It is our duty to hate Germany, since we love it. We must be accounted for when we speak of Germany: We, communists, young socialists, pacifists, lovers of freedom in all shapes… How easy it is to pretend Germany is composed solely of the nationalist societies. Germany is a divided country; we are part of it.
Kurt Tucholsky, 1929
In May 2004, Haaretz published a news item (Hebrew): The government of Israel opposed in the High Court of Justice a petition demanding that the title “Israeli” will appear under the “Nationality” rubric of the ID card.
The attempt to recognize an Israeli nationality, claimed the government, would undermine the Israeli state.
One can hardly think of an item more clarifying of the Israeli condition, the clash of “two nations in thy womb”, the struggle within the soul of Israel. The petitioners – including the late Shulamit Aloni of blessed memory, Uri Avneri, Yehoshua Sobol and others – argued that the Israeli Interior Ministry recognized some 135 different nations. It recognizes the mighty Assyrian nation; the ancient, stubborn tribe of the Samaritans; and the far-away Georgians.
There is, however, one nation it is unwilling to recognize: the Israeli nation.
The struggle in the High Court of Justice – spoiler alert: the Israelis lost – was part of the struggle for Israel. Our politics is so bitter because it is identity politics. It derives from the question what country would we like to see: if you will it, it is the question of “who’s a patriot.”
My right-winger readers have made it a habit of doubting my patriotism. And, indeed, by their measure I am not one. If patriotism is hatred of foreigners, subjugating another people, justifying the indiscriminate killing of people who were not circumcised at the age of a week or so; if patriotism is limiting rights according to ethnic origin, and using the injustices done to Jews to justify injustice by Jews – I want no part of such patriotism. I, furthermore, believe such a country lacks the right to exist. The world has enough ethnocracies as it is. I endeavor to see here a country based on citizenship, the much-maligned “country of all its citizens” so derided in Israel today.
I believe the ethnic state was, and is, a major source of suffering in the world. Often, religion and ethnicity go hand in hand. For instance, a loyal (i.e., right-wing) Frenchman was, naturally, Catholic. The Kroat republic of the 1940s was led by Catholic priests. The Russian Orthodox priests enflamed the ethnic cleansing in Serbia. In Afghanistan, the national struggle against the Soviet invaders mixed with religion, leaving us with the ticking bomb of a struggle against the unbelievers.
The same is true of Israel. When Judaism or some mutation of it (the most common is the cult of the uniform, which holds than anyone who served in the IDF deserves, if not to be called a Jew, the rights of a Jew) leads the country into ultra-nationalism. The Ministry of the Interior’s position is further mixing the issue of nationality with religion. It refuses to acknowledge the existence of an Israeli nationality, as doing so would mean nationality can be based on a non-religious basis – which, indeed, would undermine Israel as it is now. The idea that people could share citizenship merely by living in the same country is anathema to Zionism.
The supporters of a civilian state point to the Declaration of Independence: it promises full equality to all the country residents – and equality is incompatible with the concept of a “Jewish and democratic state.” A country can’t be both Jewish and democratic: a “Jewish and democratic” country is democratic to its Jews and Jewish to the rest of its residents.
The supporters of the ethnic state will point, correctly, to the fact that the writers of the Declaration of Independence never actually meant what they wrote. Israel’s founders wanted an ethnic state, and carried out a large ethnic cleansing to get it. The Declaration of Independence was written so that the new country could have something to show the UN, which was busy at the time writing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
This is what the struggle is about: Is there an Israeli nation, or just Jewish and Arab nations; shall we become partners, or stand forever on the edge of another ethnic cleansing; whether hatred of mankind or humanism – both of which can be found in Judaism – will become the face of the country; Is the Declaration of Independence a founding document, or just a camouflage rag?
Many in the left find it hard, in recent years, to love their country. They tend to abandon patriotism to the right. It is hard to, but we must, hate the country – because we love it. Hate its current face – and strive to change it.
How easy it is to pretend that Israel is composed solely of the Likud Center and the settlers. We must be accounted for, when we speak of Israel: universalists, humanists, opponents of militarism, socialists, anarchists, lovers of freedom in all shapes. Israel is a divided country; we are part of it.
This article was originally published in Nana News in May 2004. It still contains some basic truths about Israel and what is wrong with it. The 2004 case meandered its way through the court system, until the High Court of Justice ruled in 2013 against it, claiming the existence of an Israeli people was not proven. It’s unlikely a similar petition would stand a chance within the next decade or two.