Israeli State

On the increasingly rapid devaluation of the term 'Israel,' or 'Israeli,' in favor of the term 'Jew.'

A. B. Yehoshua
A.B. Yehoshua
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A. B. Yehoshua
A.B. Yehoshua

Let us imagine that in May 1948, when David Ben-Gurion and his colleagues declared the establishment of the State of Israel, no one who did not define himself as a Jew was living in the new state's sovereign territory. Neither a Palestinian Arab, nor a Druze, nor a Circassian. In that case, what would the nascent state have been called? The formulation in the Declaration of Independence is clear and correct: "We hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz Israel [the Land of Israel], to be known as the State of Israel" (Laws of the State of Israel, authorized translation).

This declaration invokes the name of the new state clearly, calling it Israel. Because, after all, the name of the territory is the Land of Israel, which is also the original name of the people, the people of Israel, as conferred upon it, according to the Scriptures, by God himself, and used for hundreds of years as its exclusive name before it was joined, albeit never canceled out, by the appellation "Jew," or "Jewish people."

Those who believe that the term Israel or Israeli embodies a "Canaanite" element that nullifies what is implicit in the Jewish essence and culture of thousands of years of exile are wrong. To the contrary: Israel is a name that contains more of the nation's history and culture than does the term "Jew." Israel is also the original and universal name that the nations of the world use in their religious sources, whereas the appellation Jew is not uniform and changes from one language to another, even among Jews who speak different languages.

Accordingly, even if there had not been one non-Jew in the territory of the new state in 1948, it would have been inconceivable to call it Judea or Judah, certainly not Zion (a synonym for Jerusalem). Moreover, the word Jew derives from the Tribe of Judah (Yehuda), which refers to one of 12 parts of the Land of Israel, which was inhabited by Jews both during the Second Temple period and afterward in the Mishnaic period. For some reason that partial name was sometimes also used to denote an entire people.

Returning to the hypothetical situation in which no one who was not a Jew lived within the boundaries of the state, would it have been necessary to emphasize the concept of a "democratic Israeli state," just as we obsessively refer nowadays to a "democratic Jewish state"? I think not. Neither Danes nor Italians nor the Irish nor other nations feel a need to intone and emphasize, like a kind of oath, the fact of being a "democratic Danish state" or "democratic Italian state" or "democratic American state." The word democratic is not necessary as an additional adjective.

This gives rise to another question: Does the exclusive appellation Israel or State of Israel preserve the state's Zionist essence - namely the Law of Return, which is the only practical, legal expression of the Zionist principle? It definitely does. There is no need to use the words "Jewish state" or "state of the Jewish people" to express the validity of the Law of Return.

Thus, when we say State of Israel, we are also referring to a Zionist state and giving clear expression to a process in which we are suggesting that Diaspora Jews undergo a transformation from Jews into Israelis. That is, to return to the originality and totality of their Jewishness in terms of both territory and history, as well as in their experiential life and within a binding framework. Manifestly, the term Israel is one that is alive and real in the Jewish Diaspora experience even today. The question is how to turn it from potentiality into actuality.

By the way, the Law of Return was the moral basis for the decision by the nations of the world in November 1947 to establish a sovereign Israeli state in part of Palestine. Not only for the 600,000 Jews who were living here at that time, but for every Jew wishing to settle in it. And morally speaking, that rule remains valid today. For it is inconceivable that anyone - a person or his or her parents - who came here under the Law of Return would close the door that was opened to admit him. And, obviously, the future Palestinian state will also promulgate, and with great justice, a law of return for all the Palestinians now living in the Palestinian diaspora.

But is this phrase truly beneficial to the two sides, or is it ultimately damaging to both Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs? According to the irony-laden, indignant formulation of MK Ahmed Tibi: "The State of Israel is Jewish for the Arabs and democratic for the Jews." Is the increasingly rapid devaluation of the term Israel, or Israeli, in favor of the term Jew or Palestinian a useful development both for the Israeli Jews and for the Palestinian-Arab Israelis? The problems inherent in the term "democratic Jewish state" are legion; there is good reason for all the attempts being made to bypass or mitigate them in countless articles and symposia.

Furthermore, the term Jewish state, with its attendant religious association, compels the non-Jewish citizens to emphasize in contradistinction their different religion, Muslim or Christian, as a distinguishing determinant of identity. "Israeli state," whether with the addition of "democratic" or even only alone, however, generates closeness and partnership with that state. This is because even for a Palestinian, a Druze, a Muslim or a Christian, Israeli citizenship - which is embodied also in various daily frameworks, in the Hebrew language and, of course, in a deep and shared relationship to the homeland - accords a part and even a certain partnership in historic national Israeliness, in the same way that a French Jew, who sees his Frenchness only through its civic prism, still maintains a partnership with the historic national French identity as it has evolved across the generations.

The word "democratic" in the phrase "democratic Jewish state" is weak and problematic in terms of protecting the rights of the minorities against, for example, discriminatory land laws involving the Jewish National Fund. In contrast, the "democratic" that exists in the phrase "democratic Israeli state" is inherently far more potent in terms of protecting the rights of all Israelis who are partners in the state. Because in that case, it is not only the Jews who ostensibly have to protect the Arabs' democracy: rather, all Israelis are vigilant in terms of their own democracy, based on universal civil criteria.

On the face if it, this is merely a verbal change, and in itself it does not, of course, solve fundamental problems, which have of late become increasingly exacerbated thanks to the nationalist right. However, it creates a common infrastructure on which it will be more fitting to start making corrections.

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