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September 4, 2015 | 20th Elul 5775

The Zionist revolution II: what is a Jew?

Galilee Diary #184;
June 6, 2004
Marc Rosenstein

Recently, a group of intellectuals and politicians requested the Ministry of Interior to change the “nationality” designation on their identity cards from “Jewish” to “Israeli.” The Ministry refused, and a later lawsuit upheld that ruling. All Israelis are issued a photo ID card at the age of 16. We are required by law to have it with us at all times, and can be fined for failure to do so. Whenever I express some dismay at this law, the response usually is amazement that there is no such system in the United States. People can’t understand how Americans function without an ID card - though it seems that since 9/11 there is a growing feeling in the United States that indeed, ID cards would be a good thing. Last year, our Minister of Education, in one of her periodic efforts to educate for patriotism, proposed that high schools be required to hold public ceremonies in tenth grade, to celebrate the “coming of age of identity” of students receiving their first ID cards. Needless to say, the proposal made a slight ripple in the media and then sank like a stone.

While there are clearly both pros and cons to the concept of an ID card, depending on how benevolent you perceive Big Brother to be, more troubling is the appearance on the ID card of a “nationality” label. In the middle ages, the Jews were required to distinguish themselves by some item of clothing (often a special hat), to make sure that they didn’t try to “pass” for Christian or Moslem. Later, of course, the Nazis introduced the yellow star; in Soviet Russia Jewish identity was stamped on one’s ID card. Maybe I’m some kind of post-modernist, though I think it is just my American upbringing that makes me cringe at the idea of some bureaucrat assigning me a nationality, not necessarily of my own choosing, and printing it in my official legal identification papers. It is interesting that according to the Minister of the Interior, “Jewish” is a nationality – but “Israeli” is not. The Druze are Arabs, members of a religion that separated from Islam in the middle ages (about 10% of the Arabs in Israel). But on Israeli ID cards, Druze must be listed as “Druze,” not as “Arab,” even if they think of themselves as Arabs. Christian and Moslem Arabs, on the other hand, are both listed as “Arab.”

If a Chinese Buddhist wants to become an Israeli citizen, she has to go through a naturalization process, and after a number of years, can obtain an Israeli ID and passport. She will be an Israeli, recognized as such wherever she travels and shows her passport, and entitled to the same protections by the Israeli army, consulates, etc., as any other Israeli citizen. Yet on her ID card will be stamped “Chinese” under nationality. If she undergoes religious conversion (Orthodox in Israel; or any type outside of Israel) and becomes Jewish, then her nationality will be “Jewish.”

What’s going on here? Zionism represented not only an attempt to get out of Europe and to save the world and the Jews from chronic, endemic antisemitism, but also a rebellion against the definition of Judaism as a religion. As early 20th century Europe reorganized itself into ethnic nation-states, it became clear to some Jews that “normalization” of the Jews meant not the protestantization that Reform had pursued, but rather the redefinition of the Jews as a nation – rooted in and entitled to a state. This not only offered us the chance to be a nation among nations, but it solved the problem of Jewish identity for those who had lost their faith and/or their commitment to Jewish law. It seemed like such a simple, elegant solution to several “Jewish problems.” But it turned out to be like the tar baby: with every poke we get more entangled and stuck. For example, the Law of Return, enacted with the establishment of the state in response to the experience of being turned away by the nations of the world in our time of greatest need, grants automatic Israeli citizenship to any Jew requesting it, and to…

…the child or grandchild of a Jew, the spouse of a Jew, the spouse of the child or the grandchild of a Jew – but not a person who was a Jew and converted to another religion. A Jew is one who was born to a Jewish mother or converted, and is not a member of another religion. [amendment to the Law of Return, 1970]

So, did the Zionist revolution succeed? Is Judaism a nationality – or a religion? And why, the question remains, must we carry proof of Jewish identity in our wallets?

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