Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Nation Of Israel? Wait And See.

Back in 2005, in a piece for Harper's, I called attention to a curious petition, filed the year before with Israel's High Court of Justice. The petitioners were thirty-eight citizens of Israel, most of them Jews but a number of them Arabs: businesspeople, professors, entertainers, writers, jurists; a past minister of education, a past head of the air force. Their petition enjoined the court to order the Ministry of Interior to inscribe them as “Israeli” in the Registry of Population. Given how much else was being contested in the country, one would think a petition to recognize Israelis as “Israeli” was frivolous. It was anything but that.

For as I wrote then, the petitioners were asking the state to recognize an inclusive, earned form of nationality, coterminous with and redundant to citizenship. They believed that fifty-five years after Israel's founding—when two-thirds of its citizens had been born in the country, and half of those are third generation—the experience of Israel itself must be determinative of national identity. More important, they wanted to close the door on discrimination against individuals on religious or racial grounds.

“I have staked my life on the moral and cultural power of the Jewish people,” said Yoella Har-Shefi, a civil-rights attorney, who led the group, “but you can't say, ‘Everybody is equal here, it's just that a Jew is valued differently'—and if there is international or internal protest, well, that's proof that ‘the whole world is against us.’ If Arab citizens can't become ‘Israelis,’ the country will come apart. We are sitting on the edge of a volcano, because Israel is the only country on earth that does not recognize itself.”

On Wednesday, the High Court will announce a new decision in this case. Veteran analyst and peace activist, Uri Avneri, sent around a commentary on the case. Here are some excerpts:

The Israeli Interior Ministry recognizes 126 nations, but not the Israeli nation. An Israeli citizen can be registered as belonging to the Assyrian, the Tatar or the Circassian nation. But the Israeli nation? Sorry, no such thing.

According to the official doctrine, the State of Israel cannot recognize an "Israeli" nation because it is the state of the "Jewish" nation. In other words, it belongs to the Jews of Brooklyn, Budapest and Buenos Aires, even though these consider themselves as belonging to the American, Hungarian or Argentine nations. Messy? Indeed.

THIS MESS started 113 years ago, when the Viennese Journalist Theodor Herzl wrote his book "The State of the Jews". (That's the true translation. The generally used name "The Jewish State" is false and means something else.) For this purpose he had to perform an acrobatic exercise. One can say that he used a white lie.

Modern Zionism was born as a direct response to modern anti-Semitism. Not by accident, the term "Zionismus" came into being some 20 years after the term "Antisemitismus" was invented in Germany. They are twins...

Herzl understood that the new reality was inherently dangerous for the Jews. In the beginning he cherished the idea of complete assimilation: all the Jews would be baptized and disappear in the new nations. As a professional writer for the theater, he even devised the scenario: all Viennese Jews would march together to St. Stephen's cathedral and be baptized en masse.

When he realized that this scenario was a bit far-fetched, Herzl passed from the idea of individual assimilation to what may be called collective assimilation: if there is no place for the Jews in the new nations, then they should define themselves as a nation like all the others, rooted in a homeland of their own and living in a state of their own. This idea was called Zionism.

BUT THERE was a problem: a Jewish nation did not exist. The Jews were not a nation but a religious-ethnic community...Herzl had to ignore this difference. He pretended that the Jewish ethnic-religious community was also a Jewish nation. In other words: contrary to all other peoples, the Jews were both a nation and a religious community; as far as Jews were concerned, the two were the same. The nation was a religion, the religion was a nation.

This was the white lie. There was no other way: without it, Zionism could not have come into being. The new movement took the Star of David from the synagogue, the candlestick from the Temple, the blue-and-white flag from the prayer shawl. The holy land became a homeland. Zionism filled the religious symbols with secular, national content... The first to detect the falsification were the Orthodox Rabbis. Almost all of them damned Herzl and his Zionism in no uncertain terms.

When Herzl originated the Zionist idea, he did not intend to found the "State of the Jews" in Palestine, but in Argentina. Even when writing his book, he devoted to the country only a few lines, under the headline "Palestine or Argentina?" However, the movement he created compelled him to divert his endeavors to the Land of Israel, and so the state came into being here.

When the State of Israel was founded and the Zionist dream realized, there was no further need for the white lie. After the building was finished, the scaffolding should have been removed. A real Israeli nation had come into being, there was no further need for an imaginary one.

