Palestine-Israel Journal: Is there an Israeli national identity distinct from the Jewish national identity, or do the two overlap ?

A.B. Yehoshua :
The Jewish people were called Israel for about one thousand years - the sons of Israel, the people of Israel. One hears the expression 'Jew' for the first time during the Babylonian exile after the destruction of the first Temple. The birthplace of the Jewish people is Israel: the land is called 'Eretz Yisrael', the Land of Israel, the people are called 'Am Yisrael', the people of Israel.

In asking ourselves what is the relationship between Jew and Israeli, the answer is that the Israeli is the total Jew, the whole Jew, meaning the Jew who is living in a total, all-embracing Jewish reality, on Jewish land, where the diverse components of life - culture, economy, government etc. - are all Jewish. On the other hand, a Jew living in the Diaspora is only a partial Jew, because many aspects of life there, for example language and politics, are not Jewish. Therefore, when after 2000 years of exile, the Jews returned to the Land of Israel, they were transformed from 'partial' Jews into 'total' Jews.

The question of religion is irrelevant here, because Israel is the name of a people and not of a religion. During the period of the first Temple, a considerable number of Israelis, while belonging to the Israeli people, were not Jewish by faith and did not believe in the laws of Moses (Torat Moshe); we know that those people were heathens, worshipping pagan gods like the Baal and Ashtoreth. They were nevertheless considered as B'nei Yisrael, sons of Israel, part and parcel of the Israeli people. The fact that a secular Jew, like a religious Jew, is defined as Jewish means that the term Jew basically refers to peoplehood and not to religion. So when I speak about Jews, about Israelis, I refer not to religion but to peoplehood and I distinguish between partial and total Jewish national identity.

In the1950s and 1960s, Israel was viewed as a melting pot, integrating immigrants from different countries, with different languages and cultures, into the Hebrew-Israeli national and cultural identity. Today, the melting pot concept looks bankrupt and Israel is viewed as a multicultural society, where various groups with distinct ethnic-religious-cultural features - Palestinian Arabs, Mizrahi (Oriental) Jews, Russian immigrants - demand and are entitled to, preserve their specific identity. My question: does an Israeli national identity still exist?

First I have to stress that the problem of the Palestinian Arabs is totally different from that of the Mizrahi Jews or of the Russian newcomers, because the Palestinians who are Israeli citizens and possess an Israeli identity card belong to a different people. As far as the relationship between the melting pot and the multicultural society is concerned, this is a world problem. In the 1950s the concept of national identity was far more solid, more crystallized. At that time, immigrants to the USA were attracted to the notion of the melting pot, in the center of which were the WASPS (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants). The English language and customs were the dominant culture and every newcomer wanted to change himself by plunging into this melting pot.

The prevailing concept today is that there are no superior and inferior cultures and that every culture has the right to exist. In the framework of the Israeli national identity, different cultural groups are entitled to cultivate their specific cultural features. This is a positive phenomenon. The world under globalization is becoming more and more uniform; in order to protect your individuality in this increasingly global village, you have to cultivate your own identity. We notice a similar process in Canada, in the USA, and also in Israel. I don't think this will endanger our national identity. There will be more diversity, but if the balance is kept between the need for national solidarity and the desire for cultivating one's specific cultural dimensions, Israel's national identity will not be jeopardized.

In 1995, the Knesseth (Israel's Parliament) passed a law stipulating that the State of Israel belongs to the Jewish people. How can a democratic state belong to members of a people dispersed all over the world, instead of belonging to its citizens?

I dont think there is a contradiction. When a Palestinian state comes into being, and I very much hope that this will soon be the case, this state will not only belong to the Palestinians living in Palestine, but also to any person considered to be a Palestinian, according to the laws and charter of the Palestinian state. One says 'belonging', but in what sense? Not in the sense of deciding the state's budget or voting for one Palestinian law or another, but in something wider: in the special relationship, the affinity and mutual concern between on the one hand Palestinians living abroad, outside their country (let us say in Syria, in Lebanon, in the USA, in France, or in Israel) and on the other hand, Palestinians living in the State of Palestine. The same goes for the Jews and the Jewish State - Israel.

First and foremost, the state clearly belongs to its citizens. The citizens elect the Parliament, choose the government, enjoy the right to participate int all the democratic institutions of the state. In short, therefore, the State of Israel belongs to its citizens. But Israel was not created only for the 600,000 Jews who were living here in 1948. The decision in 1947 of the United Nations to partition Palestine into two states, a Jewish state and an Arab state, aimed at helping to solve the Jewish problem. This was the consequence of the century-long persecution and discrimination of Jews in the Diaspora that culminated in the extermination of millions of Jews by the Nazis. The task of the Jewish state was to absorb Jewish refugees (just as the future Palestinian state will have to solve the problem of Palestinian refugees). Otherwise there would have been no moral justification for enabling 600.000 Jews to establish their own state in a part of Palestine.

