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A group of Israeli public figures last week petitioned the High Court of Justice to order the Interior Ministry to register them as Israelis. "We're Israeli, and wish to be registered as such," said the petition, presented by Attorney Yoela Har-Shefi.

The Interior Ministry has a list of 137 nationalities, including Abkhazi, Assyrian and Samaritan - but you won't find "Israeli" among them. The State of Israel doesn't recognize the existence of "Israeli" as a nationality.

The petitioning group is headed by Professor Uzi Ornan of the Hebrew University and the Technion and the 38 intellectuals, academics and scientists include Shulamit Aloni, Uri and Rahel Avneri, Yehoshua Sobol, Gavriel Solomon, Yigal Eilam, Meron Benvenisti, Yehoshua Porat and Oren Yifta'el.

Also in the group is singer Alon Olearchik, formerly of the army Nahal entertainment group and the Israeli rock band Caveret - his mother is Christian and father Jewish, so he is not Jewish. Adal Ka'adan, the Israeli Arab who tried in vain to buy a house in the Katzir community, also wants to be registered as Israeli.

Among the petitioners are those categorized on the identity cards as "Jew," "Druze," "Georgian," "Russian," and even one "Hebrew." Not one of them is "Israeli," and the reason is simple - the Israeli state does not recognize any Israeli nationality that isn't Jewish. Even the Supreme Court ruled in 1970 that there was no such thing as Israeli nationality.

Georg Rafael Tamrin returned from a visit overseas to find a new law - an amendment to the law following the "who is a Jew" affair - ruling that to be an Israeli one must be a member of "the Jewish nation." Tamrin asked the population registrar to change the nationality clause in his identity card from "Jewish" to "Israeli." He maintained that "there is already a definite Israeli nationality today, to which I belong according to all subjective criteria - identification, feeling of belonging, loyalty and declaring it."

Tel Aviv District Court Judge Yitzhak Shilo rejected Tamrin's suit stating "a person cannot create a new nationality just by saying it exists, and then say he belongs to it." Shilo then added the real reason: "I can fully declare that there is no Israeli nation that exists separately from a Jewish nation."

Tamrin appealed to the High Court of Justice, which adopted the District Court's position. Justice Shimon Agranat denounced the petitioner: "If a handful of people or more wish to separate themselves from the Jewish people - only 23 years after the establishment of the state - and acquire the status of a separate Israeli nation, this separatist trend should not be regarded as legitimate and should not be recognized."

Who is a Druze?

The new petition challenges these conclusions. Professor Ornan, formerly the chairman of the League Against Religious Coercion and the Israeli secular movement, is the chairman of the "I am Israeli" organization, which has collected more than 2,000 signatures of Israelis. One petitioner, former Air Force commander General Benny Peled, died, but signed a power of attorney for the group.

Another petitioner is Druze businessman Carmel Wahaba. In 1990 he and his French partners wished to set up an import-export company in France. The company's registration required a notarized translation of his birth certificate.

When the French clerk saw the translated documents, he scolded Wahaba: "What's a Druze nationality? I know of no Druze state. Do you want to tell me that there is a Druze state within the State of Israel?"

Wahaba, who was suspected of trying to trick the French authorities, tried to explain but the clerk would have none of it, demanding authorization from the embassy that the translation was accurate and that Wahaba was indeed an Israeli whose nationality was Druze.

Petitioner David Yanukshvili, a pensioner, is registered as "Georgian." The petition says: "He abandoned Georgia and wishes to conduct his whole life in the State of Israel, not merely as a citizen but as a member of the Israeli nation. Why is the Georgian nationality being foisted on him?"

Ornan once classified himself as Canaanite, a member of an ideological group whose founders included the late poet Yonatan Ratosh. When Ratosh's ID was lost, the Interior Ministry issued him a new one, citing his nationality as "Jewish." Ratosh hastened to appeal to the High Court of Justice to be registered as "Hebrew" again - a term which appears on the Interior Ministry's list of nationalities.

"What is the Hebrew nationality?" asks the petition. "Just because two or three obstinate people insisted on their right to be registered as such, and the High Court consented, a Hebrew nationality was created, while the firm reality of an Israeli nationality is not recognized as such? It seems to us that the right of tens of thousands, who declared their nationality to be Israeli, is no less than the right of the Hebrews, whose right was recognized."

Social harmony

The petitioners believe every man has a right to belong to the nationality of his choice. It is not right to force a person to be classified according to his religion in an essential official document, since this leads to discrimination against members of various religions.

It is even less proper to force an atheist or someone openly hostile to religion to be identified with his "religion," since this is a kind of religious coercion.

The petition further says that "Israel and any representative Jewish organization are always fighting tooth and nail against mentioning that a person is `Jewish' in official documents of other states. How come something that is an abomination when done by others, becomes worthy and kosher when we do it?"

In democratic Western states citizenship is usually identical in meaning to nationality. In Israel the clause "citizenship" in the population registration office is accompanied by another clause called "nationality." Hence "nationality" and "citizenship" in Israel are two different things.

About three years ago, when the High Court instructed then Interior Minister Eli Yishai to register Reform converts as "Jews" in the nationality clause, the minister ordered the clause to be canceled in IDs. Instead of "Jew" a row of stars appears now. A lady who applied for a new ID when her old one wore out was amazed to find stars instead of her Jewish identity. She appealed to the High Court of Justice to reinstate the "Jew" classification.

Attorney Har-Shefi expects both petitions to be debated together so that the court can examine the affiliation between Judaism and being Israeli. There is no contradiction between the two, she says. Just like there is an American Jew, there can be an Israeli Jew.

"The American Jew is both American by nationality and Jewish, and so is the French Jew or the Norwegian Jew. We believe that an Israeli Jew is also eligible to be called Israeli, while being a member of the Israeli nationality, like his brother who belongs to the American nationality," the petition says.

The arguments go into values, interests and comparative law, the right of man for self definition, equality, realizing his rights from the Declaration of Independence and even strengthening the harmony in Israeli society.

The petition also cites the Or Commission's ruling that "a central goal of the state's activity must be obtaining real equality for the state's Arab citizens. Recognizing the right of all those who feel that way - both Jews and Arabs - and want to define themselves as Israelis, would open the way to minimizing discrimination, helping reconciliation, and establishing all Israelis identification with their state."

According to surveys, Har-Shefi says 60 percent of Israeli Arabs would jump at the chance of being registered as Israelis. Today only about 25 percent of them are registered as Israelis.

As for Jews, the recognition of the Israeli nationality would remove a source of dispute and division both among Israeli Jews and between Israel's Jews and the diaspora Jews, the petition says.

The petition's main object is separating state from religion, or at least separating religion from nationality. Petitioner Nili Kook is the widow of Professor Hillel Kook, who died two years ago.

"He told me that his great uncle, Rabbi Kook, would have supported the petition. Like the late Professor Yeshayahu Leibovitz, he wished to separate religion from nationality and the state. They believed only such separation would increase respect for religion in Israel," Har-Shefi says.

The appointment of Avraham Poraz as Interior Minister raised hopes among the petitioners but their requests to him, like their letters to Haim Ramon when he was Interior Minister, went unheeded. The loaded issue was shelved. A petition to the High Court is a good way to raise an issue for the agenda, but it is doubtful whether the High Court is the right address.

As Judge Shilo said, a nationality is not created by saying it exists. It is hard to assume that the judges say so would create the Israeli nationality. On the other hand, Supreme Court President Justice Aharon Barak is retiring in about three years and perhaps history, in the form of 38 "Israelis," has provided him with the last big case to create another revolution.