WASHINGTON − As the daughter of a Jewish mother (of Ashkenazi background from New York), American actress Scarlett Johansson is Jewish according to halacha, or Jewish religious law, and thus a potential Israeli according to the country’s Law of Return. However, she will be surprised to discover that Israel will be formally recognized as her nation-state, according to the proposed Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People, which is on the agenda of the newly elected Knesset.
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Perhaps, as Prof. Yehezkel Dror suggests in his article “Between people and state” (Haaretz, April 15), Johansson will even be able to vote or be a candidate in the elections for what he terms the advisory council of the representative body of the Jewish people that will operate alongside the Knesset. Indeed, it sometimes seems that the debate over the proposed Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People is being conducted in a strange world where those who define (or refuse to define) themselves as Jews and are citizens of a sovereign state are also supposed to identify with another sovereign state, namely the State of Israel.
The sovereign nation-state is a reality today, despite all the talk of the politicians and business people who meet annually in Davos and who speak of the weakening of the nation-state under the pressure of globalization. And also despite similar arguments raised by intellectuals who belong to the political left regarding multicultural and universal identities that are supposed to replace national identity. There are Western intellectuals and political leaders who argue today that the principle of sovereignty can be violated by humanitarian, even military, intervention in response to the murder of the citizens of a foreign state by their own government.
Peoples have cultural (including religious) and historical connections, as well as sometimes racial and family connections that, at times (particularly when the members of that people are faced with a threat to their survival as a people), can also take on a political form. This was the case, for example, when African-Americans were active in the campaign to put an end to the apartheid regime in South Africa and when American Jews felt obligated to help the members of their people in the former Soviet Union. Today, American Jews feel a similar obligation toward the members of their people in Israel.
Notwithstanding the above, many Israelis have an illusion: They assume that the Jewish identity of most Jews living today in the West goes beyond the basic feeling of belonging to the Jewish historical and cultural collective (in fact, even the very definition of the term “Jewish” is often disputed), or that the Jewish community leaders who spend their time flying back and forth between New York and Tel Aviv, or rich and powerful individuals like Sheldon Adelson, are the true “political” leaders of Diaspora Jews who, according to this illusion, see Israel as their national home.
On the basic of this assumption, what is stopping Israel from issuing an Israeli passport to every Jew throughout the world, just as Israel permits Jewish emigrants from Israel who have been living abroad since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 to retain their Israeli passport? And what is stopping Israel from perhaps allowing these Israeli expatriates to vote in the parliamentary elections of “their” nation-state?
Obviously, there is a need to cultivate and strengthen the connection between Israel and Diaspora Jewish communities. Moreover, the State of Israel as a cultural center and as a historic success story, in addition to being a democratic state that grants equal rights to the non-Jewish minorities living in its midst, undoubtedly gives many Diaspora Jews a feeling of pride. However, the goal of Zionism was to create a sovereign state and to grant the right of self-determination to the Jewish majority that chooses to live within the framework of that state and not beyond its territorial boundaries.
In other words, Israel is not a “civilization state” that is authorized to represent foreign Jewish citizens or to speak on their behalf. The self-determination of Israel’s Jewish citizens, as expressed in the wording of the country’s Declaration of Independence, necessitates a severing of ties with other nation-states. The proposed Basic Law places a huge question mark over this principle and over the Israeli identity of the country’s non-Jewish citizens (including immigrants from Russia) and assumes that Israel is the national home of Scarlett Johansson, although she might not be aware of that assumption.
The author is a senior analyst in a geostrategic consulting firm in Washington.