Years ago I had a friendly argument with my friend Ariel Sharon. I told him, “I am first of all an Israeli, and after that a Jew.” He responded heatedly: “I am first of all a Jew, and only after that an Israeli!”
It may look like an abstract debate, but it’s not. It’s the question that lies at the heart of the crisis that is tearing Israel into shreds.
The immediate cause of this crisis is the law that was adopted in great haste last month by the right-wing majority in the Knesset, the Basic Law on Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People. At first glance, it looks like a copy of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, but whereas the declaration spoke of a “Jewish and democratic state” and promised full equality between all citizens, without regard to religion, ethnicity or sex, the new law offers no democracy and no equality. What remains is a state of the Jews, by the Jews and for the Jews. Arabic, which until now was one of the state’s two official languages, was demoted to a mere “special status,” whatever that means. (All this applies to Israel proper, not to the 5 million Arabs in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip.)
The first to cry out were the Druze. However, the Druze are not the main problem. The new law completely ignores the 1.8 million Arabs who are Israeli citizens, including Bedouin, Circassians and Christians. (No one even considers the tens of thousands of European Christians who immigrated to Israel with their Jewish spouses and other relatives.)
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is defending this law like a lion from mounting criticism. As he sees it, all the Jewish critics of the law are leftists and traitors (synonyms), “who have forgotten what it is to be Jewish.”
And that is the real problem.
A few years ago, my friends and I petitioned the High Court of Justice, demanding to change the “nationality” entry in our identity cards, from “Jewish” to “Israeli.” The court refused, saying that the official register recognizes close to a hundred nationalities, but not an Israeli nationality. This curious situation was created with the birth of Zionism in the late 19th century. It was a Jewish movement, meant to solve the “Jewish question.” The settlers in the Land of Israel were Jews. The entire Zionist enterprise was closely connected to Jewish tradition, despite the fact that most of the important rabbis of the generation cursed out Theodor Herzl and the other early Zionists.
When a second generation of settlers grew up, they felt that they were not only Jewish, like the Jews of Brooklyn and Krakow. They felt they were something new, different, special. The most extreme were a small group of poets and artists, who in 1941 formed an organization that came to be known as the Canaanites. The poet Yonatan Ratosh headed the group, whose members included Aharon Amir and Benjamin Tammuz, among others. They proclaimed that we were a new nation, a Hebrew nation. Unfortunately, they went to extremes, declaring in part that the Hebrew nation had nothing to do with Jews abroad and that there was no Arab nation: Arabs were just Hebrews who had been forced to accept Islam. (I didn’t join them because of this extremism.)
Then came the news of the Holocaust. The Canaanites were forgotten and everybody became remorseful super-Jews.
But not really. Without a conscious decision, the popular language of my generation adopted a clear distinction: Jewish Diaspora and Hebrew agriculture, Jewish history and Hebrew battalions, Jewish religion and Hebrew language. When the British were here, I took part in dozens of demonstrations in which we shouted “Free immigration! Hebrew state!” I don’t recall a single demonstration where anyone shouted “Jewish state!”
So why does the Declaration of Independence speak of “the Jewish state”? Because it was alluding to the United Nations resolution to partition Palestine into an Arab and a Jewish state. The declaration simply stated that we are now establishing this Jewish state. Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the forefather of Likud, wrote in his most important poem, the Beitar anthem, “a Hebrew is the son of a prince.” A Hebrew, not a Jew.
Such a process is only natural. A nation is a territorial unit, conditioned by its landscape, climate, history, neighbors. When the British settled in America, they felt after a few generations that they were different from the British they had left behind on their island. They became Americans. The British convicts who were transported to the Far East became Australians. The same thing happened to us. Or would have happened, had it been permitted. What happened?
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First of all, in the early 1950s millions of people immigrated to Israel from Arab countries and from Europe. For each Hebrew, there were two, three, four new immigrants, who considered themselves Jews. The new Hebrew nation was simply too small and too weak to make its mark on each of the new arrivals. Then there was the need for the money and the political support of Jews abroad, particularly in the United States. These Jews, while considering themselves full and loyal Americans, were proud to have a Jewish state somewhere. And there was, of course, the government policy of Judaizing everything.
The current government has reached new heights, with aggressive, zealous efforts to Judaize education, culture, even sports. Ultra-Orthodox Jews, a small minority in Israel, exert immense influence on the government, which is completely dependent upon them.
So, is there an Israeli nation? Of course there is. Is there a Jewish nation? Of course there isn’t.
Jews are an ethnic-religious group that is dispersed throughout the world. They belong to many nations and have a strong connection to Israel. We, in this country, belong to the Israeli nation, whose Hebrew members also belong to the Jewish people.
It is crucial that we recognize this. It determines our outlook, quite literally. Do we look toward Jewish centers, such as New York, London, Paris and Berlin, or to our neighbors — Damascus, Beirut and Cairo? Are we a part of a region inhabited by Arabs? Do we recognize that making peace with these Arabs, and particularly with the Palestinians, is the main task of this generation?
We are not temporary residents in this country, ready to go and join our Jewish brothers and sisters around the globe at any moment. We belong to this land and are going to live here for many generations to come. Therefore, we must become peaceful neighbors in this region, which I called, 75 years ago, “the Semitic region.”
The new nation-state law, with its semi-fascist nature, shows us how urgent it is to manage this dispute. We must decide who we are, what we want, where we belong. Otherwise, we are condemned to forever live in a temporary state.
This op-ed was published in the Hebrew edition of Haaretz on August 7, 2018.