THESE DAYS Israel's largest newspaper, Yediot Aharonot, is running a TV ad showing selected past issues. The day the State of Israel was founded, the giant headline announced: "Hebrew State!"

"Hebrew," not "Jewish." And not by accident: at that time, the term "Jewish state" sounded decidedly strange. In the preceding years, people in this country had got used to making a clear distinction between "Jewish" and "Hebrew", between matters that belonged to the Diaspora and those belonging to this country: Jewish Diaspora, Jewish language (Yiddish), Jewish Stetl, Jewish religion, Jewish tradition - but Hebrew language, Hebrew agriculture, Hebrew industries, Hebrew underground organizations, Hebrew policemen.

If so, why do the words "Jewish state" appear in our Declaration of Independence? There was a simple reason for that: the UN had adopted a resolution to partition the country between an "Arab state" and a "Jewish state." That was the legal basis of the new state. The declaration, which was drafted in haste, said therefore that we were establishing "the Jewish state (according to the UN resolution), namely the State of Israel."

The building was finished, but the scaffolding was not taken down. On the contrary: it became the most important part of the building and dominates its facade.

LIKE MOST of us at the time, David Ben-Gurion believed that Zionism had supplanted religion and that religion had become redundant. He was quite sure that it would shrivel and disappear by itself in the new secular state. He decided that we could afford to dispense with the military service of Yeshiva bochers (Talmud school students), believing that their number would dwindle from a few hundred to almost none. The same thought caused him to allow religious schools to continue in existence. Like Herzl, who promised to "keep our Rabbis in the synagogues and our army officers in the barracks," Ben-Gurion was certain that the state would be entirely secular...

BUT THE white lie of Herzl had results he did not dream of, as did the compromises of Ben-Gurion. Religion did not wither away in Israel, but on the contrary: it is gaining control of the state. The government of Israel does not speak of the nation-state of the Israelis who live here, but of the "nation-state of the Jews" - a state that belongs to the Jews all over the world, most of whom belong to other nations.

The religious schools are eating up the general education system and are going to overpower it, if we don't become aware of the danger and assert our Israeli essence. Voting rights are about to be accorded to Israelis residing abroad, and this is a step towards giving the vote to all Jews around the world. And, most important: the ugly weeds growing in the national-religious field - the fanatical settlers - are pushing the state in a direction that may lead to its destruction.

TO SAFEGUARD the future of Israel one has to start by removing the scaffolding from the building. In other words: burying the "white lie" of religion-equals-nation. The Israeli nation has to be recognized as the basis of the state.

If this principle is accepted, what will the future shape of Israel - within the Green Line - be like?

There are two possible models, and many variations between them.

Model A: the multi-national one. Almost all the citizens of Israel belong to one of two nations: the majority belongs to the Hebrew nation and a minority to the Palestinian-Arab nation. Each nation will enjoy autonomy in certain areas, such as culture, education and religion. Autonomy will not be territorial, but cultural (as Vladimir Ze'ev Jabotinsky proposed a hundred years ago for Czarist Russia). All will be united by Israeli citizenship and loyalty to the state. The inbuilt discrimination of the Arab minority will become a thing of the past, as well as the "demographic demon."

Model B: the American one. The American nation is composed of all US citizens, and all US citizens constitute the American nation. An immigrant from Jamaica who acquires US citizenship automatically becomes a member of the American nation, an heir to George Washington and Abe Lincoln. All learn at school the same core program and the same history.

Which of the two models is preferable? In my view, Model B is much better. But it would depend on a dialogue between the Hebrew majority and the Arab minority. In the end, the Arab citizens will have to decide whether they prefer the status of equal partners in a general Israeli nation, or the status of a recognized, autonomous national minority in a state that acknowledges and cherishes their separate culture, side by side with the culture of the majority.

In four days, the Supreme Court will decide whether it is prepared to take the first step in this historic march.


Dimi Reider said...

Surely you mean "Back in 2005"?

Bernard Avishai said...

Yes, you are right, of course. (I can't tell you often I've done this; 1985 was five years ago, right?) I'll change it.

Potter said...

Thank you for publishing this.

