Opinion |

Have Israelis Forgotten How to Be Jews?

Israel has never made clear whether its Jewish identity is a matter of national or religious identity. But that will change once we achieve equality

Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy
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Young Palestinian men’s lives are filled with humiliation, deprivation and diminished opportunity The "flag march" in east Jerusalem on May 6, 2016.
Young Palestinian men’s lives are filled with humiliation, depriIsraeli authorities order Palestinian businesses to close for the "March of Flags" through the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem. May 6, 2016.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy

What if Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay is right and we really have forgotten how to be Jews? Would that be so terrible? Maybe it would even be better?

Gabbay directed the worst possible accusation against his own political camp: We have forgotten our Jewish identity, which is maybe even worse than forgetting how to be Zionists. It’s the end of the world. But you can be a great person and even an outstanding Israeli while forgetting a little Jewish identity.

When no one has any idea what's the significance of being a Jew in the Israel of 2017, just which “Jewish values” is Gabbay is talking about? (It’s doubtful he knows.) What’s so essential to remember and what can’t we forget? Such a discussion is meaningless.

If being Jewish means a sense of belonging to a chosen people that’s allowed to do anything it wishes, liberals must forget this aspect of their Jewish identities. If being Jewish means keeping religious customs, secular Jews must forget their Jewishness. If being Jewish means being a perpetual victim and thinking your people isn’t only history’s biggest victim but also the one and only victim, and as a result can do whatever it wants, we must free ourselves from such a Jewish identity.

If being Jewish means thinking that Hebron is yours, that Abraham your patriarch wandered around there in ancient times and bought a cave there, the left wing isn’t only entitled but is required to forget about being Jewish. If being Jewish means feeling an automatic affinity to an unenlightened Brooklyn rabbi or a corrupt L.A. millionaire just because they’re Jewish – over a non-Jewish Israeli from Kafr Qasem – a bit of Jewish identity can be ignored. If being Jewish means allowing the offspring of a possibly Jewish grandmother the right to Israeli citizenship but not someone whose family has been in the country for generations, it’s immoral to cling to such an identity.

When people talk about a Jewish state, it’s impossible to know what they mean. Is its character determined by a statistical majority in the population registry? A state governed by Jewish religious law? Is it Jewish if there’s no public transportation on Shabbat and no grocery stores are open then, and not if there’s civil marriage and burial? Is it Jewish if maintenance of the railway system is done on Shabbat by non-Jews, but not if it's done by Jews?

Israel has never made clear whether its Jewish identity is a matter of national or religious identity. If it’s a religion, what do secular Israelis have to do with it, and if it’s a nationality, what's Israeli identity?

Secular Israelis can forget a bit about their Jewish identities, particularly if its significance is fuzzy. They can find their values from the storehouse of universal values, just as people in other countries do. And they can find their identities at a clearer address: being Israeli.

I’m an Israeli, sometimes proud, sometimes ashamed, but always Israeli. I’m a son of Jewish refugees who fled here for their lives, and it’s reasonable to assume that were it not for the dangers they faced in Europe, they probably would have stayed there and assimilated. There’s no need to sever oneself from one’s roots and wipe out the past, but the present and future are a lot more important.

When a society knows so little about its present and even less about its future, divorced from reality and living in dumbfounding denial, studying the past is secondary. Before Israeli students learn about Joshua’s conquest of the Land of Israel, they should learn a little more about the Israeli army’s conquests. But they and their parents have chosen not to know.

The slogan “we are all Jews” needs to be updated. There is a Jewish world that is dealing with its own issues, largely divorced from the issues that we in Israel are concerned with. The controversy over egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall interests very few Israelis, as does the issue of conversion. On the other hand, the submarine affair that the police are investigating interests very few Jews abroad.

This gap will only grow. As long as its system of government isn’t changed, Israel will remain open to any Jew who wishes to immigrate here. This person will gradually become an Israeli, a process that happens to immigrants in every country. That will be the case until the day when the members of both peoples, Hebrew and Arab, Jewish and Palestinian, live here in equality – when they above all will be Israelis, or whatever their country is called then.

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