Is Judaism a Race? Ask Israelis

Can Israeli racism be eliminated through law, trial and punishment, or is it already part of the Israeli identity?

"They should be put prosecuted. Incitement is a crime. Had the rabbis who called for Rabin's murder been prosecuted we might not be facing this situation today," said the law professor, a pleasant man who once held a senior position in the Military Advocate General's Corps of the Israel Defense Forces. His stance is logical and well-argued. That evening, after our meeting, he sent me the link to a YouTube video of the demonstration. "What do you think now?" he asked. We were arguing over whether the law creates norms or reflects norms already established. In other words, can Israeli racism be eliminated through law, trial and punishment, or is it already part of the Israeli identity.

The recent demonstrations in Bat Yam, Tel Aviv's Hatikva Quarter and Zion Square, in Jerusalem, featured a motley medley of paradoxical partners in racist positions: ultra-Orthodox rabbis and "liberal" rabbis standing together against the rental and sale of apartments to Arabs; working-class folk demanding that foreigners be deported; members of the middle class who "fear for our daughters' welfare" and male chauvinists carrying signs that say "Jewish women for Jewish men." This demographic array poses an impossible burden on the law: Using legal means to stifle the trend would be tantamount to putting Israeli identity on trial.

Illustration Amos Biderman
Amos Biderman

For some time, shows of Israeli purity have not been the sole property of rabbis who serve the divine will. These demonstrations formulate and express something essential within the Israeli identity. "We" Israelis are everything "they" are not. Being Israeli is no longer a territorial or a religious definition, nor even a national definition resting on religious foundations. The Israeli state might be more Jewish than democratic, but being Israeli means belonging to a separate race that also happens to be Jewish; what counts is the Israeli race.

The economic argument - that foreigners take jobs away from Israelis - is a pretext. Even if there was no unemployment Israelis would not love Arabs, Sudanese or other foreigners. Even were army service voluntary Haredim would be considered foreigners, representatives of another culture and not Israeli. Even were there peace between Israel and the Arab states, Israeli identity would still be wrapped in fear.

The Israeli race defines its identity as Zionism. Within that identity, it seems, are religion, territory, nationalism and a dream. All these components, however, are the products of ideology. Religion is neither belief in God nor what is written in the Scriptures, but rather the religion defined by the State of Israel. For that reason, Reform Judaism, for example, is rejected. The territory is neither that which was recognized by the United Nations, nor what was promised to the Jews as a national home, nor a sanctuary from anti-Semitism. Rather, it is a boundary-less sprawl that sends satellites into the land of another people and refuses to confine itself in a defined national container. The territory that has been allocated to this Israeli entity is too small for it. The state is only the beginning of the age of redemption, not its consummation.

Israeli nationalism does not tolerate other narratives, and it is based on the fear of external threats. The dream - and this is the trick that promotes unity - refers to peace and national solidarity. Whoever is not reconciled to this mass of components is not Israeli. Anyone with a blue Israeli identity card he waves while yelling "the people of Israel lives," and "I have no other land," must pass an admission test. If he doesn't pass the test, he will be regarded as a "Russian," or "Ethiopian," or "American" or, of course, Arab or Sudanese.

This test of belonging is not encoded in any law and the examiners change locales, from Bat Yam to Safed to Kiryat Arba. They are empowered to strip Israeli identity even from those who possess it by dint of birth, the Law of Return, military service or naturalization. They have the authority to decide who is Zionist and who is not. They are everywhere: in the apartment across the hall, at the next desk, at the supermarket or sitting at the cabinet table. Should they be tried? They aren't inciting, they are establishing norms, defining who is a true Israeli.