The Supreme Irony: You Are Not Israeli

The Supreme Court ruling that there is no such thing as an Israeli national ethnic identity is not a shock, but it still triggers an identity crisis.

Uri Misgav
Uri Misgav
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Uri Misgav
Uri Misgav

One cannot rely on the Supreme Court as a guardian of democracy, petition it on the most important constitutional questions and hail its decisions when they fit a certain preconceived notion, but then ignore it when the situation is reversed. There is, therefore, no alternative but to comply with the Supreme Court ruling that there is no such thing as an Israeli national ethnic identity ("le’om" in Hebrew).

Of course, that doesn't mean the court's ruling earlier this month is immune from criticism, or that one cannot regard it with astonishment. Even though the recent ruling in effect simply ratified a similar court opinion from 41 years ago, it has amazing implications. After all, 41 years have elapsed.

Maybe the most amazing thing about the recent decision is actually the forum in which it was decided. The petitioners initially filed their case with the district court in 2007. Judge Noam Sohlberg - then a district court judge, now a justice - ruled at the time that the case did not involve a subject upon which the court could pass judgment. The petitioners were seeking to be registered as Israeli rather than Jews as their ethnic identity. But then, on appeal, the Supreme Court ruled that it actually was a subject for a court decision.

In any event, it was the stated desire of the petitioners that the court pass on the issue of how citizens are identified officially. But should it have been decided by a panel of just three justices, as it eventually was? It's good that the case wasn't initially assigned to the rotating presiding judge who happened to be on duty at the time, who might have ruled on it alone on a night shift. Three Supreme Court justices sat and saw fit to rule on that question of all questions of Israeli democracy, getting to the heart of the matter. Didn't their hands shake in signing off on it? Wasn't it obvious that this required a larger panel, a much larger one?

Their ruling contained detailed reasoning from a legal standpoint. Major portions of it focused on the issue of registration. True, most of the public reacted to the ruling with a shrug. That doesn't matter. Nor is it very important that the ruling gives official constitutional force to a situation that, in practice, has prevailed in this country since its founding.

The big picture is important, though. And an unequivocal declaration by the highest court in the land is important - especially when it is issued at a time when the right wing, headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is making feverish efforts to secure domestic and international recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. It involves a pincer action, outflanking and surrounding “Israeliness” to wipe it off the map.

So what were the Supreme Court justices actually saying? That there's no such thing as Israeliness. That, on a national level, it's Jew vs. Arab for all eternity. That there is no real prospect, and never was, to come together here as one country. And although they did leave an opening for such a prospect in the future, in effect the justices are saying there's no chance - that the essence of the idea of Israeliness is esoteric, and that its supporters only exist on the margins.

One of the justices repeated that "it is not appropriate to encourage the creation of new fragments of national ethnic identity. So Israeliness is some kind of fragment - a particle of dust that can be brushed off one's clothes.

The Supreme Court says that a lot of the things we were taught are really nonsense. This really isn't a state of all its citizens. There's no such thing as a country that is both Jewish and democratic. There is electorally Jewish, with elections and more than a few rights to subjects who are not Jewish. But there is no right to disown one's religious and ethnic affiliation.

This is not shocking news. All you have to do is look at the Israeli flag, the words of the national anthem and the Law of Return, which gives Jews abroad the right to Israeli citizenship. Or just look around the country a little.

But the court also did away with the vision, wiped out a horizon for something different and extinguished hope. The consequences are major not only when it comes to the Arabs, but also for the Jews. You can be Jewish in California, Berlin or Honolulu. Up to now, however, we had the mistaken belief that being Israeli was something that existed just here. The singer Arik Lavie had a song called "You are Israeli." But along came the court to tell us all that we aren't.

Israeli flag on a hill near the West Bank settlement of Elazar, near Bethlehem.Credit: Reuters

Click the alert icon to follow topics:



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

Already signed up? LOG IN


Charles Lindbergh addressing an America First Committee rally on October 3, 1941.

Ken Burns’ Brilliant ‘The U.S. and the Holocaust’ Has Only One Problem

The projected rise in sea level on a beach in Haifa over the next 30 years.

Facing Rapid Rise in Sea Levels, Israel Could Lose Large Parts of Its Coastline by 2050

Tal Dilian.

As Israel Reins in Its Cyberarms Industry, an Ex-intel Officer Is Building a New Empire

Queen Elizabeth II, King Charles III and a British synagogue.

How the Queen’s Death Changes British Jewry’s Most Distinctive Prayer

Newly appointed Israeli ambassador to Chile, Gil Artzyeli, poses for a group picture alongside Rabbi Yonatan Szewkis, Chilean deputy Helia Molina and Gerardo Gorodischer, during a religious ceremony in a synagogue in Vina del Mar, Chile last week.

Chile Community Leaders 'Horrified' by Treatment of Israeli Envoy

Queen Elizabeth attends a ceremony at Windsor Castle, in June 2021.

Over 120 Countries, but Never Israel: Queen Elizabeth II's Unofficial Boycott