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August 29, 2015 | 14th Elul 5775

Culture and identity III

Galilee Diary #346, July 15, 2007

Marc J. Rosenstein

4A. (a) The rights of a Jew under this Law and the rights of an oleh under the Nationality Law…, are also vested in a child and a grandchild of a Jew, the spouse of a Jew, the spouse of a child of a Jew and the spouse of a grandchild of a Jew, except for a person who has been a Jew and has voluntarily changed his religion.

4B. For the purposes of this Law, "Jew" means a person who was born of a Jewish mother or has become converted to Judaism and who is not a member of another religion.

-1970 amendments to the Israel Law of Return

When we made aliyah 17 years ago, we were issued ID cards (every citizen of Israel is required by law to carry an official government photo-ID card) on which there was a category “nationality.” In that box was printed the word “Jewish.” In 2005, because of the controversy over acceptance of Reform and Conservative conversions, the Interior Ministry solved the problem by stopping the printing of nationality on ID cards. Until that time, there were over a hundred different official nationalities that could be entered, including: Jewish, Arab, Druze, Armenian, Circassian, Georgian, Vietnamese, etc. Perhaps it is just as well that “nationality” has been removed from the cards, even if for the wrong reason (the Minister of the Interior, from an Orthodox party, refused to consider registering Reform and Conservative converts as of Jewish nationality; his solution, rather than to defy a court order, was to issue a directive removing the nationality designation from all new ID cards).

Whenever you order something over the internet, in filling out the form you can choose your country from a prepared menu of all the countries in the world. I suspect that some of those choices are, for some people, controversial. How much the more so was the menu of nationalities in the computer of the Interior Ministry problematic! Note: There are Arabs of various religions – Moslem, Christian, and Druze being the most familiar. Yet the Druze were listed as a separate nationality, even though they have never had or aspired to a distinct homeland, and claim to be the true successors of Islam. Bedouins, who are a distinct culture originating in Saudi Arabia and are ethnically distinct from the settled Palestinian Arabs, were also categorized as of “Arab” nationality. The listing sets “Jewish” as equivalent to “Arab,” “Assyrian,” and “Samaritan” – not to Moslem, Greek Orthodox, or Buddhist. The American commonplace “Protestant, Catholic, Jew” would not fly here.

Several years ago a group of intellectuals filed suit to have their nationality designation changed to “Israeli.” The government refused, and the courts upheld the refusal, arguing that there may be such a thing as Israeli citizenship, but there is no Israeli nationality. This ruling highlights the problematic nature of the whole attempt to define - or redefine – Judaism as a nationality like all others. Actually, the above amendment to the law of return raises the same problem: if Judaism is a nationality, then we might be able to justify passing it on by birth. But how can we justify acquiring it by religious conversion? (By the way, in the days before independence, in 1948, there were debates as to what to call the new state: Zion? Judah? Israel? Had it been named Judah then all of its citizens would have been called “Yehudim” – Jews – even the Arabs…)

It is interesting that these internal debates in Israel actually have much to do with Israel-Diaspora relations. The abovementioned group of petitioners had roots in the “Canaanites,” a small group of writers in the 50s who argued that their identity was defined by the land, not by Jewish collective memory. As such, they felt more of a bond to the Arabs of Israel than to the Jews of the Diaspora. As a movement, Canaanism never went anywhere. But it does cast an interesting light on the ongoing challenge of defining the content of Israeli identity.

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