article

04.12.10

Do Israelis Exist?

Sixty years after Israel’s founding, its citizens still lack an official Israeli identity; instead of being recognized on their ID cards as Israelis, most are registered as “Jewish” or “Arab.” David Kaufman on the court case that could change that—and what it means for the country’s future.

Sixty years after Israel’s founding, its citizens still lack an official Isreali identity; instead of being recognized on their ID cards as Israelis, most are registered as “Jewish” or “Arab.” David Kaufman on the court case that could change that—and what it means for the country’s future.

An unusual case now being argued before the Israeli supreme court could have major ethnic and religious implications not just for Israel, but the entire Middle East.

The case’s 21 plaintiffs are demanding the right to declare “Israeli” as their nationality on official state documents. Considering that the mixed group of Jews and Arabs are all Israeli citizens, such a declaration would seem like a logical move. All Israelis, whether Arab or Jew, already travel on passports clearly marked Israeli and are recognized by the state as citizens. Yet “Israeli” is not among the more than 130 nationalities—from Circassian to Hong Konger to Liechtensteiner—recognized by the Ministry of the Interior’s Population Registry in Jerusalem.

“This is absurd,” said Shulamit Aloni, one of the plaintiffs. “I am Israeli. I want to be called Israeli!”

Instead, Israeli Jews are registered as “Jewish”; Israeli Arabs, both Christian and Muslim, as “Arabs”; and everyone else by their “country of origin.” Israelis may like to call themselves “Israeli,” but at least according to the Israeli government, an official Israeli identity simply does not exist.

It may seem hard to believe, but more than 60 years after its establishment, Israel has no formal definition of “Israeli.”

“This is absurd,” Shulamit Aloni, one of the 21 plaintiffs and a former member of the Knesset, government minister, and longtime left-wing activist, said over the weekend. “I am Israeli. I want to be called Israeli!”

Although the court decision could take months, the case is already being viewed as an example of the fundamental challenges facing Israel as a country founded both as a democracy and as a homeland for the Jews. Indeed, as the country gears up to celebrate the 62nd anniversary of its founding next Monday, this battle between pluralism and Judaism is more vital than ever.

“There is a misconception that the crucial conflict in Israel is between Arabs and Jews,” said Uzi Ornan, a retired linguistics professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the head of the Ani Israeli (“I Am an Israeli”) Association, the campaign for Israeli nationality that has spearheaded the nationality case over the past five years. “But the real conflict is actually between Judaism and democracy.”

Without a doubt, Israel’s democracy is among the world’s, and certainly the Middle East’s, most vibrant and robust. But the Ornan case raises the veil on many of the underlying inconsistencies between Israel’s public face and private politics. On one hand, Israel is a modern, progressive nation, where gays serve openly in the military and whose National Search and Rescue Unit outperformed far larger countries during the recent earthquake relief effort in Haiti. It is also a society where at least officially, all citizens enjoy full equality, regardless of ethnic status, including its Arab minority, which makes up 20 percent of the population.

Yet due to its inherent pro-Jewish mandate, Israeli society remains stymied by legal and cultural practices far more reminiscent of its theocratic neighbors than the democratic West. Civil marriages, let alone mixed marriages between Arabs and Jews, are forbidden. Jews enjoy preferential access to land ownership throughout most of the country. Israel’s sacred Law of Return potentially guarantees more rights to foreign-born Jews than native-born Arabs. And, most crucially, government entities like the Population Registry and national identity cards create, from birth, a state-sanctioned paper trail of ethnic division and inequality.

“Israel has long had the legal framework guaranteeing equal rights for all of its citizens,” said Dahlia Scheindlin, a Tel Aviv-based public-opinion researcher and political analyst. “But what is missing is the social, moral, and political weight to implement it. This case directly challenges this situation.”

Although Israel’s Ministry of Justice refuses to comment on pending court decisions, the country’s lower courts have made the government’s position clear. “There is no such thing, from the point of view of the law, as an ‘Israeli nation,’” said Jerusalem District Court Judge Noam Sohlberg as he rejected an earlier Ornan petition, in 2006. “The court must not create something out of nothing.”

What does exist, however, is a Jewish nation with Israel as its nation state, its nationals residing both within Israel and across the globe, each with an equal stake in Israel’s destiny. To replace “Jewish” with “Israeli” is to undermine the raison d’être for more than 100 years of Zionism. To leave the law unchanged, however, is to ensure that Israel’s 1.5 million mostly Arab non-Jews remain alienated from the nation’s mainstream. “Many Arabs simply do not feel part of Israeli society,” said Scheindlin. “They see Israel as a country for the Jews, of the Jews, and by the Jews.”

All of this leaves the supreme court in a bit of an existential quandary. Traditionally, Scheindlin said, the court has ruled progressively on issues of civil and human freedoms, from rerouting Israel’s infamous security barrier in 2005 to granting Palestinians access to restricted West Bank highways last year. But in demanding that the court recognize “Israeliness”—and equalize an identity based on a common geography rather than ethnicity—the Ornan case is asking the justices to take liberalism to a new level.

“Israel has every right to decide who may become a citizen,” said attorney Yoella Har-Sheffi, who is arguing the Ornan case along with co-counsel Yosef Ben-Moshe. “We’re not arguing that the country should no longer be a home for Jews, but once someone is a citizen of Israel, then they must be treated equally.”

Even if the supreme court ultimately rules in Ornan’s favor, it will be a small victory in a far larger battle to change Israeli public opinion. “Both Jewish and Arab Israelis have a complicated sense of national identity, but our research does confirm that both view Israeli as synonymous with being Jewish,” said Mike Prashker, executive director of Merchavim, the Institute for the Advancement of Shared Citizenship in Israel. “We think this is an extremely unhealthy situation for any modern state.”

Yet despite Israel’s current right-wing government, progressives such as Prashker remain hopeful that a common Israeli identity can evolve within an Israel that is both Jewish and democratic. After all, as the United States’ own complex racial history confirms, every multicultural society exists in an ongoing state of ethnic evolution. “Like many countries, Israel is contending with the universal challenges of dignifying diversity, challenges compounded by the conflict around it,” he said. “But from my perspective as a Jew, we must begin to redefine who we are as Israelis. A Jewish homeland that is fair to all of its citizens—that would be the ultimate fulfillment of the Zionist vision.”

David Kaufman is a New York-based journalist who regularly contributes to The New York Times, The Financial Times, Time International, and Wallpaper—and is the charming madness behind the blog TRANSRACIAL.