Who Is An Israeli?

October 10, 2013

David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founder, may have inadvertently complicated things when he gave the name Israel to new the Jewish state. Had he chosen Judea instead, the citizens of the country would have been known as Jews, and their connection with their kin in the Diaspora would have been obvious. As it is, Israel’s population registry lists the national or ethnic identity of citizens, among them Jew, Arab, Druze and more.

Last week, Israel’s Supreme Court struck down an attempt to unite citizenship and nationality when it ruled that the country’s residents cannot identify themselves in the registry as Israelis. The court noted the “weighty implications” of such a change — that it threatened to sever Israel from its role as the homeland of the Jewish people. The connection between world Jewry and Israel is a central tenet of Zionism, and in our view, worthy of preservation.

The 21 Israeli Jews and Arabs who petitioned the court had other concerns. They argued that without a secular Israeli category, the country’s Jews are guaranteed preferential treatment, and the country’s national minorities — Arab, Druze etc. — will be permanent second-class citizens. Such discrimination is undemocratic, they argued.

In some respects, the petitioners have a valid point. Israel’s minorities do get a smaller slice of the national pie. But the reason has little to do with what the minority groups are called. Indeed, all would likely agree that a simple change of identity in the national registry will not solve the issues that challenge Israel’s minorities.

In making its ruling, the Israeli Supreme Court noted, among other things, that “there is no proof of a uniquely Israeli people.” At least from the perspective of the Diaspora, that conclusion is not obvious. Indeed, most of us can rather quickly bring to mind a view of the unique qualities of Sabras and other citizens of Israel and can identify numerous cultural and social differences between Israelis and, for example, American Jews.

We further acknowledge that over the course of the state’s development and growth, the land of Israel, with its Hebrew-speaking majority, has fostered its own unique culture. So we understand the perspective of one critic of the ruling who was quoted as saying that he has more in common with the Israeli Arab petitioners “than with a Jew in Finland or Seattle.” But perhaps that’s not the point.

While it is possible that if Ben-Gurion had picked another name for the country, we wouldn’t be having this discussion, we think not. The Israel we know and admire has become an elastic term for a rich, complex, innovative and evolving society. And the characterization of the country’s citizenry on the world Jewish stage is an important element of international Jewish identification. By insisting on continuing to call a Jew living in Israel a Jew, the court has allowed that society to keep developing while maintaining vital links to the Jewish world outside of the state’s boundaries. We can live with that.

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