This special relationship between the Jews everywhere and the Jewish state is based on a moral contract expressed by the 'Law of Return', which grants to every Jew the automatic right to immigrate and live in Israel. However, this does not contradict the concept that the state of Israel belongs to all of its citizens, Jews, Palestinian Arabs, and others. Jews who are not living in Israel will never have the right to vote for our Parliament, to determine this country's policies. But the Israeli Arabs have all those rights. Had the Palestinian Arabs, citizens of Israel, shown a wiser, more astute approach to this country's politics, they could have sent 22-25 (out of 120) deputies to the Knesseth and would have been able to play a much bigger role in determining Israel's policies.

Is there not a contradiction in the claim that Israel is both a Jewish and a democratic state, when every fifth Israeli is not Jewish?

The Arab citizens here are a national minority. This situation exists in many countries. It is the case in Spain, for instance, where there are several national minorities - the Andalousians, the Catalonians, the Basques - who have Spanish citizenship. They have a certain amount of political and cultural autonomy, but Spain is their all-ecompassing homeland. There are Spanish Catalonians, Spanish Andalousians, but Spain remains Spain, and one can say that these minorities have, in addition to their specific ethno-cultural identity, a Spanish national identity. Israeli Arabs also have certain forms of cultural autonomy: their own schools, where the curriculum is taught in Arabic, their own Arabic newspapers, and so on. This cultural autonomy could and should be expanded, but the Arabs want more. This is the problem: historically, the Arabs are not used to being a minority.

Still, when you ask a Palestinian Arab, living here, to identify not with Israel, but with Israel as a Jewish state, many a Palestinians sees this as a 'mission impossible', because being Jewish, according to law and custom, means also belonging to the Jewish religion….

The relationship between religion and nationality is indeed a major problem for the future of Israel and of the Jewish nation. We need to completely and legally separate nationality from religion. It should be possible to be a Christian, while belonging to the historical Jewish people, just as a Jew born and raised in France is a member of the historical French people. I believe that this separation between religion and national identity is absolutely necessary. But it will be a very slow evolution, a long historical process.

Is this at all possible or is it merely wishful thinking?

Two hundred years ago, nobody thought that a secular Jew could be a member of the Jewish people. According to the 12/13th century teachings of the Rambam (Maimonides), a Jew who did not believe in God, was to be lapidated (stoned to death), killed without any warning, as a traitor. Nowadays, as has been the case for many, many years, a secular Jew is a legitimate member of the Jewish people, and is accepted and as such by religious Jewry. This is not only so for secular Jews. Buddhist Jews in the USA or in Israel are considered to be Jews, without any restrictions and recognized as members of the historical Jewish people.

Admittedly. But what about a Jew who converted to, or was born into, the Christian faith?

Take all those Russians who have come to Israel but who are Christians. They are recognized by the Israeli Jewish community as Jews, not in a religious sense of course, but as part of the historical Jewish people. The opposite is also true. Nowadays, in the Diaspora many members of the Jewish faith are no longer Jews in a national sense, and no longer belong to the historical Jewish people. You cannot say that the American Senator Joseph Lieberman, a religious Jew who was the Democratic candidate for Vice- President of the USA, belongs to the Jewish nation, has a Jewish nationality. His nationality is American and only American. His Jewish national identity is almost non-existent. Another example: a lady converts to the Jewish faith because she has fallen in love with a Jew who insists on a religious Jewish marriage. Has she become a member of the Jewish nation, of the historical Jewish people, merely by converting to the Jewish religion? Of course not. Obviously, we are talking about relatively new notions and this is only the beginning of a longterm but extremely important process of separating religion from nationality.

You mean separating religion from the state?

No, I am speaking of separating religion from nationality. Separating the church or the synagoue from the state is more a bureaucratic than a fundamental question. I am all for it, for democratic reasons. It would make life easier but it is not the main question.

Many people in Israel cannot marry because of the link between religion and state.
The absence of civil marriage in the country is an intolerable burden for people who are of different religious denominations. You cannot call this a minor problem….

Certainly, but it remains a formal, bureaucratic problem and there are many ways to bypass it, to overcome it, in Israel, even today. Civil marriage contracted abroad is recognized by the Israeli authorities. You can also marry throgh a lawyer, by fax, thanks to an arrangment with the Guatemalan or Venezuelan authorities. I dont say this situation should not be changed and I am convinced that civil marriage will, in the not too distant future, become part of Israel's legislation. But this takes time, just as it took many years for Ireland or Italy to introduce civil marriage, which was only recently established by law.

