The Supreme Court on Wednesday rejected a request by a group of Israelis to declare that they were members of the Israeli people and to allow them to change the ethnic registration on their identity cards from “Jewish” to “Israeli.”
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The court ruled that the issue was not one for the court to decide and that there was no proof of the existence of a uniquely “Israeli” people. The court’s ruling echoed that in a similar case 40 years ago.
The decision by court President Asher Grunis and Justices Uzi Vogelman and Hanan Melcer upheld the 2008 ruling by their colleague, Noam Sohlberg, who, as a Jerusalem District Court judge, had rejected the group’s petition.
Israel does not recognize “Israeli” as an ethnic group [in Hebrew le’om.] The term can be translated into English as “nationhood,” but in the sense of ethnic affiliation, rather than citizenship. The le’om attrribution - the main ones are “Jewish” and “Arab” - is assigned by the Interior Ministry, regardless of the card-bearers preference.
The main appellant was Prof. Uzzi Ornan, a linguist who has long battled to separate religion and state. Ornan, 90, was born and raised in Jerusalem. He was expelled to Eritrea in 1944, when his underground activities were revealed to the British authorities. When he returned to Israel in 1948, he was registered in the state’s first census and insisted that he not be listed as “Jewish.” Instead, he wrote that he was of no religion and gave his ethnic designation as “Hebrew.” The newly-formed Interior Ministry accepted this without question.
In 2000, Ornan petitioned the Interior Ministry to be registered as an ethnic “Israeli,” but his request was rejected and none of his subsequent legal actions were successful. In 2007, he submitted another appeal to the Jerusalem District Court, together with Uri Avnery, Shulamit Aloni, Prof. Itamar Even-Zohar, Prof. Yosef Agassi, singer Alon Olearchik, playwright Joshua Sobol and others.
In his ruling rejecting the appeal, Sohlberg stated, “the requested declaration has a public, ideological, social, historic and political character – but not a legal one. This isn’t a technical issue of registration in the Population Registry, but a request that the court determine that in the State of Israel a new peoplehood has been formed, common to all its residents and citizens, called ‘Israeli.’ This issue is a national-political-social question and it is not the court’s place to decide it.”
The group argued in its appeal that an Israeli people was formed with the establishment of the State of Israel and that rejecting the existence of such a people is like rejecting the existence of the State of Israel as a democratic, sovereign state. They added that this was indeed a legal question that the courts could not avoid. In their response, the Interior Ministry and the attorney-general supported the district court decision, saying the issue was not justiciable.
The primary precedent on which the justices based themselves in their ruling Wednesday was the case of Dr. Georges Tamarin, who immigrated to Israel in 1949 from Yugoslavia. He was registered as being of Jewish ethnicity, but in the religion section was listed as having no religion.
In 1970, after a change in the law that forbade listing someone as being “Jewish” in either the ethnicity or religion section if he didn’t meet the description of a Jew in the Law of Return, Tamarin went to court to change his ethnic designation to “Israeli.” Both the Tel Aviv District Court and the Supreme Court rejected his request, stating that for a person to declare that he belongs to a given ethnic group, there had to be proof that the group exists. Court President Shimon Agranat stated that “there is no significance to the person’s subjective feeling of belonging to a given ethnic group, without being able to establish via any criteria that such a group exists.”
Ornan expressed his disappointment with the ruling. “In its ruling the court, in effect, agrees to totally ignore the obligations included in the Declaration of Independence, which promises full equality among all the state’s citizens, regardless of religion, race or gender,” he said.
“The government consensus that has developed ignores the existence of an Israeli people that was created with the Declaration of Independence,” Ornan continued. “This consensus enables the Jewish majority to have full control over the country and to operate not for the benefit of Israeli citizens but for the benefit of the current political majority among the Jews.”