The Supreme Court’s refusal on Wednesday to approve the petition of 21 Israeli citizens who sought to be recognized as members of the “Israeli” nation rather than the Jewish one, and to change the way their nationality is recorded in the Population Registry accordingly, is yet another indication that the civic struggle over the nature of the State of Israel has so far failed. Sixty-five years after the state’s establishment, its authorities still don’t recognize an Israeli nationality independent of religious or ethnic affiliation.
In contrast to then-Jerusalem District Court Judge Noam Sohlberg, who rejected the petitioners’ request six years ago on the grounds that it was an ideological, historical and political issue, but not a legal one, the Supreme Court justices agreed to discuss the issue of nationality and citizenship and concluded that it was justiciable.
But in their ruling, the justices denied the existence of an Israeli nationality, saying the petitioners failed to prove that an Israeli nationality unconnected to religious or ethnic affiliation had actually been created. Justice Hanan Melcer went even further, saying the worldview that distinguishes between citizenship and nationality is anchored in Israel’s constitutional status as a Jewish state. In other words, uniting different nationalities into one Israeli nationality would contradict the state’s Jewish character, and even its democratic character.
The distinction between the element of citizenship and the element of nationality reflects the state’s relative failure, ever since it was established, to grant equal treatment to all its citizens. The Supreme Court did stress in its ruling that the state was obligated to treat equally all its citizens, residents and others under its rule, but such equality has little chance of being realized as long as the state identifies itself as Jewish and maintains a preference for one group over other groups when it comes to labeling its citizens.
The democratic solution is eliminating the “nationality” line item in the Population Registry. The state and its legislators must relate to all its citizens as Israeli citizens. Their identity as Jews, Arabs or members of any other nation should be a matter of self-definition, not of forced registration by the state. Jews in other countries would object to their Judaism being registered in their local population registries and ID cards, and this subject is not relevant in a democratic nation. It is fitting that Israel behave this way as well.