Israelis Used to Be Hebrews, Now What Are We?

More than six decades after their state was founded, Israelis still grapple with their identity.

It used to be that we were all thought of us Hebrews around here. There was “the General Federation of Hebrew Workers in the Land of Israel,” “Tel Aviv, the first Hebrew city,” “the Hebrew University,” “the Hebrew policeman” – and even “the Hebrew thief” joined the Hebrew revival movement. The renewal of all things Hebrew defined the national identity that was taking shape in the land of Israel, amid waves of immigration.

Hebrew identity was not the diametric opposite of Jewish identity, which is how the Canaanite movement saw it. Rather, it was an expression of a historical and revolutionary change of direction among those who came from the Diaspora and their offspring, who created the local mode of existence in this land. Years before the First Zionist Congress in 1897, author Micha Josef Berdyczewski wrote: “Are we the last Jews or the first Hebrews?” Being Hebrew was an expression of renewal and change.

The Hebrew language was the language of this people. “Hebrew [man], speak Hebrew!” – we were commanded. When we filled the streets in 1939, tens of thousands of us demonstrating against the British White Paper regime, we shouted: “Free immigration! A Hebrew state!” We did not call for a “Jewish state,” even though most of us, a vast majority, saw ourselves as part of the Jewish people throughout the generations and in all the diasporas.

This is the very special people which, since its beginnings, has been scattered among the gentiles – the people that preserved its identity through, and recited all its prayers for redemption in Hebrew. This is the people that created a wonderful life of spirit and intellect, making a glorious contribution to human culture even while being isolated, hated and sorely persecuted.

Now, in my waning years, I often ponder the problem of our national identity in the land of Israel, in the State of Israel. Today, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is demanding of the Palestinians that they recognize Israel as “the state of the Jewish people,” as a condition for a peace agreement.

However, the premier would do well to remember that Ze’ev Jabotinsky, head of the Betar movement and founder of the Revisionist movement – the major precursor of Netanyahu's Likud party – wrote in the Betar anthem: “Even if poor, a Hebrew is princely / Be he a slave or a tramp / You have been crowned the son of a king / With David’s coronet.”

And in his lament for those who died at Tel Hai defending their homes in 1920, Jabotinsky wrote: “Hebrews’ blood has saturated meadows, vales and hills / but throughout the generations / the purest blood ever spilled / is of the plowers at Tel Hai.”

The first volume of the 1940 book “Writings,” about the ideas and deeds of the Lehi (pre-state underground militia), presents the principles of revival that this organization espoused: “The homeland is the land of Israel, in the borders of the (divine) promise, where the Hebrew people in its entirety will dwell securely.” The aim was “the unification of the entire people around the flag of the Hebrew independence movement.” The Lehi was “the Hebrew army of salvation, with its flag, its weapons and its commanders”; its role was “the renewal of Hebrew sovereignty over the redeemed land.”

On this entire page, of which I have quoted only part, there is not a single mention of the words Jew or Jewish. Hebrew reigns supreme.

I sit and ponder David Ben-Gurion’s error when, in the earliest days of the state of Israel, the country's first prime minister turned the Jewish religion into a coercive, establishment force. By law, it was supposed to control life and death, marriage and divorce, both the kosher and the unclean, the state-supported regiments of rabbis, the separate education system, and the yeshiva world that has since expanded to inconceivable dimensions.

All that has been at the expense of the state, of those who build and fight for it and give their lives for it. At the expense of its researchers and inventors, its doctors, writers and artists – creators of a culture profoundly entwined with the Jewish people, but also open to what is universally human.

In meetings that Ben-Gurion held with ultra-Orthodox figures such as Rabbi Yitzhak-Meir Levin and Rabbi Avrohom Yeshaya Karelitz (aka the Chazon Ish), it was decided that a few hundred "Torah learners" would continue their yeshiva studies. Over the years these became tens and hundreds of thousands, alienated from every element of Israeliness. Ben-Gurion agreed to the rabbis’ request in response to the terrible demise of such students in Europe during the Holocaust. However, already in the early 1950s he witnessed the violation of this agreement.

