Defining Who Is an Israeli

When Israeli citizens define themselves as Jews - instead of Israelis - they weaken their link to the country and bar national identity from flourishing.

A. B. Yehoshua
A.B. Yehoshua
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
A. B. Yehoshua
A.B. Yehoshua

Who is a Brit? Who is a Thai? Who is a Frenchman? Who is a Pole?

Every answer to such a question has two different parts, the citizenship part and the identity part, which do not necessarily overlap. For example, my nephew was born in United States to parents who were there as emissaries; he automatically got American citizenship, which requires the most minimal of efforts to maintain, but his identity is clearly Israeli and not American. If I would describe him as an American because of his second passport, he would be offended and protest.

A Pakistani who arrived yesterday at London’s Heathrow Airport, and has British citizenship that he inherited from his father or grandfather, is British - even if he doesn’t know a word of English and has never heard of Shakespeare or Byron. His British citizenship gives him all the same rights and obligations as the British prime minister, yet he has a completely different identity.

Nowadays, citizenship and identity are not identical. It’s true that the vast majority of people who have a particular national identity are citizens of that nation. But many millions of other people around the world (among them many Jews) are citizens of a particular nation, yet see their national identity as something completely different.

Understanding the difference between identity and citizenship is the cornerstone to answering the question, “Who is an Israeli?”

In terms of citizenship, everyone who has an Israeli identity card is Israeli, and under the rules of democracy all are meant to have equal rights. But not all of these people identify as Israelis. A million and a half Palestinians with Israeli citizenship will generally identify as Palestinians. They are considered a national minority living in their homeland among a majority of a different nationality.

Such a situation, in which a national minority lives among a majority of a different nationality, is very common in today’s world – you find it in Europe, Asia and Africa. In this respect, Palestinian Israelis are no different from other national minorities, like the Basques, Kurds, or Quebecois. But we must remember that the Palestinian Israeli is not a territorial minority. As far as he’s concerned, all of Palestine – and all Israeli territory – is his homeland. Thus, territorial autonomy in the Galilee or in the concentration of Arab Israeli towns known as the Triangle, for example, is meaningless. There is only cultural autonomy.

There is, of course, a bidirectional flow between many elements of the national identity of the majority and the citizenship of the minority, and vice versa. The Jewish identity of French Jews is heavily influenced by their French citizenship, and it’s possible that French identity is somewhat influenced by the Jewish national identity. The same is true in Israel. The Palestinian identity of Israel’s Palestinian citizens contains components of the general Israeli identity (including through the Hebrew language), and it also works to shape that identity. When an Arab Israeli judge presides in a case against the president of Israel, or when an Arab Israeli hospital director establishes new hospitalization procedures, they are creating Israeli codes that are at the heart of Israeli identity, the same way an American Jewish Supreme Court justice can be a partner in interpreting the U.S. Constitution.

Identity vs. citizenship

Still, there is a difference between identity and citizenship. Who better than the Jews have repeatedly proved this throughout their history in many parts of the world?

Therefore, the term “Israeli” does not touch only upon the common citizenship of Jews and Arabs in Israel, but is a concept of identity in and of itself. Even if there wasn’t a single Palestinian Arab in the State of Israel, the state is called “Israel” and thus its people are Israelis and not Jews. The state is Israeli and not Jewish; after all “Israel” was the original name of the Jewish people, while “Jew” (or Yehudi in Hebrew) is a name that was appended later: It appears for the first time during a period of exile, in the context of Mordechai the Jew who lived in Shushan, the capital of Persia, and who brought his niece to King Ahasuerus, allowing her to intermarry.

If Moses, King David and the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah and Samuel were to visit the Knesset and be asked by its speaker, “Who are you, gentlemen? Please identify yourselves,” they would undoubtedly reply, “We are Israel” or “We are from the children of Israel.” And if the surprised Knesset speaker would press the point by asking “Are you Jewish [Yehudim]?” they would answer, “We don’t know what you mean by ‘Yehudi.’ Do you mean someone from the tribe of Judah [Yehuda] or something else?”

