Israel's Identity Crisis

Who if not Adam LeBor understands that the ways out of our political quagmire cannot be easily encapsulated? I trust that I shall not seem ungrateful for his nuanced, warm reading of The Hebrew Republic by rushing to clarify something a phrase-turned-caption left ambiguous in his TBR review (“Israel’s Identity Crisis,” TBR, June 29, 2008).

The caption reads: “Avishai argues for an Israeliness that is not predicated on being Jewish.”

One of my book’s main points is that an egalitarian, secular democracy whose language is Hebrew would be a Jewish country, in the same identifiable (and marvelous) sense that a Yehuda Amichai poem is a Jewish poem. Indeed, such an Israel continues to be the Jewish national home, and refuge from anti-Semitism, as Zionism’s most original thinkers conceived it. These days, too much attention is paid to the "one-state solution," and too little to trans-national arrangements (like the EU) in which every country's cultural distinction is assured. So Israelis and Western Jews are naturally growing fearful of people who are cavalier about the continuity of Jewish culture. I should not like to appear cavalier in this way.

Nor do I believe (as one might also infer from the caption) that "being Jewish" should somehow be superseded by Israeliness. I want to see Israel confer only one nationality: Israeli. Israel should not have a legal definition for Jew, and should not have laws that require one. But this does not mean I want Israel in the identity business. Rather, Israel should be, like any European democracy, a commonwealth of laws with a distinct language, meant to enable persons, families, communities—citizens—to explore their own identities, religious imaginations, etc., as they see fit. Again, the living Hebrew language makes such exploration congenial for Jews. But it does not determine what a Jew is, or who contributes to our understanding of Jewishness.

I want Israel’s “identity crisis” to remain unresolved. When people use Herzl’s term, “The Jewish State,” I want them to qualify it.