This week is the 30th anniversary of the Meretz party’s founding. I was there when the late Yossi Sarid solved our argument over the question of the state’s identity. His wording, which ended the vehement debates on the subject, was that Israel is the state of the Jewish people and all its citizens.
On one hand, this definition insists on the fundamental reason for the state’s founding – to be a place of refuge for Jews. On the other, it promises that despite this, Israel won’t be a racist state.
This week, Israel violated this formulation twice over and, in a cruel move led by Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, chose racism. The first time was when Shaked capped the number of Ukrainian refugees – the uncircumcised ones – at just 2,500. At the current rate, Israel will stop accepting Ukrainian refugees within a week.
The second time was when she secured Knesset approval for a particularly evil amendment to the Citizenship Law. Under this amendment, the number of Palestinians married to Israelis who can obtain approval for family reunification in Israel will not exceed 58 a year. The new law announces its racism explicitly. The restriction was justified on the grounds that Israel is a “Jewish and democratic” state.
Shaked and her supporters (it’s impossible to cast the blame on her alone; the community of cruel racists on which she relied is indeed alive and kicking) thereby substantively impaired the citizenship of the 20 percent of Israelis who are not Jewish. They declared that the right to happiness and family life belongs to Jews only; Arab citizens will always be second-class ones.
For Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, the situation is even worse. Most are permanent residents rather than citizens, and the Interior Ministry does its best to event strip them of residency.
Shaked has turned Zionist doctrine upside down. Theodor Herzl’s book “Altneuland” described a model society in which Jews and Arabs lived in harmony. The villain of the story, Rabbi “Geyer” (the German word for “vulture”), tries to turn this egalitarian country into a state of all its Jews. This is one of the key conflicts in the book, and the characters through whom Herzl expresses his own views attack Geyer with an outpouring of wrath.
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In the end, Geyer is defeated. That was Herzl’s way of saying that Israel would never be a racist state. It’s no accident that the right-wing organization Im Tirtzu hasn’t included this book on its list of key Zionist texts. And lo and behold, today Rabbi Geyer has become the interior minister.
The question is what kind of Israeli identity we want. Do we want a country that wages a war of revenge against history? One that, when the question of Ukrainian refugees arises, immediately thinks about the Khmelnytsky pogrom in 1648?
How did we become infected with our persecutors’ worldview, which holds that foreigners are always evil and compassion is always dangerous? How did we forget the Torah’s dictum “thou shalt not deliver unto his master a slave who has escaped”?
How did we repress the memory of the terrible years when our ancestors had no passports, which W. H. Auden so aptly described in his poem “Refugee Blues” – “The consul banged the table and said, ‘If you’ve got no passport you’re officially dead’”? Why do a few thousand Ukrainian refugees terrify us? Why do a few thousand Palestinian families give us nightmares?
Sarid offered us an expansive view of Israeli identity, one that matched Herzl’s – a country sure of itself that wasn’t afraid of foreigners. A country that knows where it came from (“a state of the Jewish people”), but also where it must go (“and all its citizens”) if it doesn’t want to be Russia on the shores of the Mediterranean.