The word “Yehudi” doesn’t appear in the Jewish prayer book even once, and the sages of the Mishna insisted on using only the term “Israel” and not the term “Yehudi.”

According to tradition, the name “Israel” was bestowed by God himself. That’s why the territory associated with the people is called the Land of Israel. Israeli universities teach mahshevet Yisrael (Jewish philosophy), the history of the people of Israel, the literature of the people of Israel and of course – the name of the state is Israel. So one wonders what happened over the past 20 to 30 years to repeatedly turn the words Yehudi, Yehudiyut (Jewishness) and medina Yehudit (Jewish state) into identity indicators for Israelis, relegating the word “Israeli” to some corner for civil purposes alone.

Is it possible that a Spaniard living in Madrid will see his Spanishness as merely a civilian common denominator between him and the Basques or the Catalans, and not a deeply rooted identity that stands on its own?

Confining Israeliness

I believe the process of confining Israeliness to such a civilian corner has to do with at least four different factors that at times contradict each another, each with its own internal logic.

1) First, there are the different streams of religious observance. Although the concept of “Jew,” as I’ve already shown, doesn’t necessarily contain any religious component, it’s clear to the religious that the more they restrict “Israeli” to a concept with only civil significance, the more the concept of “Jew,” which has been emptied of civilian obligations, will take on religious characteristics.

Let us imagine a chaplain in the Israel Defense Forces asking a soldier, “What are you?” and the innocent soldier replying, “I’m an Israeli, I serve in the army and I speak Hebrew.” The rabbi will then say, “That’s all? Then the Druze is an Israeli just like you; he serves in the army and speaks Hebrew. If that’s the case, what’s the difference between you?” Then, when the embarrassed soldier begins to stutter, the chaplain will suggest that he fill the void in his Israeli identity with some “Jewish heritage,” namely, religion.

This tactic not only has the cooperation of those affiliated with Habayit Hayehudi and the entire spectrum of the ultra-Orthodox, but also of Reform Jews and all those seeking their “roots” who are looking to convert their Israeli identity using religious concepts, which they glean primarily from books and midrash.

2) The second element pushing Israeliness into a civilian corner is Diaspora Jews and everyone who engages with them. Now that the term “Israeli” is perceived as referring to a specific citizenship, Jews in the Diaspora have to differentiate themselves from it, to avoid formal identification with Israel. Yet at the same time, all those who cultivate the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora, seek partnerships and encourage aliyah use the term “the Jewish people” as the only concept through which to connect and share. However, rather than suggest that Diaspora Jews upgrade and deepen their Jewishness by adopting the Israeli identity, they convey: Come strengthen the Jewishness of the State of Israel as a bulwark against its Arab citizens.

3) The third factor helping restrict Israeliness as an identity is actually the Arabs. They say to Israelis, “Look, you’re basically Jews, just like Jews in America or England or Argentina, and the Jews who lived around the world for more than 2,000 years and maintained their heritage and identity. Why did you come to crowd into our land, expelling us and endangering yourselves? “After all, you are part of the Jewish people. Jewish identity (either as a religion or limited nationality) does not need territory and sovereignty to shape itself. Moreover, for centuries, Jews whose way of life and aspirations were no different from other Jews living around the world lived in the Land of Israel and throughout the Middle East. Why do you suddenly need sovereignty and an Israeli identity?”

4) A fourth factor is the post-Zionists, who aspire to a new Israeli people, detached and disengaged from any Jewish identity linked to exile, history or religion (in the spirit of “Canaanism”). For them, Israel as a “state of all its citizens” is not only a just demand for full civic equality, but to some extent an effort to intensify and expand the overlap between citizenship and identity. In other words, they want to blur the historic Israeli identity and replace it solely with a general version of citizenship, like that of the American or the Australian.

These four factors (along with various others) undermine the concept of Israeli identity as a full Jewish identity, which these essays are striving to define.

