Column

05.29.12

The Confusion of the Jews

“You've got to be taught to hate and fear, you've got to be taught from year to year”—so go the famous lines from South Pacific, arguably the stupidest ever to put to music.

The one thing we do not have to be taught is hate. Fear of what seems strange comes as naturally as protection for what is loved. What we have to be taught, year to year, is to recognize the rights of people we incline to fear; to create laws that extend to them the means to be included in a decent equality; to support a legal framework in which our inclination to preemptively attack one another is—how did Hobbes put it?—“restrained.”

Which brings me to three items in the media last week, all about Israel’s political psychology, all missing the point somehow, because they fail to acknowledge what is missing in Israel’s law. The first are reports of the riot in Tel Aviv’s Shechunat Hatiqva against African refugees, the second is Yousef Munayyer’s op-ed in the New York Times about Israel’s treatment of its Arab citizens, and the third is Bob Simon’s report in “60 Minutes” about the Tel Aviv’s “bubble.” There are dots to be connected.

I won’t recapitulate what each states or implies. Suffice it to say that reports of the riot focus on the alleged bigotry of Israelis, and Munayyer’s op-ed highlights ways Israel’s immigration officials target Arab citizens in ways that can only be called discriminatory. One would conclude that Israel is a small place, incapable of transcending a growing racism inherent in its “situation,” which polls of youth tend to confirm. But then along comes Simon’s report upending this idea, celebrating Tel Aviv elites as living in a “bubble” of cosmopolitanism, though indifferent to the suffering that’s in their backyard. What are we to believe about Israeli attitudes?

The point is, Israel’s problem is not attitudes but the absence of a constitutional frame, including methods of naturalization, that shape attitudes. Don’t be misled by Simon’s fascination with north Tel Aviv’s cosmopolitan atmosphere. The latter is not home grown. The globalization of its young people, in their businesses and universities, has expanded their horizons, while the force of Israeli law otherwise closes them.

In contrast, a broad majority of Israelis—who cannot see beyond the law—cannot also not imagine a “them” that is not the counterpart of a racially or halachically defined view of “us.” (Too many American “Zionists” like things this way.)

Look, if Israel were a democracy like France, Israelis might well think that the acquisition of Hebrew culture, the experience of the Jewish nation, and so forth, would (gradually) make one a part of that nation—i.e., make one “Israeli”—and, after a period of residency, qualify any immigrant for citizenship. Think of children of African, Thai and Filipino workers, born into Israeli life, embracing Israel like Kitty did at the end of Exodus. But a muddle of Israeli laws discourage this very train of thought:

If you are born in Israel to a Jewish mother, then you are, by law, a Jewish national and a citizen. You are also a Jewish national, and subject to immediate citizenship, if you are an immigrant who has not renounced the Jewish faith and are descended from at least one Jewish grandparent—a grandparent, that is, who was born to a Jewish mother who had not renounced her faith. Arabs and other nationalities born in Israel to a mother and father who are citizens are citizens. But if only one parent is a citizen then the child is subject to what Munayyer has endured.  It is assumed that an Arab Muslim can never become a Jewish national the way, say,  a Jew can become a Frenchman. If an Arab is born outside the country, he or she can forget about becoming a citizen.

The confusions go on. If you are born in Israel to a Jewish father only, then you are a citizen—but can only become a Jewish national, and enjoy its various material privileges, by sincerely converting to Judaism. A non-Jew can also become a Jewish national by converting, like the child born in Israel to a non-Jewish mother, but unlike that child, cannot be a citizen without converting. Then again, the interior minister can just make you a citizen. Clear?

Calling Tel Aviv a bubble in this context confuses the issue. North Tel Aviv is the part of Israel not in a bubble, that is, not disconnected from the liberal world.  It is the rest of Israel that is increasingly in a bubble, or more precisely, a ghetto of its own making, afflicted by the “claustrophilia” Arthur Koestler once warned about.

You can feel a mounting danger in the attacks on Sudanese refugees in south Tel Aviv, or against Palestinian Arabs in Jerusalem’s Malcha Mall after a football game at nearby Teddy Stadium. The attacks won’t end—and didn’t begin—with them. The Israeliness Simon implicitly valorizes, however much it swims with global currents, cannot swim against the mental atmosphere engendered by Israeli law, nor can Tel Aviv’s lovely elites compete with orthodox families in producing off-spring.

What Israel needs are legal changes, now, to extend secular standards, valorize equality in Israeliness, and curb the privileges of the Orthodox rabbinate and educational systems. Mofaz and Netanyahu have the votes, for now.  Do they really have the will?