Y. Ben-David said...

There is no "Israeli nationality". There are Jews and Arabs. No Israeli Arab considers himself an "Israeli" by nationality.
There is a small group of Israeli Jews who say "I am an an Israeli, not a Jew", (I would estimate this at around 10% of the Jewish population of Israel), but even they don't really mean it. Alexander Jacobsen in a column in Ha'aretz commented on how he heard a friend of his say "I read in the newspaper about a clash over land claims in the Negev between Israelis and Beduin". Jacobsen said "but the Bediun are 'Israelis' as well, you mean it was a clash between Jews and Arabs". Jacobsen also pointed out that for his "progressive" friends, the term "Jew" is a curseword, meaning something like the way Bernie uses the term "Judean"....that is "not really one of us....primitive, backwards, not 'progressive'".

Sure Uri Avnery tried to replace Jews with "semitic action", claiming that Jews and Arabs were really the same and the Arabs would welcome their "semitic brethren". Well, they didn't. Bernie offers to make the Arabs "Hebrews", and to give them a soulless, secular, materialist, consumerist culture to replace what he considers their "primitive" Muslim culture, which emphasizes sexual modesty, respect for elders and tradition, all the things a modern "Hebrew" has no use for. They reject it.

So we are back to Arabs and Jews, in spite of all the efforts of the "progressives". Ben-Gurion failed to eradicate Judaism (many others tried before him and also failed...the Greco-Roman Hellenists, the Judeo-Christians, the Spanish Conversos and Inquisition, the Soviet Yevseksia) and the "Hebrew Republic" will fail as well, no matter how the Supreme Court may rule on the matter. Back to the drawing board, Bernie.

Shoded Yam said...

It's funny. I just plugged my i-pod into the USB port and I got a pop-up that told me that my files have been corrupted and I need to re-boot. I mention this only because I was struck by the similarity between whats going on with my i-pod and what has happened to the gov't and political culture of Israel. Your article is all about hitting the reset button, and as usual, is brilliant and insightful. Unfortunately without addressing the American Jewish money (and its American Jewish owners, Adelson or Moskowitz anyone?)and influence that has corrupted the country and usurped and bought its leadership, your logic cannot be implemented. I believe that the logic and common sense that you and others espouse can save the country, but only if you're willing to acknowledge that you're in a life and death struggle for the soul of The Hebrew Republic. Its time that you and the people over at J-Street start tracking the money, and exposing the donors. For example, Shelly Adelson's money seemingly emanates from his Vegas casinos. Very well. Nothing that comes out of Vegas or gambling is good or clean (fruit of the poisoned tree). You and Ben-Ami know this. Its time for J-Street to explore these connections and expose them to the light of day. I also think it would be a good idea to start discussing the motives of these gentlemen. Since its obvious to people such as yourself that the welfare of Israelis is not their primary concern, its time that J-Street made it its business that this should be obvious to everyone else as well.

Please forgive me. I don't mean to scold. I simply want to see your doctirines come to fruition and I don't see how that will come to pass unless you start taking the gloves off.

Charlton Price said...

Shoded Yam is right to speak to the timidity of J Street, and the dispair of many of the rest of us who went to the J Street Convention last October but now have moved on because we see J Street as merely temporizing.

A two-state solution, which J Street still advocates, especially while public and private American money still supports metastasizing "settlements," and the guidance that could have been provided by President Obama's Cairo speech is ignored -- not only by Israel, but by US policy.

Dimi Reider said...

I find it strange (and a little discouraging) how Avneri, and much of the left in Israel is stuck within the Green Line paradigm. If at first the two-state movement was trying to reconcile two nation-states with very tight geographical constraints, they are now attempting an even more difficult contortion: Propagating for a Palestinian nation-state on the one hand, and an Israeli-Palestinian bi- or multi- national state on the other.

What bewilders me is how on earth they think this can be sold to the Israelis. People here have been for decades struggling with the idea of allowing Palestinians to replicate the Zionist experiment, and were only finally persuaded to do that when they were told this was the only way to maintain Israel as a Jewish state. Now, the Left is trying to persuade Israelis to give the Palestinians a nation state - and give up their own. Considering most Israelis are convinced the nation-state system is alone keeping us from ruin, this doesn't seem to have much of a chance to work.

The actual alternative, to which Avneri comes ever so close in his article, is to begin thinking of holistic solutions encompassing all the "cantons" between the Jordan and the sea.