A common Jewish identity

“There is no Jew in the Diaspora, even a Jew like yourself who lives totally through his Judaism, who with Judaism can be a complete Jew, and there is no Jewish community in the Diaspora that is able to live a complete Jewish life. Only in the State of Israel is a complete Jewish life possible. Only here will a Jewish culture worthy of the name emerge, one that will be both 100 percent Jewish and 100 percent humane. The book is nothing but one part, a chapter of a culture. The culture of a people comprises a field, a road, a house, an airplane, a laboratory, a museum, an army, a school, self-government, the vistas of one’s homeland, theater, music, language, memories, hopes and so forth. A complete Jew and a complete human being, without any gap or partition between the Jew and the human being, between the citizen and the public, is not possible in a foreign land.”

These profound statements, which were brought to my attention recently, were written by Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion in the 1950s to a Jew in the Diaspora named S. Ravidowitz. Remarks that I made in a similar vein a few years ago during a lecture to members of the American Jewish Committee in Washington provoked a stormy response; after all, no one likes to hear that his cherished identity is essentially a partial one.

But when I realized that there were also many objections to my remarks in Israel, I understood that something has gone awry in understanding the fundamental change to Jewish identity that occurred with the establishment of the State of Israel. This is surprising, since in the past, during the early years of Zionism and with the founding of the state, the perception of Israeli identity as a complete Jewish identity was natural for many people. But in recent years there has been a disturbing reversal, which is being led, as noted, by different elements that contradict one another, first and foremost by the religious, in their various permutations.

Indeed, for some 2,000 years there was only one pattern of Jewish identity. Jews lived among the nations, in countries that the Jews saw as foreign territories, controlled by different religions and peoples who spoke foreign languages. The Jews, as a wandering national minority, more or less participated in the societies they lived in, with their Jewish identity touching on only specific aspects of their lives.

Moreover – and to me this is the fundamental change brought about by Jewish sovereignty in Israel – in exile or in the Diaspora no Jew rules over another Jew, nor is he obligated to him in any way, unless he chooses to be so. In the Diaspora, a Jew can relate to another Jew freely. Jewish life is heavily influenced by non-Jews and is subordinate to them. Collective responsibility is entirely voluntary. Harm done to a Russian Jew does not necessitate help from an Italian Jew, unless the latter chooses to help.

So talk about a common Jewish destiny is far-fetched. When London was bombed during the German blitz, Englishmen from Liverpool or Leeds participated in its defense, and an Englishman from Manchester was liable to be sent to fight the Germans in the Arabian desert. When Britain imposes a government austerity plan, it affects all citizens, whoever or wherever they were.

That’s what is meant by a common destiny, and in that sense it can be said that there is a common Israeli destiny, or a common Palestinian destiny. But when Jews were sent to the death camps in Poland, for the Jews of New York, Brazil or Iran, life went on as usual. And when the Jews of Spain were expelled, Jews in Iraq or Germany were peacefully going about their business. Throughout history the fate of the Jews has been determined, for better or worse, solely by the lot of the nations among which they lived.

Israeli identity returns the control over Jews to Jewish hands, and restores the mutual commitment between Jews that prevailed during the First and Second Temple periods. In Israel, Jews pay taxes under laws passed by Jews, are sent to war by Jews, and Jews determine the social strata and welfare laws for their fellow Jews. Jews send soldiers to protect settlements that they’re fed up with, and at the same time Jews send other soldiers to evacuate settlements that are sacred in the eyes of their inhabitants.

This holistic attitude creates a rich and existentially meaningful identity that is infinitely more moral than that which exists in the Diaspora, where disputes are verbal, with no ability to compel anyone to do anything.

Israeli vs. Jewish morality

All at once, all elements of life became open to the influence of Jewish identity and thus assumed an Israeli identity. Now a slew of new ethical questions that a Jew never dealt with and still needn’t deal with in the Diaspora pose challenges to the Israeli, who must make real-life, practical decisions and not just analyze and interpret the issues as a course of study.

What, for example, should an Israeli prison look like? How large are the cells? What are the imprisonment procedures? To what extent and how moral is it to torture a dangerous terrorist to obtain important information from him? Is one allowed to sell arms to an African country ruled by a despotic regime to prevent unemployment in the Israeli arms industry?

