Israel Has Two Nationalities, Not One, and They Need a Federation

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Two main things are wrong with the Supreme Court’s decision to dismiss the petition of Israelis who sought to have their nationality listed on their ID cards as Israeli, not Jewish. First, the Supreme Court was wrong to claim that there was no proof of a uniquely Israeli people. Not only is there a living and thriving Israeli nationality, there are two: the Jewish Israeli one and the Palestinian-Arab Israeli one.

The members of each nationality see themselves as belonging to one of two larger national groups outside Israel — the Jewish nation (or people) in the Diaspora, and the Palestinian-Arab nation (or people) scattered throughout the Middle East and beyond. There is no doubt that the Jewish and Palestinian-Arab national groups in Israel are rooted enough in the local culture that the adjective “Israeli” could apply to each.

The Supreme Court’s second mistake is its antiquated distinction between “civic nationalism,” in which one’s nationality and political citizenship are identical, and “ethnic nationalism,” in which the individual’s belonging to a national group stems mainly from shared characteristics such as language, culture and religion. This simplistic, dichotomous perception that dominated research in the previous century is no longer considered unshakable truth by historians, sociologists and scientists.

In today’s complex political and sociocultural world, it’s impossible for any “pure” civic nationalism to exist simultaneously with “ethnocultural nationalism.” For example, it’s obvious that even in the clearest case of civic nationalism — the United States — white Protestants were considered the exclusive representatives of the American nation for generations. And it’s clear that a leading case of ethnic nationalism in the previous century — the Jews in Poland between the wars — also had key traits of civic nationalism. This largely had to do with the Jews’ efforts to turn Poland from a state of the Poles to a state of all its citizens.

More than a decade ago, the American sociologist Rogers Brubaker suggested that we rethink the distinction between civic nationalism and ethnic nationalism. He proposed that we distinguish between “nationalizing nationalism,” which is established by a given state and identified with it, and “minority nationalism,” which is separate from the state’s representative institutions and sometimes even in conflict with them.

If we apply Brubaker’s approach to Israel, we get a bleak picture. Israeli Jewish nationalism, which is identified with a portion of the country’s citizens, is the sole nationalizing nationalism, so it controls the country’s resources, while the Israeli Palestinian-Arab nationality is the minority nationalism that rebels against the representative institutions and is pushed into conflict with them.

This state of affairs, in which the experience of both Israeli nationalities is dominated by an awareness of the national conflict, is utterly inappropriate, but it can be rectified. The awareness of common citizenship in a multiethnic state is determined by the participation of every nationality in shaping that state’s identity and future. In Israel’s case, the way to create a shared Israeli nationality is to strive to turn the Israeli Palestinian-Arab nationality from a minority nationalism to a nationalizing nationalism by giving it full partnership in governing Israel.

Something like this can’t be achieved via petitions to the judiciary. So let Israel’s citizens of both nationalities who believe in an Israeli state launch a movement that will fight in the Knesset for the constitutional definition of Israel as a state of both Israeli nationalities - in short, an Israeli federation. The Israeli federation, which would unite the Israeli Jewish nationality and the Israeli Palestinian-Arab one, would be based on the delicate balance between nationalized nationalism and civic nationalism.

It wouldn’t put the Jewish and Palestinian-Arab national identities into a simplistic category of Israeliness cut off from the country’s multicultural reality. Instead, it would reflect the social contract between both nationalities. It would thus lay the political foundations for building a desired civic super-nationality that would comprise both local ethnocultural nationalities and express the democratic sovereignty of all Israel’s citizens.

New immigrants getting their ID cards. Credit: Emil Salman

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