Today not a trace remains of Ben-Gurion’s vision of a state-run educational system or compulsory military service.

Torah, paratroops, Treblinka

There is something ugly and unacceptable both to the mind and the heart in the ultra-Orthodox refusal to be a part of the Israeli culture being created here on the potter’s wheel of schools and universities – in Hebrew literature as it was flourishing, in theater, cinema, music. In the hard work and prizewinning scientific achievements. And also in the Israel Defense Forces. We have often heard from yeshiva students that their contribution of Torah learning to Israel’s security is equivalent to that of brigades of paratroopers. The Chazon Ish, too, saw Torah learning in yeshivas as a shelter for Israel, as a means of protection from its enemies. What isn’t explained is how Torah learning in Europe did not prevent Treblinka.

It has been difficult to come to terms with their boycott of the IDF and with the fact that they have been living at the expense of the state they hate. The secular response has been harsh and angry; desecration of the Sabbath at huge shopping centers have become a national plague. During the British Mandate in Tel Aviv, the city of my birth, there was not a single shop open on the Sabbath. What should have been a free and beneficial choice within a shared life was transformed into hostile alienation stemming from the coercive rabbinical way of life. Purely ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, towns and cities developed, culminating in the disgrace of Beit Shemesh.

I think about the millions of Jews from the Soviet Union who immigrated to Israel and changed it immeasurably. Before our very eyes, what had been considered a tribe lost to the Jewish people became a wonderful reality. These people were recognized as Jews under the Law of Return, though many of them have been rejected as goyim – heaven help us! – by the religious establishment. To this day.

They are not recognized as belonging to the nation. They remain “others,” and suffer from this greatly. They are working hard at building this country and many of them are Hebrew-speakers. A new generation born to these immigrants is now an integral part of our children’s, our grandchildren’s and our great grandchildren’s generations.

With their intellect and practical wisdom they are contributing to the Israeli experience. They serve in our army, they get killed in our wars. And despite this, they are “others.” It is estimated that there are a quarter of a million of these people. The country's coercive rabbinical regime refuses to ease their conversion. Therefore, they are “Israelis” only by virtue of their citizenship.

A Jewish home

The problem of identity never leaves us, even after 66 years of independence. My parents were Jews, speakers of wonderful Hebrew, who came to this country in December of 1919 on the ship Ruslan, at the beginning of the third wave of immigration to Palestine. They sailed from Odessa and anchored in Jaffa.

I was born in Tel Aviv. In one of my autobiographical poems I write: “Between me and my father – the sea.” But I owe my local, sabra identity to generations of Jews. I too come from them and embody their continuation. I felt myself to be a Hebrew, and later, until this very day, an Israeli.

With the Declaration of Independence and the establishment of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948, the concept of “Hebrew” gave way to that of “Israeli.” We became “Israelis.” At least the secular population of the nascent nation saw itself as “Israeli.”

To this day, different varieties of religious people have remained “Jews,” among them tens of thousands of settlers, who cry: “A Jew does not expel a Jew!” “A Jew loves Jews.” And now Habayit Hayehudi – “the Jewish Home” – is a party in the Knesset! The Israeli right and many different religious communities all see themselves as the real Jews. No wonder that during the 1999 election campaign, Netanyahu whispered to the elderly kabbalist Rabbi Yitzhak Kaduri: “They have forgotten what it is to be Jewish,” and the latter nodded his gray head in agreement.

True, Israeliness is mostly secular, but in its heart it also contains the Jewish heritage. It is the emerging identity of the citizens of the State of Israel. Israeliness also encompasses, as stipulated in the Declaration of Independence, the non-Jews, the Arabs, the Druze and the Circassians, as well as the tens of thousands of immigrants from Russia who are considered “others.”

It is a pity that our Declaration of Independence is not learned by heart. After all, we live in “the State of Israel.” And the Hebrew and the Jew meet in that declaration, in which the Israel that was born of blood and fire extends a hand of peace to its Arab enemies and promises them a brotherhood of nations and equal rights.

