National Identity and the Rights of Minorities

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The disappointment and criticism that greeted the Supreme Court's refusal to recognize the existence of an Israeli nationality were the result of two prior assumptions.

The first is that civil nationality, which views all the citizens of a country as members of the same nationality, is the only legitimate position in the West and the only appropriate expression of the universal values of the enlightenment: Freedom and equality for all citizens, without consideration of ethnic background.

The second assumption is that ethnic-cultural nationality - which originated in the Romantic movement, with its emphasis on homogeneity, origin, culture, language, religion etc. - is a divisive and hierarchical concept, which excludes minorities and is thus not legitimate.

But the historical and political reality teaches us that civil nationality can often be just as intolerant of minorities as ethnic nationality is assumed to be - and that the latter often turns out to be more tolerant. The clearest example of this is France, which took the values of freedom, equality and solidarity as its banner during the revolution. France, which does not recognize the existence of minorities within its borders, forces a uniform identity on its citizens, even though there is no distinction, at least formally, between the national and the civil.

Throughout the modern history of France, the price demanded from minorities who wanted to integrate into French society was very high. The minorities - the Jews, the Muslims, in particular, and those whose origin was in sub-Saharan Africa - were required to give up their ethno-religious uniqueness, their culture and their unique needs, in the name of civil equality. Stanislas Marie Adélaïde, the count of Clermont-Tonnerre, expressed the gap between the promise embodied in revolutionary values and reality when he said in 1790: "The Jews should be denied everything as a nation, but granted everything as individuals. They must be citizens."

In the name of equality, which is without doubt French equality, the various minorities in France are required to give up their religious, cultural and historic identity. In order to prove their Frenchness, they must adopt the culture, language and history of France. At this point, the minorities run into another obstacle: Despite France's adoption of the universal values of the enlightenment and its definition as a secular state, the Catholic religion and Catholic history remain very important components of the country's identity.

Therefore, one should not be surprised that many of these minorities, French citizens it should be remembered, do not integrate into French society and do not feel that they are French. This remains true of the fourth generation of immigrants, those who were born in France and whose native language is French. That explains why, for example, Karim Benzema, the striker on the French national football team who was born in Lyon and is of Algerian ancestry, refused to sing the French national anthem a few months ago.

The Catholic identity of France is at the root of the country's stubborn refusal to allow Turkey, a country with 80 million Muslims, to join the European Union. Despite the civil nationality customary in France, similar to the rest of the nations of the world, France is not neutral as to its identity. It has a dominant culture of the majority, which is, in its essence, white and Catholic Christian. However France is defined, the difficulty in integrating minorities stems from this distinct identity.

The ethnic nationality model in Israel holds that there is a difference between citizenship and nationality. Therefore, and not as in France, the Arab minority is recognized as a national minority, differentiated from the Jewish nationality, with its own unique cultural, religious and linguistic needs. Paradoxically, this model allows the Arab minority in Israel a wider range of action and expression, compared to the minorities living in France. A few examples of this are the Arab educational system, the Sharia law courts and the status of Arabic as an official language. They have all this, even though the situation of the Arab minority is far from perfect.

In Israel, as in France and the rest of the nations of the world, there is a dominant majority culture and the definition of the country is based on this reality. The definition of Israel as a Jewish state does not result in the Jews living in Israel having any sort of preferential treatment and does not necessarily lead to any harm to the status and rights of the minority.

Even if we define Israel as a state of all its citizens, as France has defined itself, there will still remain the reality in which there is a Jewish majority that dictates the political and cultural agenda, and alongside it a civil-national Arab minority with equal rights, which enjoys a broad space to express its uniqueness and needs. Therefore, without being dragged into one definition of nationality or another, we must strive to design a civil Israeli identity that will bridge the unchanging national identities of the two groups. The goal of creating a new nationality with a joint identity, while erasing the national identities of the two groups, is unrealistic.

It is possible to conclude from this that ethnic nationality is not necessarily a negative thing, just as civil nationality is not necessarily the model that benefits minorities the most. Since there is no country in the world that is neutral regarding its identity, the distinction between two types of nationality is a cliché and does not meet the test of historical and political reality. Instead of the problematic tendency to stick to empty definitions in the name of cosmopolitan ideals, we should try to analyze the reality without making prior assumptions.

Dr. Alon Kol teaches history and the theory of nationalism in the department of Jewish History at the University of Haifa and teaches history in the university's Mindscapes Program.

The Supreme Court. Credit: Amit Shabi

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