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Understanding Israel’s deception regarding citizenship vs. Jewish nationality

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People are often confused by the difference between citizenship and nationality when it comes to Israel. This issue most recently came up in the spat between Israeli celebrity Rotem Sela who asked, “when will anyone in this government tell the public that this is a state of all its citizens,” to which Prime Minister Netanyahu replied it wasn’t, and said that it was a nation state of Jews alone.

This was then further confused when Netanyahu also claimed that all Israeli citizens have equal rights. What’s going on here? Is Israel a state of all of its citizens, and do citizens have equal rights?

In short, I would say that Netanyahu was right about the state not being a state of all its citizens, and wrong about all citizens having equal rights.

But it’s more complex than that. Israel uses this dual construct of citizenship and nationality to confuse and even downright deceive the international community – indeed even its own citizens. It is my impression that many Israelis don’t even understand this fully.

The main confusion lies in the fact that Israel applies the notion of ‘nationality’ and ‘nation’ in a radically different manner to that which is commonly understood in most of the world today. Normally, ‘citizenship’ and ‘nationality’ are basically understood as a one thing. If you’re, say, a French citizen, you’re considered a French national. No French authority will consider you a ‘Jewish’ national – that would be racist! You’re French? Be a Jew, be a Muslim, whatever – you’re still a French national. On your passport it will say ‘Nationality – French’ – that will be your national identity.

Israel does not, repeat, does not, recognize an Israeli nationality. But we Israelis do have a notation in our passports that says: ‘Nationality – Israeli’. How can this be? It is so, because Israel is lying.  Israel defines ‘Jewish’ as a Nationality, along with over 130 other ‘Nationalities’ including ‘Arab’. The purpose of this is to reserve exclusive national rights to Jews only, in the Nation State of the Jewish People. The ‘national’, institutionalized tie of Jews all over the world, by the Jewish state of Israel, is thus sweeping and extra-territorial.

This is the major, overarching paradigm that is above and beyond citizenship. It stands as a kind of ghost, a shadow, instructing all that the Jewish State does. When this is the case, ‘citizenship’ becomes a token, an alibi.

It would be folly to think, that when the Jewish Nation aspect is so overwhelmingly central in Zionism and in the Jewish State, that it would not have an effect on that supposedly neutral, democratic realm of citizenship. Of course it does. Yes, non-Jewish citizens can vote, but the Israeli institutions, including its parliament and its land administration apparatus is heavily biased against them. Thus, almost all of the lands in Israel are owned and administered by a state and state-affiliated institutions which have a stated priority to be biased towards ‘Jewish settlement’. There is a myriad of laws which more and less directly discriminate against Palestinian citizens (see Adalah database with over 65 discriminatory laws).

And this discrimination goes beyond the citizenship per se – this is extremely important to understand. One of the first and most blatant examples of this discrimination is the Law of Return (1950). With its subsequent amendments, the law allows any Jew, their spouse, or even a non-Jew who is a 3rd generation descendant of a Jew, to ‘return’ to Israel, even if they never set foot there before, and receive automatic citizenship. ‘Return’ how? ‘Return’ in the sense that they are supposedly an affiliated part of the Jewish ‘nation’, arcing across the millennia and times immemorial.

All this could in theory be fine, even if it is a novel mythological application – if it were not for the fact that it has a directly related discriminatory opposite side:

While those who have never set foot in the land are allowed and welcomed to ‘return’, those who have been expelled from it – the majority of the Palestinian people – are not allowed to return, and not afforded the citizenship that is automatically bestowed upon Jews.

Thus, the issue of ‘citizenship’ here presents itself in ‘absence’ – millions of Palestinians should have been allowed to be equal and free citizens – but they are denied that right. How are they denied it? By ethnic cleansing and by denial of their right to return. This is called ‘demographic engineering’ (see UN ESCWA report on Israeli Apartheid by R. Falk and V. Tilley, 2017). Having applied the engineering (Nakba, ethnic cleansing, etc.), the state can then maintain trappings of democracy (elections, etc.), without endangering the Jewish racial supremacy rule.

Thus, the citizenship afforded by Israel to its Palestinian subjects should be seen as an aberration – an alibi for the grave crime involving the denial of citizen rights to most Palestinians.