Bernard, you proposed in your earlier post one such vision, with two separate polities highly integrated economically. I was curious to see though that you didn't address the question of settlements (correct me if I'm wrong), and the question of the internal subdivision of each of the two national blocs - for instance, the non-Jewish Israelis, Arab-Jewish, Ethiopian Jewish, Orthodox, Zionist Religious, Druze, the rapidly growing non-Jewish migrant community (communities), the Christian Palestinians, etc etc, each of which have their own interests and dynamics.

Would you say we need a formalised system to channel and coordinate the interaction of all these identities in cultural and political representation? I'd be interested to hear your thoughts.

Potter said...

A mixed polity ( celebrated), secular, with borders/sovereignty, democracy, a common culture evolving, which would require a striving to be tolerant- that does not mean no sub-cultures within. Nor does it mean that religion/religious practice or freedom of conscience is done away with and an empty materialist society emerges in it's place. The opposite is more true. Diversity is encouraged to the benefit of everyone. "Secularity" ( if there is such a word) is only one realm- but it's sort of the glue.

Simon said...

A thought-provoking argument. Rather than engage with the optimism and idealism of the piece, I thought I'd offer a pedantic point:

Since Zionism was born 20 years after Antisemitism, they can't be twins - they must be just siblings!

Y. Ben-David said...

Zionism was NOT born "20 years after antisemitism". Uri Avnery is repeating a common myth that Herzl invented Zionism. It is true that he gave it a political framework, but the modern movement to organize Jewish immigration and settlement in the country began BEFORE 1800 with the students of the Vilna Gaon and the Ba'al Shem Tov. It is true they weren't thinking in terms of a modern, politically-based state, but they did strongly believe the future of the Jewish people was dependent on a strong Jewish community in the country. Later came the founders of the first modern agricultural settlement in Petah Tikva in the 1870's and the Hovevei Zion movement in Russia that in the 1880's which led directly to the First Aliya. All of this before Herzl.
And Avnery's claim that Jews did not view themselves as a PEOPLE is preposterous. Anyone who opens the Siddur-Daily prayer books sees the identification of the Jews as a people based in Eretz Israel. Also Jewish law, as seen in the Talmud and later scholars is full of this concept, but I wouldn't expect someone like Avnery to be aware of that.

Y. Ben-David said...

Uri Avnery says:
The religious schools are eating up the general education system and are going to overpower it, if we don't become aware of the danger and assert our Israeli essence
So Avnery, like Bernie, is warning of the "religious peril". What is he suggesting be done. Isn't Israel supposed to be a "democracy". A significant part of the population wants its children to be educated in the religious school system. The UN charter defining human rights says parents have the right to educate their children in the way they see fit, and also freedom of religion is guaranteed. So how are Bernie and Uri going to shut down the religious school system? Are they going to cut off funding? Religious parents are also taxpayers. How can the Knesset pass such a draconian measure. That's the damned thing about democracy, Avnery, the people can get what THEY want, and you can't shove what YOU want down their throats.
"Progressives" like Bernie and Avnery have the work "democracy" in their mouths, but really they have authoritarian agendas. Beware.

Potter said...

That's the damned thing about democracy, Avnery, the people can get what THEY want, and you can't shove what YOU want down their throats.
"Progressives" like Bernie and Avnery have the work "democracy" in their mouths, but really they have authoritarian agendas. Beware.

Wrong. "the people" who? which? There is no unified "the people" Mr. Ben-David. "The Jews" are not unified in what they want. That's the reason why everyone must back off what THEY want to impose on everyone else.

Avnery did not say Jews are not a people. He said above they are not a nation, and that it is a misconception ( a white lie in this case) to say that a religion is a nation. Jews are not a nation.

Shoded Yam said...

"...Zionism was NOT born "20 years after antisemitism"

"...the modern movement to organize Jewish immigration and settlement in the country began BEFORE 1800 with the students of the Vilna Gaon and the Ba'al Shem Tov."

True enough, Ben-David. However while Herzl might not have invented zionism, he understood that the witch doctors and their followers would not be the proper human material to carry it to fruition. It became clear to him, after watching one of the most assimilated jews of his generation be humiliated, dishonored and imprisoned (while the jewish community around him did nothing) for a crime he did not commit, that a new paradigm would be needed. As history proves, he was correct.

Y. Ben-David said...

Yes, at least the Jews living in Israel are a nation, and most of the Jews living outside Israel identify in some way with it. The Jews of Israel are certainly more of a nation than the Palestinians are, in fact more than most of the Arab countries are...that's they they are all authoritarian mukhabarat (secret police) states which would fall apart without the strong-arm of the security apparatus to hold them together (e.g. Lebanon, Iraq). The Jews of Israel grant more legitimacy to their government than the majority of Arabs do to theirs.

Potter said...

Mr. Ben-David:


The Jews living in Israel are an ethnic community. Jews living outside identify with the Jewish people, the long history etc and so too the Jews in Israel. Many Jews, not all, would like to see Israel survive as a home for the Jewish people, including and maybe only or especially ( going forward) those Jews unwelcome elsewhere. Jews have various views. But Israel is not ONLY home to PART of the Jewish people. As a nation, if it is to be a nation, Israel is home ALSO to non-Jews... to all within.

Avnery's point above is, that a nation is another realm, not an ethnic community or a religion. The term "nation" was, in this usage borrowed...a white lie needed at the time.

From "White Lie" on Avnery's website:

A nation exists on one level of human society, a religious-ethnic community on another. A “nation” is an entity living together in one country with a common political will. A “community” is a religious entity based on a common faith, which can live in different countries. A German, for example, can be Catholic or Protestant; a Catholic can be German or French.
These two types of entity have two different means of survival, much as different species in nature. When a lion is in danger, it fights, it attacks. For that purpose, nature has equipped it with teeth and claws. When a gazelle is in danger, it runs. Nature has given it quick legs. Every method is good, if it is effective. (If it were not effective, the species would not have survived to this day.)

When a nation is in danger, it stands and fights. When a religious community is in danger, it moves elsewhere. The Jews, more than any others, have perfected the art of escape. Even after the horrors of the Holocaust, the Jewish Diaspora has survived and now, two generations later, it is again flourishing.

Authoritarian or democratic- both still can be a nation.

Mark Cohen said...

Do I get extra points for using the blogger's actual name?

Mr. Avishai, I don't think models A or B will work in Israel. A is the Ottoman model, and it does not engender "loyalty to the state." It leads to dismemberment of the state. Model B, the American, does not seem a good fit, either. Will Arab citizens become heir to Weizmann like immigrant Americans do Washington? The question answers itself.

I think Israel's choice is a perhaps uninspiring one: a European (or a Balkan) model of a nation state. That is, a state for one ethno-religious group, with a very small minority. Otherwise, Israel could face a Yugoslavian future (or other states that have recently split, like the Czech Republic and Slovakia. And the threat of an ethnic split in Belgium).

Which is why the best approach is probably two states with land swaps so that each state serves the interests only of their respective nations.

Mark Cohen said...

OK, I goofed on Avneri vs Avishai.


Y. Ben-David said...

Well, Wednesday has come and gone and I haven't heard any report about this upcoming "historic decision". In my opinion, the whole thing is a hot potato that the Court would rather not get involved in. It did seem that in the 1990's, under Chief Justice Aharon Barak, that the Court was on the road to overturning the whole Zionist base for the country and for proclaiming that the Rabbinate should abolished and the power over personal status should be removed from the government. However, in the wake of increasing criticism and a massive anti-Court demonstration led mostly by Haredim, Barak started getting cold feet and he refrained from making these rulings that the anti-religious and post-Zionist groups wanted.
Should the court rule the way Bernie and Avnery are advocating, it will open a whole can of worms regarding things the Law of Return and the personal status problem once again. Under what religious grouping would an "Israeli" be listed when he or she wanted to get married or divorced, for example?

Maybe they will just indefinitely postone the ruling.

Robert Choquette a converted Jew said...

Interesting. The Palestinians a state but Israel a secular Hebrew Republic modeled on a Hebrew Republic with rights for all.
What it should say is that the destruction of Isreal is the goal.
Jews will have nothing.

Only anti-semites and leftist preach this. Yes Isreal will swallow itself.
Pity tragic.
Food for the UN, Palestinoians.
All who preach this should be deported.
Intersting that the author is pontificating while living in Arab Jerusalem.
Wonders never cease

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