Does Israeli Equal Jew? On a Shared Israeli Identity

Gershom Gorenberg

A few days ago, Haim, you responded to a challenge I raised in a post on the conversion battles. Your answer made me realize that I hadn’t phrased the question sharply enough.

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.

6 thoughts on “Does Israeli Equal Jew? On a Shared Israeli Identity”

  1. You are quite right…..there is a major problem in creating a shared civic identity that both Jews and Arabs could identify with. In fact, it is impossible. Israel was created expressly as a Jewish state, the declaration of Independence says it explicitly. However, should the dream of certain people on the non-Zionist Left be fulfilled and Israel redefined as a “state of all its citizens”, the Arabs would still be essentially left out in the cold. That is because this deJudaized Israel (or, as Dr Bernard Avishai calls it “the Hebrew Republic”) would still be an alien entity imposed by force on the Arab/Muslim Middle East. As the Muslims see it, Israel is located right in the heart of the “Dar al-Islam” (the Realm of Islam) . This deJudaized Israel would still have a “Hebrew” identity based on the Jewish majority. Muslims would view this as a dhimmi state made of the people who rejected Muhammed’s message. Secular Arabs would see a state with a non-Arabic culture, with an agressive Western culture and economic system that is a major threat to the conservative value system present in the Arab/Muslim Middle East, regardless of how religious Islamic the local regimes may be. Thus, Israeli Arabs would still be essentially alienated, even if you call them equal partners. They can’t accept being equal, they have to be dominant because they view the territory Israel inhabits as being “their turf”. Thus a “Hebrew Republic” or “state of all its citizens” is no solution to the problem. In essence there is no solution to the dilemma of Israeli Arab identity. We can hope that seeing to it that the Israeli Arabs have a good chance for economic advancement will help them, but as it says in the Bible “Man does not live by bread alone” and economic opportunity will not solve all the problems, or even most of them. What we can most hope for is a modus-vivendi which can only occur when Israel and Israelis make clear that Jews have just as much right to live here as anyone else and that we are not going anywhere, promises of HAMAS and HIZBULLAH notwithstanding.

  2. It is a can of worms and it seems to me that your desire to have a resolution based on an Israeli identity is the only long term solution, literally – “the condition of being dissolved” according to Merriam-Webster, and through the process of dissolving forming something stronger, more lasting – a nationalism of the heart but in the sense of Scott’s phrase,

    breathes there a man, with soul so dead,
    who never to himself hath said,
    This is my own, my native land!

    This feeling is not infused in a population when a minority sits to judge who is and who is not allowed to be a part of the group – thinking small by a small group – is it surprising?

    I’d like to think that America rests on the foundation you would like to see come about for Israel, but in a broader sense on which I think you and I might agree.

    People pushing the stars and stripes in my face and yelling about what a great county this is does nothing to make my heart beat faster. Spare me the military, necessary as it is, on parade and the fireworks on the 4th. I don’t get high on the idea that I am something special for being simply for being here.

    Rather, the idea behind the country is something special. What does speed my pulse is the idea that maybe it is possible to find justice in law, to guarantee freedom of the individual in the face of the mighty state and for millions to live together under the concept.

    The ultra-Orthodox look to one’s relatives to define an individual for inclusion in a group. Hitler’s crowd looked to it as well. Perhaps the procedure pursued from both extremes is a hint to drop the whole project?

    If not, maybe a simple rule could be applied – if OTHERS call you a Jew, and you do so as well, then you are a Jew. Making the definition by blood line is turning toward racism, something with which more and more people are uncomfortable I’m glad to say.

  3. Y, you’re such an expert on Islam and what “the Muslims” think and believe. Have you ever even met a Muslim?

  4. Gershom, thanks for the clarification. I share your sentiments, but like you, I’m not sure how it can be done. This is the challenge presented by those who support a secular, one-state solution, a state of all its citizens: does having a state based on a collective Jewish identity preclude an inclusive Israeli identity in which Jews and non-Jews can share equally? Would having the latter mean the end of a state that could be committed explicitly to the defense of the Jewish people and the promotion of its culture? Do we do this by being fuzzy at the edges and trying to combine two incompatible kinds of identity, or are you saying that there is no fundamental contradiction?

  5. Gershom – as usual, I tend to agree with your perspective, and vision. In my view, an Israeli civil religion that could include its non-Jewish citizens can only happen in the context of peace, and after everyone feels confidant about it (whatever that will mean). As long as there is a group that serves in the military, and a group that doesn’t, the divide will remain.

  6. This is the challenge presented by those who support a secular, one-state solution, a state of all its citizens: does having a state based on a collective Jewish identity preclude an inclusive Israeli identity in which Jews and non-Jews can share equally? Would having the latter mean the end of a state that could be committed explicitly to the defense of the Jewish people and the promotion of its culture? Do we do this by being fuzzy at the edges and trying to combine two incompatible kinds of identity, or are you saying that there is no fundamental contradiction?

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