Migrants from South Sudan in Kafr Manda last week.
Migrants from South Sudan in Kafr Manda last week. Photo by Abdullah Shama
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This week I had to fill in a bit of British bureaucracy and at the bottom of the form, I was asked to note my ethnicity. The first category I could tick was WIBR - White British. Which seemed the most obvious, as I am pale-skinned and was born in Britain, as my father was. But looking down the form I had second thoughts. After all, my British roots go back only eighty years. There was WEUR - White European, which also made sense, since all my grandparents are from central or eastern Europe. But then, I am neither Polish, Ukrainian, Swiss or German, and having lived most of my life in the Middle East, am not really European. And to be honest, I don't want to identify with any of the ethnic groups that did everything to banish or exterminate by grandparents from Europe. But there was no other ethnic category on the list to which I felt comfortable belonging.

The lady helping me fill in the form liberated me from dilemmas when she said it didn't really matter which box I ticked and I could just leave that bit empty if I preferred. She was right of course, even if I had ticked the BLCO - black Congolese box, no one would have known. Or cared. No one, perhaps, besides some statistician, and one day a journalist.

Last week, the U.S. Census Bureau published a report that made headlines in the United States and around the world. Apparently, for the first time, last year most children born in the United States were "minorities," or in other words not white Anglos. But if Matthew Yglesias, economics correspondent for slate.com is right, and I think he is, the census figures are misleading because someone like him, with three Ashkenazi Jewish grandparents and one grandfather of Cuban origin, is regarded as Hispanic, and therefore a member of a non-white minority.

In other words, despite what we would like to believe about ourselves, how we live our lives and bring up our children, statisticians and bureaucrats and newspapers will insist on categorizing and defining us in whatever sub-group they choose.

And it's not just ethnic identity. Geography is also subject to arbitrary classifications. Last month the corrections column in the Guardian wrote that the paper had made a mistake when a caption on a photograph taken in Jerusalem had referred to the city "as the Israeli capital." The Guardian style guide has decided that "Jerusalem is not the capital of Israel; Tel Aviv is." Complaints immediately ensued but this week the Press Complaints Commission ruled that the Guardian had not breached the press code of ethics since "while it is correct to say that Israel classes Jerusalem as her capital city, this is not recognized by many countries and those nations enjoying diplomatic relations with Israel have their embassies in Tel Aviv."

Now this is true; for political and diplomatic reasons, all the embassies in Israel are situated in Tel Aviv, but the first Hebrew city was never Israel's capital and the Guardian style guide can hardly decide for Israel's government where to place its symbols of sovereignty.

But while we resist the efforts of civil servants, diplomats and newspaper caption-writers to define us and the world around us, we are ourselves busy doing the same thing. Jews have for so many centuries been subjected to classification and discrimination as a minority that we have not got around to defining a proper attitude to other minorities when we are a majority. It is all very well for politicians to vilify the racist and violent demonstrations this week in south Tel Aviv against migrant workers, as they should, of course, but why have they not yet got around to legislating a proper set of citizenship laws that can serve a 21st-century nation dealing with a diverse population and tens of thousands of hungry, desperate human beings willing to risk their lives for a better life in wealthy Israel?

For 64 years Israel has been content to base its citizenship on the Nazi principle that you are regarded of Jewish origin if one of your grandparents was a Jew. No government has so far been brave enough to enter this minefield and now we are faced with so many categories of second-, third- and fourth-class citizens. We have Israelis who cannot get married, Israelis who are married but whose spouses cannot live with them as they are considered a threat to the state, and non-Israelis who were born here and who spoke Hebrew all their lives, studied in Israeli schools, served in the IDF and are still liable for deportation along with their families. All because our citizenship laws are a mishmash of bureaucratic regulations, anachronistic laws and quasi-religious rulings by non-elected rabbis.

On Sunday we will read the story of Ruth the Moabite in the Shavuot service. She was allowed into the Jewish people simply on the basis of her loyalty to her mother-in-law Naomi. It was good enough for the great-grandmother of King David, and should serve as an example to us of the need to change the laws of Israeli citizenship and Jewish conversion to conform with a changing landscape and basic standards of human decency.