The main problem, however, is the fusion, the link, between religion and nationality, which, in my view, is unhealthy and also immoral. My profound belief is that nationality cannot and should not depend on one's religion. It is immoral to say that you can only belong to a given nationality if you are also a follower of such and such a faith.

Nationality, being part of a people, of a nation, is like a family. Your son will always remain your son, whatever he does or believes in. There are no conditions for belonging to a given nationality. We may put criminals or traitors in prison but we cannot abolish their nationality and we are responsible for their families. However, nationality is not a closed shop: you can enter it or withdraw from it. We know that people of Jewish origin, such as Leon Blum or Pierre Mendes-France, were elected as France's prime ministers, because they were members of the French people, of the historical French nation.

Contrary to the situation in Israel, in France there is no distinction between nationality and citizenship. In Israel, you have Israeli citizens who belong to the Jewish people and Israeli citizens who belong to the Arab-Palestinian people. In addition there are the religious differences. Do you that it is feasable here to 'opt out' of one's nationality and join the nationality of the other people?

It ought to be, if not today, then tomorrow. An Israeli Arab should be able to join the Jewish nationality, the historical Jewish people, if he so decides, without having to give up his Moslem or Christian religion. He can also choose to remain part of the Arab Palestinian nationality, a national minority that has strong historic roots in this country, just as the Jews have profound historic roots here. In addition, once a Palestinian state will established alongside the State of Israel, the Palestinian Arabs who will be living there will be able to become total Palestinians, acquire a total Palestinian identity, just as Diaspora Jews become total Jews when living in Israel. But the Israeli Palestinian must also have the possibility of joining the Jewish national identity, our Hebrew culture, if this is his/her choice.

Similarly, a Jew who chooses to live in an Arab country should be able to acquire the Arab nationality. The Palestinians say that in their country, Moslems, Christians and Jews - by religion - will all be considered to be members of the Palestinian nation, to belong to the Palestinian nationality, in addition to enjoying Palestinian citizenship. This is all right with me.

Many Israeli Palestinians say that Israel should be the state of all its citizens, not the state of the Jewish people; and that only when all Israeli citizens will share the same Israeli nationality, the same Israeli -Hebrew culture, will they, the Palestinian Arabs, be able to feel equal citizens of the State of Israel.

The Hebrew culture, the Hebrew language, are the result of a long historical evolution,layer upon layer, going back to the language and culture of David and Solomon, to the language of the prophets. Hebrew is part and parcel of the Jewish national heritage, which did not begin with the foundation of the modern state of israel. When I say that a Jew by religion, just as Christians and Moslems, should be able to be part of the Egyptian or Iraqi nationality, that does not mean that Egypt or Iraq should give up their national heritage, their history and centuries old culture and create a new, artificial nationality, in order to accomodate a person of the Jewish religion who ants to join the Egyptian or the Iraqi nationality.

Is the nation-state the only, or the best, framework for enhancing one's national identity?

National or ethnic-national groups preceded the formation of states; but the state has been a powerful instrument for the cristallization of nations, for unifying national identities. This is the case with ancient nations, such as the Egyptians or the Chinese or the Jews. It also works for new nations such as the American nation which was molded by immigrants from many different countries and nationalities into the present American identity thanks to the establishment of the United States of America. Hence the importance of the nation-state as a unifying factor, as for example in France where an ancient people like the French successfully integrated immigrants from eastern and southern europe as well as from north Africa.

I do not say that a nation-state has to be a pure, monolithic entity. Lately, due to the pressures of international uniformisation, some call it Americanisation, there is an increasing shift to multiculturalism in many countries, and different population groups crave to enhance their specific language, cultural traditions etc. Moreover, national majorities and minorities coexist in a single state. Take for instance the United Kingdom, composed of the English, the Scots and the Welsh peoples, each with its own specific features and customs. But the unifying force was the English, who are the majority nation. It is their language, their culture, their institutions that molded the British nation, the British national identity.

The same applies to Israel, founded by the Jews, the majority nation, whose language - Hebrew, national heritage and specific identity have molded the State of Israel. The Israeli Arabs, who are the minority, should enjoy equal rights in all respects and be free to fully develop their own language and culture. However, they should also have the right to integrate into the Hebrew culture, into the Jewish national identity, if this is their wish. I realize that most Palestinian Arabs in Israel will stick to their own culture and nationality, but the door should be open for those who choose to integrate into the Jewish majority. This is what real democracy, what real freedom, mean. Neither to impose one's national identity on the other, nor to demand that the other should give up his specific identity to please or accomodate your own national claims.