Most all Zionists consider this aspect an absolutely clear, legitimate and mainstream position. They frown upon the fact that international law demands the Palestinian return – at the same time taking very seriously that Jewish ‘right of return’. This is really Zionism 101.

But this example is only one of many, where the ‘national’ imperative, that is the Jewish nation, overshadows the role of citizenship, and in fact nullifies it – in actual fact, and in terms of its overall significance.

Simply put – Israel’s ‘Jewish nation state’ notion is a means of colonialist dispossession of the native Palestinians. By defining them as mere “Arabs” and defining “Arab” as a nationality, Israel also eases the conscience regarding their dispossession. Thus, Netanyahu, in further clarifying his position in the recent controversy, said:

The Arab citizens [in Israel] have 22 nation states around them and they do not need another.

You see, those other states are just part of a one big Arab “nation”. This Zionist concept thus robs Palestinians of their territorial belonging (and Netanyahu is certainly not the first Israeli leader to make such suggestions, they have also come from the Zionist left, see for example Golda Meir). At the same time, when it comes to the ‘Jewish nation’, the territorial aspect becomes overwhelmingly significant and local – Eretz Israel, the one Jewish State of all Jews everywhere – applying to a macro, global, extra-territorial Jewish ‘nation’.

This is, essentially, how I think the nationality and citizenship aspects pertaining to Israel need to be viewed. The ‘nation’, the ‘Jewish nation’, is the real lifeblood of Zionism and Israel, the Jewish State. The citizenship aspect is largely cosmetic upon that, hence often used as a masking alibi for the crime against humanity which Zionism and its birthchild, Israel, represent.

Jonathan Ofir

Israeli musician, conductor and blogger / writer based in Denmark.

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20 Responses

  1. Stephen Shenfield on March 14, 2019, 12:17 pm

    Very clear and succinct. In this respect Zionism is a surviving remnant of the old East European tradition in which it has its roots. Tsarist Russia had a concept of ‘nationality’ based on ethnic origin and distinct from being a subject of the emperor. The Soviet Union had a similar distinction between Soviet citizenship as indicated in a person’s foreign passport and ethnic ‘nationality’ as recorded in the infamous paragraph 5 of the internal passport. The same for the former Yugoslavia.

    • Misterioso on March 15, 2019, 9:41 am

      @Stephen Shenfield, et al:

      Just received from a Canadian friend.
      Very interesting and revealing.

      https://ijvcanada.org/2019/environics-survey/?link_id=0&can_id=eacd283eaa06bdd613ff05480a3d9776&source=email-for-immediate-release-30&email_referrer=email_510924&email_subject=for-immediate-release

      “Environics Survey of Jewish Canadians confirms divisions on Israel-Palestine”

      Independent Jewish Voices (IJV), Canada, March 13/19

      “TORONTO–Independent Jewish Voices Canada (IJV) and the United Jewish People’s Order (UJPO) welcome the findings of a survey of Jewish Canadians published yesterday by the Environics Institute.

      “Much like American Jews, the results of the survey indicate that Canadian Jews are significantly divided on issues related to Israel-Palestine, with younger, Reform and unaffiliated Jews holding the most critical views of Israel. Findings that especially stand out include that nearly three times more Canadian Jews believe that West Bank settlements hurt Israel’s security than believe the opposite, and that most Canadian Jews do not believe the Israeli government is serious about making peace. In addition, of Canadian Jews who expressed an opinion, 35% believe that Israeli settlements in the West Bank are illegal under international law, a position which rises to 40% among 30 to 44 year olds and 51% among those under 30.

      “These results are largely consistent with those of a recent EKOS survey, co-commissioned by IJV and UJPO, which likewise revealed significant divisions on Israeli policy among Jewish Canadians. Released last month, the survey notably revealed that more than a third of Jewish Canadians hold a negative opinion of the Israeli government and that almost a third see the Palestinian call for boycotts of Israel as reasonable. About half also believe that accusations of antisemitism are often used to silence legitimate criticism of Israel.

      “’Where there was overlap, the results of the Environics survey are consistent with what we learned from the EKOS poll,’ said Corey Balsam, IJV National Coordinator. ‘Though the two asked different questions, the results point to a similar trend: growing fissures between Jewish Canadians over Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.’

      “’It is critical that politicians, decision-makers and leaders of Jewish organizations take heed of changing Jewish opinions on these issues and reflect them in their policies and actions,’ said Rachel Epstein, Executive Director of UJPO.
      “’A monolith, we are anything but.’”

      For media inquiries:
      Corey Balsam, Independent Jewish Voices Canada [email protected], (514) 437-2940
      Rachel Epstein, United Jewish People’s Order, [email protected], (416) 789-5502
      -30-

  2. John Douglas on March 14, 2019, 2:12 pm

    Thank you. This is very informative. One question lingers with me. I had a colleague who was raised in Haifa and reported that he served in the Irgun. He said one that when he was a child there were only Arabs in Haifa; Jewish, Muslim and Christian Arabs. I may be wrong, but I’m assuming that my colleague and his buddies shared a common geneology or genetic traits (Different for example from Persian Jews or Muslims). Of course the first language of my friend and his friends was Arabic.

    From the essay, the Jewish nation is not identified by Judaism or any other religious practice, but by some underlying genetic or geneological traits.

    How then do Arabs, whose religious practice of Judaism traces back to well before the common era fit into this idea of a Jewish nationality? Are they grandfathered? Assuming that the tale of Roman expulsion is true, aren’t they the ones who stayed and then refused the pressures of conversion?

  3. annie on March 14, 2019, 3:20 pm

    But it’s more complex than that.. Israel uses this dual construct of citizenship and nationality to confuse and even downright deceive the international community – indeed even its own citizens… Many Israelis don’t even understand this fully.

    the word Nation is a homonym, defined as “two words that are spelled the same and sound the same but have different meanings”. just like the word pen (“a holding area for animals” and “a writing instrument” ), there are 2 distinct definitions.

    one can be clever, like shakespeare, and make a play on words, but recognition of this play on words is appreciated and intended and people study the two points he’s making and how clever it is. not so w/netanyahu and the construction of the historical stories surrounding the founding of the (nation) state of israel.

    nation has 2 distinct definitions . ie websters: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/nation

    one is a nation state, a country. the other is a people. there is no 3rd definition of nation, intended to include both. just as there is no 3rd definition of pen (a holding area for writing instruments).

    zionism/israel used the definition of “nation” sans the recognition it’s being used as a play on words. it uses nationality as is typically applied to a nation state and applies it only to the “people” definition, and this became clear in the court case.

    once you get this you understand why you cannot interchange israel’s ‘nationhood’ (peoplehood) with that of denmark, france, canada or the US, all civic national states who are implicitly using the nation state definition of the word when referencing their nationality.

    netanyahu is no shakespeare, but israelis, and everyone else, should know they are being purposely confused with a play on words. not me.

    • gamal on March 14, 2019, 6:50 pm

      “the word Nation is a homonym,”

      ” should know they are being purposely confused with a play on words. not me”

      Hey Annie i link to those 2 as Uroy sees them, my dear, Babylon Burning and Natty Rebel, you can listen the whole album but the first 2 tracks will free you, from

      “I’ve reached a turning point……”

      to

      “instead of fussing and fighting while others get together and live in one Inity….”

      !st two tracks “netanyahu is no shakespeare” see hear darling we have hundreds of them fine verses perfect songs as linked 1 and 2 …..no explanation this time because you don’t need it my friend.

      https://youtu.be/x1JaxzgxDas?t=2

    • Nathan on March 14, 2019, 7:18 pm

      Annie – The term nation is derived from the Latin word for “birth”. The term is used, therefore, in connection with a group of people who perceive themselves as having a common descent. The Americans use the word “nation” as a synonym of “country”, but this is not the understanding of the word elsewhere. A “state” is a political entity that has sovereignty. Israel is a state. So is Malta. In the USA, a “state” is an administration district which doesn’t have sovereignty. California is called a “state”, but it doesn’t have any diplomatic relations with any other (real) state, whereas Micronesia does. Since the Americans use both terms (nation and state) in a different way, there is a misunderstanding of the term “nation-state”. A nation-state is a sovereign state that was set up by a particular nation. Poland is a nation-state. The Czech Republic is too. A nation-state can have a national minority group (they all do). For example, there are citizens of Poland who are not Poles. They are citizens of Poland, but they are Ukrainians or Belorussians. Before the Holocaust, the Jews of Poland were Polish citizens, but they were not Poles (not in their own eyes nor in the eyes of the Poles). They were members of the minority Jewish nation in the Polish nation-state. Americans seem to think that the USA is a nation-state (i.e. a country-size political entity) as opposed to (let’s say) the Vatican which is a city-state (a political entity the size of a city). The USA is not a nation-state, needless to say.

