Will Israel Recognize Itself?

The Israeli judiciary reaffirmed yesterday that Israel is the only country on earth that does not recognize itself.

The Haifa District Court rejected an appeal submitted by Professor Uzi Ornan, a linguist and member of the Academy of the Hebrew Language (also the founder of the League against Religious Coercion in Israel). Ornan had sought to compel Israel's Interior Ministry to recognize his citizenship as based on his being “Israeli,” that is, a national born in Israel, rather than “Jewish," which he firmly denies.

The court ruled that, no, he is born of a Jewish mother—Jewish according to Halacha whether he likes it or not—and even more important, that the Law of Return’s strictures supersede any other in matters of citizenship. Accordingly, Ornan is to be listed in the registry of populations as Jewish. (The registry, by the way, recognizes over 100 nationalities, but “Israeli” is not one of them, though the Supreme Court has regularly been petitioned by people like former Education Minister Shulamit Aloni and former Air Force chief, the late Benny Peled, to do so.)

"A judge appeals to Jewish law, and the ruling shows that Israel is a Jewish community and not a civilian state," Ornan lamented.

For many American “Zionists” this may all seem fine. As I've written here before, they tend to think of Jerusalem as a kind of Jewish Epcot Center and Israel as a world Jewish convention to which they are super-delegates. But for people like Ornan, eager to establish a secular state apparatus—and long after the peculiar historical circumstances that made the Law of Return necessary has passed—the decision is infuriating. It underlines how compromised by theocracy the state has become in the absence of a democratic constitution and the presence of an occupation justified by messianic notions of peoplehood.

In effect, the court is telling Israeli citizens that naturalization to a distinctly Israeli nation, if not impossible, is beside the point. Imagine what this means for Israel’s future as a democracy, given that one-fifth of Israel’s citizens are not Jewish. The court is implying that democracy is just the tyranny of the Jewish majority, and it defines “Jewish” as a religious sentiment and biological fact.

Nor does one need much political imagination to see how liberal Israeli Arabs who have mastered modern Hebrew (unlike “returning” Jews from Brookline or Teaneck) would regard this decision. It is a repudiation of the very possibility of a Hebrew civil space into which they might assimilate. Think of what Duddy Kravitz might have said if the courts decided that a Quebecer with full rights—including, as in Israel, the right to acquire most land—must be a descendant of a family tree documented by the St. Jean-Baptiste Society and Catholic according to the Bishop of Montreal.

Then again, real Zionists should be disgusted by this ruling too. For Zionism’s real point was democratizing, liberating, modernizing; it meant to create the cultural innovations that would put Hebrew in every individual citizen’s hand. As Achad Haam put it in an essay he (clumsily, but precisely) entitled “Competitive Emulation or Self-effacing Imitation,” the emancipated Zionists’ future would be something like the Jews’ confrontation with the ancients:

Long before the Hellenists in Palestine tried to substitute Greek culture for Judaism, the Jews in Egypt had come into close contact with the Greeks, with their life, their spirit, and their philosophy: yet we do not find among them any pronounced movement towards assimilation. On the contrary, they employed their Greek knowledge as an instrument for revealing the essential spirit of Judaism, for showing the world its beauty, and vindicating it against the proud philosophy of Greece. 

This was code: the Hebrew writers of Zionism were now reprising this Hellenizing genius and synthesis. Diaspora Jews—stuck in ghettos with retrograde Halachic norms—lacked these Hebrew things. They lacked a nuanced way into historic Jewish philosophical writings, legal principles, liturgy, poetics. They lacked the confidence to let go of the kitsch and the junk.

The new Jewish nation, in contrast, would be a permeable community of Hebrew speaking citizens, a collective of infinitely complex individuals, each with unalienable rights, who shared a special purchase on accumulated Jewish sacred texts, narratives, fictions, liturgy, legal debates, mystical speculations, music, historical records.

Jews made confident by a national home—so Achad Haam thought—would relish the chance to prove the strengths of their culture in open contest. They would breathe in what was best in others, breathe out what was enduring about Judaism. They would have the means not only to resist assimilation into other national cultures, but to assimilate others into their own.

The court, in stupidly valorizing Halachic norms, is asking Israelis to throw all of this away: to accept law that debases Zionism’s greatest achievement, presumably for the sake of Jewish solidarity. But the challenge, you see, is not a Jewish and democratic state. It is to define both “Jewish” and the claim of state sovereignty in ways democrats everywhere can understand. That may not be exactly what Achad Haam meant by “modern.” But it is close enough.

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