When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the Lord am your God.
The countries of eastern and southeastern Europe are now the hot vacation spots for Israelis, as they are relatively close, cheap, and unspoiled. It seems that everyone we know has been to Slovakia, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia, The Czech Republic, or Hungary for at least a long weekend (though Turkey may still be the most popular many of the shopkeepers there have even learned Hebrew as a capitalist imperative). Not wanting to miss out on the fad before it fades, we have decided to plan a week in Slovenia; the first phase of the planning was to find it on the map, which was not simple, as we brought our atlas with us when we made aliyah in 1990. In any case, in looking forward to the trip, to a dose of calm, green mountains and peaceful beaches, I did some checking on the history and politics of the area.
It was interesting to discover that Slovenia has several national minorities, some of them recognized constitutionally, with guarantees of cultural autonomy (Italians, Austrians, and Hungarians), and others whose rights and privileges are less clearly defined and supported (the Croatians and the Roma [Gypsies]). It seems that the protection of minorities depends on reciprocal treaties with their respective neighboring motherlands, since there are Slovenians living in the neighboring countries. With Croatia no such treaty seems to exist, and of course the Roma have no motherland to represent them. Surfing the internet on this very current topic brought me back to my college readings on the Versailles conference after World War I, when an attempt was made to create a map of Europe consisting of ethnic nation states, with guarantees of human rights and cultural autonomy for the many minority communities that would thereby be created. After a whole century of persecution and bloody ethnic cleansing, and now decades of large scale migrations, Europe is still trying to figure out how to live as a patchwork of ethnic nation states. While the Slovenians keep track of just who is an Italian, the French and Germans are overwhelmed by new Frenchmen and Germans who have dark skin and worship in mosques. Definitions of identity that used to be intuitively obvious are becoming decidedly less so. Meanwhile, in the USA, Native Americans carry a federally issued Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood indicating what fraction of Native American blood runs in their veins (3/4, 5/8, 1/2, 7/16, 1/4096, etc).
Well, Zionism was born at a time when the ethnic nation state appeared to be the wave of the future, the remedy for the decadence and weakness of the old Europe. The big question is: are we still riding the right wave? Can a state whose self-definition is primarily ethnic (as opposed, say, to the US and Canada, whose self-definition is primarily ideological and geographical) be safe and stable given the impossibility of homogeneity? i.e., there will always be minorities present, whose loyalty to the state will ipso facto be less than 100% because they have a conflict between two identities. On the other hand, in a world still seething with ethnic tensions, can we afford not to have one state in which we are the majority (and hold the keys to the gate).
Which brings us to, in my opinion, the most fundamental question facing Israel throughout its entire existence so far: Is it an ethnic nation state, struggling to find the right balance of rights and responsibilities for the 20% ethnic minority living in it (despite the constant calls, from various quarters, simply to deport them or redistrict them out)? Or is our core identity something else, something unique to Judaism, a set of beliefs and values that set us apart from the past century of world ethnic bloodshed? Is it conceivable that Israeliness, like Americanness, could be ideological, value-based? Or is all that matters how much Jewish blood runs in your mothers veins ?