The Israeli Nation vs the State of Israel

Yakov Rabkin
Winter 2005

Published in Outlook (Vancouver) 43 (1) 2005, 16-17, 43.

The Israeli Nation vs the State of Israel

By Yakov M Rabkin

Joseph Agassi, Liberal Nationalism for Israel: Towards an Israeli National Identity, Jerusalem/New York: Gefen, 1999, 334 pp.

The Supreme Court of Israel has an unusual case before it. Thirty-eight Israeli citizens petitioned the court to have the Ministry of Interior recognize their nationality as « Israeli ». Many of these citizens are born in Israel or British Palestine, and all of them carry an Israeli passport when they travel abroad. What is then their problem? The problem lies in the data found in the internal identity card that all the people under Israel’s control, whether citizens of Israel or residents of the Occupied Territories, must carry on them. The card reminds one of the old Soviet Union. Not only because it is a compulsory identity document – many European democracies also have this custom – but because this document has two entries rarely seen in other countries: one for « nationality » (leom in Hebrew) and another one for religion (dat). The petitioners want « Israeli » to be entered as their nationality. Among them are those categorized on the identity cards as “Jewish”, "Druze," "Georgian," and "Russian. "The Interior Ministry has a list of 137 nationalities, including Abkhazi, Assyrian and Samaritan - but you won't find "Israeli" among them.

This situation may appear paradoxical. The reason that not one of them is "Israeli" is the refusal of the Israeli state to recognize any Israeli nationality. In 1970, a Tel Aviv judge rejected a similar suit stating that «there is no Israeli nation that exists separately from a Jewish nation." This decision was then approved by the Supreme Court Justice Shimon Agranat who went further and denounced the petitioner: "If a handful of people or more wish to separate themselves from the Jewish people - only 23 years after the establishment of the state - and acquire the status of a separate Israeli nation, this separatist trend should not be regarded as legitimate and should not be recognized."

The book under review is written by one of the 38 petitioners and is directly related to their civil action. The author, Joseph Agassi, is a Palestinian-born philosopher who received an Orthodox Jewish education, taught for many years in Toronto and is a member of the Royal Society of Canada. He has received most of his recognition for work in the history and philosophy of science but has always been interested in most burning issues facing Israeli society. As a philosopher and an Israeli patriot, he has a particularly sharp eye for conceptual incongruities that characterize the Zionist undertaking and the state that it begot. Agassi deplores the intrinsic inequality of the state as it currently exists (p. 9):

The non-Jews are not members of the nation. They may be elected to office but not to bear arms. So it is obvious that in Israel an armed man is stronger than a legislator. This is an endless source of demoralization. … Non-Jews live in ghettos not by choice but by a myriad of regulations that trap them there. This is very dangerous. … Israeli law is thus a farce and will remain so until basic changes are enacted.

However, here Agassi is somewhat imprecise. Russians, Ukrainians and many other non-Jews who arrived in Israel in the recent decades do serve in the army and are discriminated against only after death. Official army rabbis refused to bury several fallen soldiers alongside their comrades in arms because they were not Jewish. However, Agassi is correct if he means Israeli Arabs who, unlike the newcomers form the former Soviet Union, were born and bred in the country.

In fact, he deplores the Arab-Jewish disparity that permeates Israel’s public domain because of persistent confusion between nation and religion: « We should separate state and church. A discussion of the distinction between nation and congregation may facilitate this. Israel rejects the distinction and officially judges the nationality of most Israeli citizens to be Jewish and that of most of the rest to be Arab. This renders citizenship an administrative fiction. » Indeed, any Diaspora Jew, whether by birth or conversion, can instantly become an Israeli citizen and acquire rights and privileges that are refused to native-born Arabs. Thus the State of Israel appears to be kinder to the ummah, the world congregation of adepts of Judaism, than to its own citizens if they are not part of this congregation. At the same time, Israeli society is based on the negation of the Jewish tradition that developed outside of the Holy Land, which accounts for the disdain and hatred that traditional Jews face in Israel (see my earlier review of Noah Efron’s Real Jews[1]). The objective of Zionism has always been to bring Jews to Israel and transform them into something else. Indeed, the term « absorption » (kelita) that is common in Israel clearly suggests that the newcomer is expected to shed his or her culture and become a copy of the intrepid, forward-looking and assertive Sabra. But if Israel is to remain a state with a Jewish majority, it must bring in more and more Jews and thus uproot the world Jewish congregation it is ostensibly serving. In other words, Israel likes Diaspora Jews like a carnivore likes beef.