      In Israel, the term nation-state is understood as described above. It is a state that was set up by a particular nation, the Jews. Indeed, in a nation-state, citizenship and nationality are not necessarily the same. This is not a ploy to confuse the international community. This is how things are in nation-states. The Russian speakers in Estonia are Estonian citizens, but their nationality (their perceived descent) is Russian, and so they are not Estonian nationals (not in their own eyes nor in the eyes of the Estonians-speakers). The Arabic speakers of Israel are Israeli citizens, but they are not part of the national group that founded the state. They perceive themselves to be Palestinians (Israeli citizenship and Palestinian nationality).

      Obviously, people are going to answer me that “Jewish” is a religious term, not a national term. However, in case there is someone here who is actually interested in hearing how the Jews of Israel see themselves, here is the surprising news: The Israeli Jews understand that the Jews are a nation, a peoplehood – they perceive themselves as a group that shares a common descent (and there are those who joined them, of course). It shouldn’t be too surprising to those who have sensitive hearing. The UN Partition Plan of 1947 called for the founding of two states in Palestine: an Arab state and a Jewish state. Obviously, “Arab” is an ethnic term, and it’s equally obvious that “Jewish” is parallel to “Arab”. The UN understood “Jewish” as a national term in 1947, so rest assured that there is no confusion in the international community regarding citizenship and nationality.

      • RoHa on March 15, 2019, 1:52 am

        “The Americans use the word “nation” as a synonym of “country”, but this is not the understanding of the word elsewhere.”

        It is normal in several places to understand the word that way, and to consider nationality and citizenship to be the same thing. My UK passport says “Nationality: British Citizen”. My Australian passport says “Nationality: Australian”. That UK passport is the reason they skipped over me when trying to find yet another new Prime Minister. Australian law decrees that only people who have Australian nationality and no other nationality are eligible. And “nationality” is the word used in the law.

        I went through this business of states and nations when I drew the distinction between “p-nation”,”n-nation”, and “c-nation”. I pointed out that by standard criteria, Jews were neither a p-nation nor an n-nation, but could be regarded as a “c-nation”. I also pointed out that neither n-nations nor c-nations had any right to do what the Zionists did, so the distinction was not important for our purposes.

        “The Israeli Jews understand that the Jews are a nation, a peoplehood – they perceive themselves as a group that shares a common descent (and there are those who joined them, of course).”

        So they tell themselves silly stories. So what?

      • RoHa on March 15, 2019, 1:57 am

        The important point is whether the citizens are treated equally, regardless of whether the state is a “nation-state” or not.

        And in Israel they aren’t.

      • VQTilley on March 15, 2019, 7:59 pm

        I think that’s a nice wrap-up of the Israeli point of view. But it’s rather a mess regarding the rest of us. There’s not much mystery here. In English and the Latin languages, “nation” and” state” are interchangeable, as in the “United Nations” (an organization of states), while “nationality” is the word for “citizenship”. That’s why human rights law talks about “nationality” as a civil status and having one as a civil right (not as some ethnic attribute). “Nation” referred to descent (or race) about a century ago, when Zionism was conceived, but has since come to include civic nations that unite people around civic values rather than ethnicity. So the US, France, UK, etc, are certainly nation-states, and if Poland is associated historically with ethnic “Poles,” still anyone with Polish citizenship holds Polish “nationality”, so it’s a nation-state too. Where a civic nation has secessionist groups, then you can talk about multi national states. But states hate that, so they tend to deny that the “nation” it represents is somehow different from the full body of its citizens.

        Israel is unique in holding that no “Israeli nation” exists at all. By law, Israel is the state of the “Jewish nation” and no other nation: all non-Jews who hold Israeli citizenship are on the outs regarding a lot of “national” services and perks that go to Jews only. Israeli law makes the distinction plain by having two words in Hebrew: ezrahut (citizenship, which is usually and wrongly translated as nationality, due to citizenship routinely being called “nationality” in international law) and le’um (nationality in the ethnic sense, as in “Jewish nation”). It is indeed the rhetorical mechanism by which Israeli citizens are grouped into an ethnic hierarchy – the state belonging to the Jewish nation and not Israel’s other citizens – and non-Jews become the infamous “demographic threat” of too many non-“nationals” (non-Jews) becoming Israeli citizens. It’s actually a pretty vile racist ploy, when you think about it, and far from how every other country in the world manages its national unity.

