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The Crazy State of the Israeli Nation

‘An Israeli nationality?!’ cried government officials. ‘Never!’ – and with the flourish of a bureaucratic pen, the ‘Jewish nationality’ was invented

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David Ben-Gurion reading Israel's Declaration of Independence in what was then the Tel Aviv Museum, May 14, 1948.
David Ben-Gurion reading Israel's Declaration of Independence in what was then the Tel Aviv Museum, May 14, 1948.Credit: Zoltan Kluger / GPO

Let’s start with a riddle: What's the only official Israeli document that  recognizes Israeli nationality? Which document has united Israel’s citizens regardless of religion, origin, race, gender, ethnic group or number of shoes, just as in the best-run countries? (The answer is coming soon.)

But first a bit of history. On the 5th of Iyar 5708 (May 14, 1948) the State of Israel was born. On that day the Hebrew state died. Until the establishment of the state everything was “Hebrew.” The Hebrew nation in Palestine fought for Hebrew labor, a Hebrew state, Hebrew culture, Hebrew education, a Hebrew citizen, a Hebrew city, Hebrew youth, Hebrew settlement.

A day after the birth of the state, all that became “Jewish.”

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And it’s not clear why. After all, the name given to the country is the State of Israel. We would therefore have expected everything to become “Israeli”: Israeli labor, Israeli settlement, an Israeli citizen, an Israeli nation – but that’s not what happened. Almost everything became “Jewish,” and the greatest fury and horror were stirred by the term “Israeli nationality.”

“An Israeli nationality?!” cried government officials. “Never!” – and with the flourish of a bureaucratic pen, the “Jewish nationality” was invented.

But there is no “Jewish nationality,” there’s a Jewish people. People is the word that defines a community with a shared fate, memory, language, culture, customs, myths and sometimes religion as well. Nationality – since the birth of the modern state – is defined simply as all a country’s citizens. All France’s citizens are of the French nationality. All Sweden’s citizens are of the Swedish nationality, and so on.

Why were Israel’s citizens forbidden to be called part of the “Israeli nationality”? Out of some kind of strange logic, the state has claimed (in a legal discussion) that writing “Israeli nationality” in the Population Registry “would undermine the foundation of the establishment of the State of Israel.” Why is Israel fighting Israeliness? It’s a real autoimmune disease.

What’s more, this invented nationality is based entirely on religion. It’s a “nationality” to which there’s no way of being accepted except through state-appointed clerics. Such a nationality-religion isn’t only absurd, it’s something of a dinosaur. Once there were many like it; today such groups can be found only among Indian tribes in the United States or on the banks of the Amazon.

Even the Jewish people, which suffers from the same overdose of religion, has shown a welcome rebelliousness in recent years. More and more institutions (for example Beit Hatfutsot, the Museum of the Jewish People) are finally dealing with Jewish “peoplehood.” Judaism as a culture, as a people, and not necessarily as a religion.

Nor is there a “Jewish state.” There can’t be. A “Jewish state” sounds something like a “Buddhist cucumber.” Countries and cucumbers can’t be religious. Only people can. That’s what God decided, and He, after all, understands religions.

But the craziest expression to emerge from this imbroglio is unquestionably “a state that’s not the state of all its citizens” – an expression as logical as “a tree that’s not a tree of all its leaves,” or “a pool that’s not a pool of all its water.” After all, a democratic state is by definition a state of all its citizens – not a state of its kings, priests, nobles, rich people and heroes. Only a state of its citizens. All of them.

But not in Israel. Here in the “Jewish and democratic” state there’s a state with a religion, a Jewish “nationality,” and a fifth of citizens for whom the state isn’t theirs at all.

With a bit of false naivete one can ask, why do we need this mess? Isn’t registering citizenship enough? Is there really a need to register “nationality” in the Population Registry? And why mention “religion” there as well? (A nosy and unnecessary inquiry into citizen-God relations). Who needs all that?

Excluding the false naivete, the answer is quite clear. The Israeli racism network needs all this despicableness so that the state will always know that our camp is pure. So that no Arab, Christian, Muslim or uncircumcised person of any other description will disappear from its view and be considered a citizen, someone for whom the country is also his country, God forbid.

This way, the Chief Rabbinate, which governs us, will know who is worthy of its daughters and who is not. The real estate authorities will know who is allowed to buy land and who is not. The various uncircumcised people will know where they’re allowed to live and where not. All this bookkeeping is the government version of the anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox Neturei Karta movement, the guardians of purity.

This all-out war that the state has declared on the Israeli nationality is so grotesque that the Interior Ministry has a list of nationalities that are allowed in the Population Registry. The following nationalities can be found there: Tatar, Jewish, Lichtensteinian, Arab, Mauritian, Kabardian, Samaritan, West German – and about 130 others.

But there’s no Israeli nationality. The State of Israel doesn’t recognize its existence. What can you do; after all, that’s typical of people suffering from an autoimmune disease: They stubbornly fight against themselves.

The one and only official document that managed to fly below the racist radar is the Israeli passport. There at least is: Nationality – Israeli. Bravo! And only in the English version does it say so; abroad we’re somewhat normal. We can assume that international conventions required this version, rather than a sudden attack of enlightenment. But even small consolations are something.

Israeli entry and exit permits of Haaretz columnist B. Michael. Credit: B. Michael

Still, the peak of this craziness has yet to come. At the end of 2012 the registration machines at Ben-Gurion Airport starting using new slips of paper for entries and exits. The large white slips were replaced by small blue ones. In early 2013, when I first encountered the blue slip, I perused it with curiosity and my heart swelled with surprise and joy: In English it says Nationality – ISR, just as in the passport. And even in Hebrew – who would believe it! The word “nationality,” black on blue, can be found on another liberal Israeli document. I was very happy, and I saved it.

My happiness lasted for only about seven months. A sharp-eyed clerk had discovered the scandal, and even before masses of the uncircumcised who had suddenly been able to join the Israeli nationality could assail us, the catastrophe was repaired. The heartwarming Nationality was changed to the bland and official Issuer – both in Hebrew and English.

And to pour more salt in my wounds, it happened almost before my eyes: I traveled abroad on July 24, 2013 and returned 48 hours later. During those hours the revolution took place. I left with Nationality and returned with Issuer. Well, at least in my passport I remain a member of the persecuted Israeli nationality.

Last week the state turned 70 – old age, according to Ethics of the Fathers. So maybe to improve its old age the state will decide to be weaned from this nonsense? Forget about the baseless “Jewish nationality,” be satisfied with the existence of the venerated and veteran Jewish people, let all the state’s citizens who so desire register as Israelis, and stop the nonsense of “a state that’s not a state of all its citizens.” In spite of itself, it’s a country of all its citizens. Up to the very last one.

And as far as Israeli racism is concerned, there’s no need to worry about it. Even without “Jewish nationality” it will continue to flourish as usual.

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