This is of the many contradictions that Agassi outlines in his book, and he shakes Israel’s dominant consensus to its very foundations. He states something that, however obvious, many refuse to recognize (p. 134):

… there is an objectively joint interest between Israel and Jew-haters in the western world. This claim also implies that there are objective conflicts of interests between Western Jews and the State of Israel. Hence, the more Western Jews understand the situation and the meaning of this claim, the more likely they are to turn hostile to the State of Israel.

We are yet to see unmistakable expressions of this hostility. The fact that three quarters of American Jews voted against the most pro-Israel president in history may be an early sign of this new awareness. In Canada, Zionist organizations hold Jewish interests hostage to those of the State of Israel by purposely confusing Jews with Zionists. The appellation of the new political lobby, Canadian Council for Israel and Jewish Advocacy, enshrines this confusion and mortgages Jewish interests to those of the State of Israel. Any suggestion that the two may be in conflict provokes hostility and is nowhere to be found in Canada’s mainstream newspapers, most of them controled by Zionist interests.

Agassi is well aware of historical incongruities that form part of the legitimation of the State of Israel: « As the Jewish people is ancient and nationality is modern, it is absurd to view the Jews as affiliated to a distinct nation. Only Israel supports this absurdity: no trend in modern Judaism does » (p. 11). Here he touches on one the most sensitive points, namely the justification of the need to have « a Jewish state ».  Official Israel continues to be surprisingly concerned about this justification. For example, a recent talk given at my university by the Israeli journalist Emmanuel Halperin, brought in by the Quebec-Israel Committee, revealed this concern. He insisted that the world should not only recognize the State of Israel but also « the right of the Jewish people to have its own state ». When asked why such a return is legitimate after 2000 years of absence (while the return of the Palestinians displaced a few decades ago is not), the otherwise secular Halperin insisted that what gave Israel this unique right was the fact that « Jews pray for the return to the Holy Land three times a day ». This kind of legitimation is so feeble as to appear desperate. I have written elsewhere about those Jews who actually do pray three times a day and yet staunchly oppose Zionism.[2] There is as much of a difference between praying for something and appropriating it as there is between righteousness and self-righteousness.

The book under review squarely attacks quite a few of the sacred cows of what is called Zionism today. If there is no « Jewish nationality », one may wonder in the name of what the government of Israel strives to preserve a Jewish majority within its borders, sacrifices lives and maintains the state of war. Otherwise, it could have long ago united the entire territory between the Jordan and the Mediterranean and granted all of its inhabitants equal rights.

The invocation of « the Jewish character of the State of Israel » is nebulous and therefore unconvincing. These seemingly theoretical questions have immediate consequences. This is why the vast majority of Israelis prefer to avoid these conceptual issues that Agassi so masterfully exposes to sun light. His call for a Constituent Assembly to decide on the nature of the political organization of the territory is noteworthy. Few people remember that such an assembly was once elected but « it refused to do its duty and declared itself Israel’s first parliament » (p. 17). The mostly Russian-born Zionist delegates had apparently forgotten the sad precedent of Russia’s Constituent Assembly whose dissolution froze the country’s debate about legitimacy of political structures for more than seven decades which led, in turn, to massive state terrorism.

Agassi is obviously not objective in the Israeli sense since, in the words of Abba Eban, the country’s eloquent Foreign Minister in the 1970s, « What we mean by objectivity is one-hundred percent agreement with us ». Agassi’s views fall far short of the 100%. In fact, he is contemptuous of Israel’s prevailing ideology: « The flimsy excuse – the notion that Israel belongs to the Jewish people and not to the Israeli nation – is the very threat to its independence. It is therefore imperative that Israel should recognize its nation as separate and different from the Jewish people… » (p. 105).

Israel’s Supreme Court is yet to decide this issue. Its consequences are portentous. If it agrees with Agassi and his 37 co-petitioners, the court will undermine the pretensions of those who claim that Israel speaks for the Jews, acts on their behalf and with their blessing. This may open a window of opportunity both for Israel and for world Jewry. Israel may finally become a recognized independent state with a government responsible to its ethnically and religiously diverse population. Peace may then finally descend on Israel. Moreover, Agassi believes that the country would then become more rather than less Jewish. As to the Jews of the world, they will regain freedom to define their identities without reference to the distant state in the Eastern Mediterranean. One must thank Agassi for making these choices clear in his daring and erudite book. It should help understand and end the violence that erupted at the establishment of the State of Israel, has accompanied it ever since, and has now spread to the four corners of the world.

The author is Professor of History at the University of Montreal.

[1] Noah J. Efron, Real Jews, New York: Basic Books, 2003

[2] Yakov M Rabkin, Au nom de la Torah: une histoire de l’opposition juive au sionisme, Québec : Les Presses de l’Université Laval, 2004

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