        So, Jonathan has this quite right. But to honor our predecessors, credit for this crucial point about nationality in Israeli law must go to the late Roselle Tekiner, who wrote about it in the 1980’s in an article published in the (sadly now defunct) journal “Without Prejudice,” then edited by the visionary Joe Schechla.

      • Sibiriak on March 15, 2019, 10:44 pm

        Israel’s Two-Tiered Citizenship Law Bars Non-Jews From 93 Percent of Its Lands by Roselle Tekiner (1990)

        https://www.wrmea.org/1990-january/israel-s-two-tiered-citizenship-law-bars-non-jews-from-93-percent-of-its-lands.html

      • Mikhael on March 17, 2019, 4:00 pm

        RoHa March 15, 2019, 1:52 am

        “The Israeli Jews understand that the Jews are a nation, a peoplehood – they perceive themselves as a group that shares a common descent (and there are those who joined them, of course).”

        So they tell themselves silly stories. So what?

        An angry and impotent old man in Australia rejects all the abundant evidence that Jews have a common shared history as a nation and ancestral ties to the land where they regained independence and national self-determination some seven decades ago and spends much of his remaining breathing time by writing on blogs where he expresses his fervent wish that Israel be dismantled, its Jewish population scattered and that its citizens stop speaking their national language, which he dismisses as some contrived gurgling. So what?

      • RoHa on March 17, 2019, 9:16 pm

        I’m not particularly angry. I was going to protest at the “old”, but I do have to admit to a very slight reduction in my chances of scoring with the girls at the local high school.

        But as regards the substance, first I will point out that you do not say what you mean by “nation”. In my typology I used paradigm cases to clarify the concepts, and demonstrated that Jews did not have the characteristics of p-nations or n-nations, but could be classed as a c-nation.

        I have never expressed the wish that the Jewish population of Israel be scattered.

        And “belches,gurgles, and choking noises” was a description of Danish.

    • Talkback on March 16, 2019, 9:10 am

      @VQTilley

      Bingo!

      The electoral ethnocracy obfuscates this by calling everyone citizens, allthough only its nationals (Jews) have full citizenship rights like in real democracies.

      And Nazi Germany had something similar. Only “Aryans” were considered to be German “nationals” (“Reichsbuerger”) and belong to the German nation. Jews and other non-Aryans were only “citizens”.

      • VQTilley on March 16, 2019, 12:43 pm

        Fascinating, I didn’t know that. Thanks for that historical info.

  4. Citizen on March 14, 2019, 3:38 pm

    Judiasm is not a religion like others, which proactively seek universal application, and Jewishness is a nationality unlike any others, which are proactively ethnically inclusive. Agree? Disagree?

    • msmoore on March 14, 2019, 5:03 pm

      Thus justifying Jewish Lebensarum?

    • Maximus Decimus Meridius on March 14, 2019, 5:27 pm

      Disagree.

      Judaism is just another religion. Nothing special about it. And “Jewishness” is not a nationality at all. As another poster here frequently reminds us, a Jew is someone who has either undergone a religius conversion to Judaism, or is descended from someone who has. There are Chinese Jews, Arab Jews, American Jews and so on so forth. Whatever way you slice it, Judaism is a religion based identity, not a nationality.

      • johneill on March 16, 2019, 6:09 am

        judaism is a religion with a matrilineal tradition, otherwise it’s like any other. the ethnicities of jewish ‘nationality’ are as varied as humanity, and one can only join that ‘nation’ by religious conversion – a la ivanka.

    • John Douglas on March 14, 2019, 5:52 pm

      Israeli historian Schlomo Sand argues that in the period around the origins of Christianity Jews outside of Palestine actively sought converts from outside of Judaic traditions.

  5. Ampro on March 16, 2019, 11:16 am

    Excellent explanation. It now becomes obvious why Israel demands that anyone who is elected to the Knesset must renounce their citizenship in a foreign country. Michael Oren, for example, had to give up his US citizenship.

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