Israel has an identity problem. Is it a Jewish state that provides legal and material preferences for citizens of Jewish ancestry? Or is it a secular nation-state, but one that happens to be rooted in Jewish culture and the Hebrew language? For more than six decades Israeli politicians have maintained a useful ambiguity about this deeply existential question. But no longer.
In elections in March, Israel’s voters will be forced to confront stark choices about the country’s national identity. In the absence of a formal, written constitution, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has embraced a game-changing “nation-state” bill that would award “national rights” only to Jewish citizens.
The outcome of this crossroads election is by no means certain.
Initially, polls suggested that Mr. Netanyahu might well cement his hold on power and accelerate Israel’s rightward drift. But the recent forging of a new political coalition between Isaac Herzog, leader of the left-center Labor Party, and Tzipi Livni, leader of the Hatnua, a small center-right party — who were both sacked from the cabinet earlier this month, as Mr. Netanyahu called for new elections — suggests that there may be a viable electoral alternative.
Mr. Herzog and Ms. Livni oppose the Jewish nation-state bill. They are old-fashioned Zionists, wedded to the notion that all of Israel’s citizens, Jewish or otherwise, are entitled to equal democratic rights. And unlike Mr. Netanyahu, they both understand that Israel’s continued control over the post-1967 occupied territories threatens its democratic character.
Israel’s 1948 declaration of independence guarantees “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.” So Israel may be a “Jewish state” in a cultural sense, but at least no more so than America can be called a “Christian state.” Israel was never intended to be a theocracy.
It is also home to less than half of the world’s people who claim Jewish ancestry. Twenty percent of its citizens are not Jewish, but rather Muslim, Christian and Druze. And this minority is growing.
Furthermore, most of Israel’s citizens who do claim Jewish ancestry are in fact secular, nonpracticing Jews. A large majority of its million-plus Russian immigrants are not even recognized as Jewish by the Orthodox rabbinical courts.
A Jewish nation-state law would discriminate against these non-Jewish citizens — but it could also provide the quasi-judicial pretext for denying Palestinians citizenship if the ultraright get their way and Israel someday annexes the occupied territories. This is a bad idea in every conceivable way.
In reality, Israel is a multiethnic, vibrant and largely secular society. This is clearly not a tragedy. It is actually what most of the country’s original Zionist founding fathers envisioned — a new, modern state in ancient Palestine where those Jews who so desired could become citizens of a nation like any other modern nation-state. “Israelis” would be seen not as members of the Jewish Diaspora, but citizens of their own state.
Hillel Kook (1915-2001), an early Zionist leader from the Revisionist wing, thought of the new Israeli state as a “Hebrew Republic” — a place where Jews could leave behind the Diaspora. Instead of being Jewish Americans or Jewish Frenchmen, their identity would be defined in the first instance by their chosen citizenship in the new Israeli state — and not their Jewishness. They would be Israelis first — and would choose or choose not to practice their ancestral religion, just as most Frenchmen are Catholics who never attend Mass.
Over more than six decades Israelis have created a distinct national culture, largely based on their language — always a key ingredient to any national identity. And this cultural identity is wholly separate from mere religiosity.
This definition of Israeli identity — one based on the Hebrew language and culture rather than religion — is a very good thing for the prospects of peace.
The Palestine Liberation Organization and most Arab leaders already recognize the reality of the Israeli state. So why would Israeli leaders now want to define their identity from their neighbors’ in religious terms?
Why does Mr. Netanyahu want to define his nation-state with precisely the same phrases used by Hamas, a nonsecular, fundamentalist party dedicated to the formation of an Islamic republic? Mr. Netanyahu himself is a secular politician. His insistence on a “Jewish state” seems to be only a prescription for endless conflict with his “Muslim” neighbors — and perhaps today a tactic to postpone further negotiations on the creation of a Palestinian state.
The notion of a Jewish state is ultimately political poison for the Jewish Diaspora, and specifically for American Jews. If Israel is seen as a Jewish state, then the implication exists that some or all of America’s seven million Jewish Americans “belong” in Israel. They do not. They belong in the United States, and they’re not going anywhere.
American Jews have thrived over the last hundred years, and in doing so they have enriched the secular and multi-cultural ethos of the United States. They can practice their faith as well or better in America than anywhere else. Their relation to the state of Israel is precisely the same as that of Irish-Americans to Ireland, or Italian-Americans to Italy.
For all these reasons, talking about a “Jewish state” destroys a useful and wise ambiguity. Instead, Israelis need to celebrate their “Israeli” national identity. They should talk about Israel’s cultural and technological achievements. And talk about Israel’s security, too, and where its borders should be drawn so that the endless conflict between Arabs and Israelis can finally come to an end.
Kai Bird is the author, most recently, of The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames.