I wrote: “We need to define a civic Israeli identity not dependent on halakhic status.” You wrote that I was right, but that it was sad that I was. And then you said:
The secular Israeli state’s way of determining who is Jewish—and therefore who belongs to the state’s majority culture and ethnic group—is a religious definition.
It seems to me that by beginning the discussion there, you are mixing two separate questions. One is: Can someone belong to the majority culture and society in Israel without being a member of the Jewish faith? The other is: Can Israel develop a civic identity that is shared by Jews and non-Jews, including Palestinians who are citizens of the state?
Before going further, an aside: It’s true that on a legal level, Israel has given a religion-based definition of “Who’s a Jew” even when that definition doesn’t line up with halakhah, Jewish religious law. The first time that became clear was in the Brother Daniel case of 1962, when the Supreme Court had to decide what the word “Jew” meant in the Law of Return. Did that word – and the right to immigrate to Israel – apply to a man born Jewish, who’d fought the Nazis as a partisan, but who had become a Catholic monk? Under halakhah, you can’t stop being a Jew. But the court said that in civil law, “Jew” meant what it did in daily Jewish speech. By that criterion, someone who “cuts himself off from national past by changing his religion ceases being a Jew…” Paradoxically, the secular, ethnic meaning excluded someone who changed his religion.
Several years later, amending the Law of Return, the Knesset decided that “Jew” meant someone who born as a Jew or who’d converted to Judaism, and had not left the faith. It also granted the right to immigrate to children and grandchildren of Jews. The Supreme Court has since ruled that conversion doesn’t need to be Orthodox for this purpose.
Two implications: A. The official meaning of “Jew” for civil purposes is still tied to religion, though not to Orthodox law. A Reform religious ceremony can make someone Jewish. B. Non-Jews with a Jewish father or grandfather can immigrate. Many have. Some thought of themselves as Jewish by the ethnic standards of the Soviet Union. Some didn’t.
But almost universally, they are in the process of assimilating into the Jewish cultural minority. They may speak Russian with their kids and landsleit (folks who came from the same place), but they speak Hebrew with everyone else, and look forward to a couple of days off at Rosh Hashanah, and their kids have to learn medieval Jewish poems to graduate from high school. Assimilating along with them are the kids of “foreign workers,” meaning illegal economic immigrants, who know no country but this one even if they don’t have papers.
At least for those non-Jewish Jews who are citizens, the only problem arises when they want to get married – whether the other member of the couple is halakhically Jewish or not. The rabbinate won’t marry them. There’s no civil marriage. Like lots of other Israelis they go abroad. A small number convert to Judaism. The number is likely to drop, because the ultra-Orthodox who control the rabbinate don’t really believe in conversion (as I wrote here and here).
Sociologically, there is a Jewish society in Israel that includes many people not considered Jews by some others on religious grounds. The ambiguity about who’s Jewish that characterizes Diaspora life has made aliyah. It’s not going away, especially when modern Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Israelis disagree intensely about conversion. If you are an Orthodox Jew considering making aliyah because you are sure that in Israel your son will meet only young women whom you consider Jewish, kindly reconsider. In the Jewish state, a “civic Jew” may very well not be a halakhic Jew.
(In a recent essay, I described an Israel in 2028 where “Ibrahim Abdullah Hapalit is the reigning literary star. His first novel, Sinai, is based on his childhood escape from Darfur, across Egypt and the Sinai desert to the promised land. The last chapter, ‘Light,’ describes his parents’ ambivalence when he asked to light a Hanukkah menorah so he could be like the other children in his school. Critics rave over Hapalit’s Hebrew, built out of Biblical language and the Chinese-West African slang of south Tel Aviv’s immigrant alleys.” If you want to know why I see that as a positive development, read here.)
The problem is that for a large number of Israelis, belonging to the majority culture not only means that you are a Jew, it is the definition of being Israeli. For them, a Jew is someone who speaks Hebrew, lives between the river and the sea, and serves in the Israel Defense Forces. And for them, that’s also the common denominator of Israelis. Ergo, the people who speak Arabic and live in Umm al-Fahm and carry Israeli passports and vote in Israeli elections – all the Palestinians who live within the Green line, some 15% of the country’s population – are Israeli citizens. But not Israelis.
My son points out an expression of this thinking: There are pre-army leadership courses for high-school graduates that claim to bring together all parts of Israeli society, by which they mean religious and secular Jews. Ergo, the Arab-speaking residents of Sakhnin and Faradis are not Israelis. They just have Israeli citizenship. And very few will want to do any form of national service, military or otherwise, because to do so is to identify not only as an Israeli but as a Jew.
So here’s the dilemma: If we do manage to end the occupation, the great majority of people living in the territory unambiguously belonging to the Jewish state will belong to the Jewish cultural majority. The calendar will remain Jewish, and the standard language will be Hebrew, and the children of Darfur refugees will learn about hasidism in history class (just as I learned about “our” Pilgrim fathers in history class). And within the Jewish majority, people will go on disagreeing about what “Jewish” means, and religious Jews will go on converting people to Judaism and not accepting the next guy’s converts.
But besides all that, we need an Israeli civic identity, a sense of shared social commitment, that includes all citizens of this country, whether they speak Hebrew or Arabic. It needs to be based on shared fate as members of the same polity, residents of the same piece of land. A conversation of “all Israelis” has to include those who identify ethnically as Arabs and as Palestinians. A class on Israeli history has to include the history of non-Jews who live here, and a civics class has to stress the shared rights and responsibilities of all of us.
I call this a dilemma because I don’t know how to get there. I call it a dilemma because I am describing a state that is both a Jewish state and a state of all its citizens, depending on the angle at which you are looking at it. I don’t know how exactly we renovate our house divided in order to create that shared home. But this was the question I intended to raise.