Now Netanyahu comes along and demands of them, after seven wars, that they recognize Israel as “the Jewish state.” Otherwise, there will be no peace agreement. As though the “State of Israel,” with that explicit name, does not exist, does not have a declaration of independence and needs to be granted another name.

The State of Israel includes the members of the minorities within it. Right at the inception of the state, then fighting for its life, these things were written: “The state … will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture … and will take steps to bring about the economic union of the whole of the land of Israel.”

And as if that were not sufficient, the same declaration adds: “We appeal – in the very midst of the onslaught launched against us now for months – to the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve peace and participate in the upbuilding of the state on the basis of full and equal citizenship … We extend our hand to all neighboring states and their peoples in an offer of peace and good neighborliness, and appeal to them to establish bonds of cooperation and mutual help with the sovereign Hebrew people in its own land.”

Two brothers, still weeping

Years have gone by and our country continues to bleed from all the wars we have had since then – a continuation of 1948-9. The nation is split and completely divided over the main issues of the malignant conflict between the peoples of this land, and over the question of how to put an end to it. Without an agreement, in the foreseeable future the descendants of Isaac and Ishmael, two brothers, will continue to weep.

To our regret, the war between these two national movements has become a religious war in the land and in the region, and has spread to the entire world. To this are added the phenomena of hostility, shunning and threats of boycott from some civilized countries that see Israel as guilty.

From the height of my 90 years, as a son of this land, I am witnessing scenes and hearing voices that cannot be believed. I read the nasty epithets the “price- tag” people who commit anti-Arab hate crimes scrawl on the walls of mosques and also churches. If “Mohammed is a pig,” then “Jesus is a monkey.” Priests, monks and nuns are publicly spat upon and shoved in the streets of Jerusalem. There is a call to go up on the Temple Mount and build “the Third Temple,” to purify the mount of “all this garbage.” And I have not yet mentioned the innumerable olive trees, the ancient symbol of this homeland, that have been uprooted and chopped down.

The Declaration of Independence is crying out and its voice is not being heard, or it is getting lost in the boring indifference.

I am still alive. The last signatory to the manifesto of the Movement for the Greater Land of Israel after the Six-Day War. Since my youth I had clung to that belief. I wrote about this in my 1950 book “Till Dawn.”

The land was united in the Six-Day War. I participated in it as a reserve company commander in the battle for Jerusalem. After that we were a task force in Ramallah and then in Azzariyeh, on the road to Jericho. I saw and heard everything. I witnessed the real friction with the neighboring people under our rule. I did not use the term “occupation.” The people of Israel is not an occupier in the land of Israel.

But I came to learn the meaning of the prolonged rule over another people, with all the danger and unfairness it entails – from the decrees and the harassment and the closure and the curfews and the encirclement. From the massacre in 1994 at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron by Baruch Goldstein, to the malignant “price tag” spectacles, for which all of us will pay. There is a huge abyss between necessary and tough defense in face of cruel and indiscriminate terror, and deeds over which flutters the black flag of a blatantly illegal directive.

Let us tell our children, our grandchildren, our great-grandchildren and our students the truth about this conflict since its inception, and let us discuss these issues together. We will be justly proud of what was right and courageous and necessary, and we will be ashamed of what is disgraceful and contrary to our culture.

In her book “Path and Temple,” my mother wrote: “The difference between one person and another is the number of moments of regret.” Between peoples, too, this difference is evident.

I am not commenting here on the dead. I do not know what some of the great figures of Hebrew literature who signed that manifesto for the Greater Land of Israel would say today. Natan Alterman was the founder of this movement. I knew him, his work and his opinions well. He was a true humanist. All his life he believed in the justice of our people’s struggle for existence in its land, but he never stopped speaking out against injustices done to members of the neighboring peoples, against the stifling and concealment of the truth, until in the face of these deeds, he cried out “war crimes!”

The Israeli people, torn by an increasingly virulent dispute, is having difficulty making war and is having difficulty making peace. It would do well to act within reality and not outside it. This was the way of Zionism from the beginning of the return to Zion. The Israelis would do well to go back to reading the Declaration of Independence. I hear its weeping.

Ilan Asayag
Tomer Appelbaum