agranat, remembered for his seminal contribution to freedom of expression and freedom of the press in Israel via his 1953 “Kol Ha’am” (voice of the people) ruling, is regarded as a symbol of Israeli liberalism. Yet it was he who upheld a conservative view of national identity in Georges Raphael Tamarin v. the State of Israel (1971), in which the petitioner sought registration as “Israeli” in the nationality section of his identity card.

Agranat did not confine himself to the evidentiary determination that no separate Israeli nationality had been proven to exist. He expressed deep opposition to the idea: “The great event of the founding of the State of Israel – namely, the renewal of the Jewish people’s political life in its homeland – did not occur in order to engender division among the dwellers of Zion and split them into two peoples, Jewish and ‘Israeli.’ Such a division, should it, heaven forbid, ever take place, would contradict the national aspirations on whose behalf the state was established, and would mean the frustration of those aspirations and the undermining of the unity of the Jewish people as a whole. If in Israel today, just 23 years after the founding of the state, there exists a handful of people – or even more than a handful – who wish to separate themselves from the Jewish people and acquire the status of a separate Israeli nation, then that separatist orientation should not be viewed as legitimate and may not be recognized.”

This position was reaffirmed by the Supreme Court in 2008 when it rejected a petition by the linguist and founder of the League Against Religious Coercion, Uzzi Ornan, and a group of activists who sought recognition of an “Israeli” nationality in the Population Registry. Ornan and his associates publicized the fact that Israel’s Ministry of Interior recognizes 135 national identities, including Kurdish, Abkhazian, Assyrian, and Samarian – but not an Israeli identity. There is a degree of naivete in the petitioners’ reasoning, and in the justices’ resolute dismissal of it – as if an administrative change to a Population Registry designation no longer used on Israeli identity cards would have resulted in the formation of a new national identity.

But Agranat was wrong. And so were Supreme Court Justices Uzi Vogelman and Hanan Melcer, who wrote the Ornan et al. petition ruling. There is such a thing as a distinct Israeli identity that does not negate or supersede Jewish identity, but rather complements it. There are Israeli Jews, just as there are American Jews and Indian Jews and Argentinean Jews and Iranian Jews. In the United States there is no distinction at all between “citizenship” and “nationality,” and yet Jewish cultural uniqueness is recognized just like that of other ethnic and religious groups, and no one fears that the American nation will collapse because of this.

The time has come for Israel to combine “citizenship” and “nationality” – to recognize the existence of a distinct Israeliness and to cultivate its common denominator instead of the division into ethnic and religious tribes. There is no need for a “nationality” designation in the Population Registry, just as there is none (which indeed does not exist) in the United States, the United Kingdom, or France, and just as the Jews of the Diaspora bear no such label. When countries have marked Jews as such in their identification documents, as was the case in the Soviet Union, we rightly saw this as an expression of antisemitism. And yet, here in Israel, the nationality designation is seen as a necessity.

Supreme Court rulings and the Nation-State Law place “Jewish solidarity” as the highest value; as far as they are concerned, I am closer in identity to my distant cousins in Washington, Buenos Aires and Saint Petersburg, whom I’ve never met but with whom I share one-and-a-half percent of my DNA, than to the Arab journalists who write alongside me in Haaretz. This is “the state’s position.” But those who take that view are not entitled to complain when Israelis who identify as Palestinians put the Palestinians in the West Bank, Syria, or Chile as their chief concern. Nor are they entitled to complain when Jews emigrate from Israel to countries overseas and seek to live their Jewish identity without paying taxes here or serving in the army.

Israeli legal sophistry and basic laws deliberately disregard the local identity that emerged here during the Yishuv period and since the founding of the state, an identity that is based on the Hebrew language and Hebrew culture, on the landscapes and historical sites, and on the governmental and public institutions common to the Jews and non-Jews who live here. The Sea of Galilee is the same Sea of Galilee; the plumbing is the same plumbing. All of these things distinguish us from those who live in the United States, Jews and Arabs and Abkhazians and French and Indonesians. This is the answer to the question posed by former Prime Minister Yair Lapid while still a TV interviewer – “What, in your eyes, should be considered as ‘Israeli’?” One can be Israeli while also identifying as a Jew, a Palestinian, a Christian, a Muslim, a Druze, or a Bahá’í, each according to his or her degree of faith and traditional observance. One can even identify, simultaneously, with cultures and communities from other countries.

But the state does not want us to be Israelis. It wants us to be Jews, Arabs, “people of no religion,” or identified as members of the 132 other nationalities recognized by the Ministry of Interior. It wants us to be classified in accordance with the local educational streams – “mamlachti” [state-secular], “mamlachti-dati” [state-religious], “Haredi,” or “Arab.” It prefers us in separate and conflicting tribes, so as not to have to ensure “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex” as written in the Declaration of Independence. Instead, the state prefers to privilege Jews and the Jewish religion; it chooses to emphasize elements of identity that cause ever-larger segments of the population to feel alienated from their country.

And when this is the constitutional and political situation, it is no wonder that the country’s 75th Independence Day does not arouse overwhelming enthusiasm among millions of Israelis.

Aluf Benn is a journalist, political commentator, and Editor-in-Chief of Haaretz.