National values are determined not by talk, but by action. It’s easy for a rabbi at a Chicago synagogue to take “Jewish morality” out of its lovely etrog box on Shabbat, deliver a pleasant sermon about it to his congregants, and then return it to the box. But in Israel, Jewish morality is sometimes determined by the angle at which a soldier holds a rifle while confronting a Palestinian demonstration in the territories. This morality is tested every day and every hour through a thousand different acts. That’s why today it’s easier to be a Jew in the Diaspora, because on the bigger questions a Diaspora Jew participates only as a citizen (sometimes a rather aloof one) of another nationality.

A religious Jew in Israel must also vastly broaden his identity, and is required to make decisions and forge relationships that are not demanded of the Diaspora Jew. A religious Israeli must decide, together with the secular Jew, whether to buy another fighter jet or build another hospital wing. He might be able to support his position using religious sources and it’s even desirable that he do so, but he will have to grapple with the evidence and support that others bring from their sources. What is decided essentially becomes the new halakha (Jewish law).

In a lecture Haim Nahman Bialik gave at Nahalal in 1932, two years before his death, he expressed himself in the spirit of what Ben-Gurion was to write later on.

“It’s very simple: The concept of culture for every people includes all elements of life, from the lowest to the most sublime. Cobbling shoes - culture, sewing pants - culture, tilling the soil is most certainly culture. Everything is culture - culture in different forms. There are those who, to make things easier, separate material culture from spiritual culture. This is a somewhat artificial division, because if we’re talking about culture, there is already a joining of matter and spirit... Here in the Land of Israel the concept of culture assumes it full significance. Everything that is created in the Land of Israel by Jews becomes culture.”

Therefore, a Talmud lesson in a yeshiva or at an institute like Alma, the self-described home for Hebrew culture, has no more Jewish identity than a debate by the Committee to Prevent Road Accidents. Any differentiation between them is artificial and dangerous. Because Israeliness is what brings about a total integration between matter and spirit, from all the aspects that Bialik indicated.

The process of turning Israeli identity into a skin instead of a garment is a new and revolutionary process for the historic Jew, who for most of his history slipped in and out of the national clothes of others. We are only at the beginning of the struggle for the place of an Israeli identity in our lives. The “Jewish” processes that have returned to overwhelm us are only delaying and damaging the establishment and deepening of the Israeli identity. When we define ourselves as Jews - and not as Israelis - then even before we get another passport from some foreign embassy, we already have a global Jewish passport, and in a world that is becoming a global village, this passport makes it easy to move from one country to another and emigrate from Israel.

I believe that former Israelis and present-day Jews will also be citizens of the space colonies that will be built in a few decades. Perhaps even there, Chabad emissaries will help them maintain a modicum of their Jewish identity, as they do now all over the world. Out there, in those space colonies, they will surely say, “Next year in Jerusalem.” And once again, the fear returns. Will Jerusalem return to being an abstraction as it was for hundreds of years of Jewish history or will it remain a living entity? This will depend not on our Jewish identity, but on the Israeli identity alone.

Is this soldier Israeli or Jewish?Credit: Yaron Kaminsky

Click the alert icon to follow topics:



Automatic approval of subscriber comments.
From $1 for the first month

Already signed up? LOG IN


The Orion nebula, photographed in 2009 by the Spitzer Telescope.

What if the Big Bang Never Actually Happened?

Relatives mourn during the funeral of four teenage Palestinians from the Nijm family killed by an errant rocket in Jabalya in the northern Gaza Strip, August 7.

Why Palestinian Islamic Jihad Rockets Kill So Many Palestinians

בן גוריון

'Strangers in My House': Letters Expelled Palestinian Sent Ben-Gurion in 1948, Revealed


AIPAC vs. American Jews: The Toxic Victories of the 'pro-Israel' Lobby

Bosnian Foreign Minister Bisera Turkovic speaks during a press conference in Sarajevo, Bosnia in May.

‘This Is Crazy’: Israeli Embassy Memo Stirs Political Storm in the Balkans

Hamas militants take part in a military parade in Gaza.

Israel Rewards Hamas for Its Restraint During Gaza Op