For years when I travelled abroad, people would often inquire about my name and nationality. I, of course, would answer without hesitation: “I am Israeli”.
Recently, however, I learned that there are no Israelis in Israel. Sounds odd? It does to me, particularly considering that there are Egyptians in Egypt, Germans in Germany, Mexicans in Mexico, and Canadians in Canada. So why are there are no Israelis in Israel? Because the Israeli Supreme Court ruled on the matter in early October, stating that there is no proof of the existence of a uniquely “Israeli” people.
Three High Court justices rejected a petition filed by several Israelis who had requested a change in the registration in their identity cards. The plaintiffs in the registration case were asking that the Interior Ministry write “Israeli” instead of making the distinction between Jewish, Arab, or Druze in their nationality category.
Headed by Supreme Court President Chief Justice Asher Grunis, the three-judge panel declared that it was not the court’s mandate to determine new categories of nationality. Justice Hanan Melcer also noted that in the current situation “citizenship and nationality were separate”, adding that there was no reason to create a new nationality that would unite the different people living in Israel under a single inclusive identity. Such a move, he insisted, “was against both the Jewish nature and the democratic nature of the State”.
The crux of the matter is that the High Court fears that if Israeli citizens are allowed to be categorised in the state registry as Israeli instead of Jewish, Arab, or Druze then the Jewish character of the state will be jeopardised. The plaintiffs, on the other hand, maintain that in its ruling the Court has, in effect, totally ignored the obligations outlined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which promises full equality among all of the state’s citizens, regardless of religion, race or sex.
Professor Uzzi Ornan, a Jerusalem-born 90-year-old linguist, who initiated the appeal over a decade ago, was quoted as saying, “The government consensus that has developed ignores the existence of an Israeli people that was created with the Declaration of Independence.”
“This consensus,” Ornan continued, “enables the Jewish majority to have full control over the country and to operate not for the benefit of Israeli citizens but for the benefit of the current political majority among the Jews.”
Fear of unity
Precisely because the Court understands just how important political identities are, both in terms of a politics of recognition and as a form of social control, it adamantly refused to open this Pandora box. The engineered distinction between the Arab and Druze has, for example, been crucial for producing separate social groups and hampering efforts to forge solidarity among Israel’s Palestinian population. Moreover, after years of political activism, I have come to understand that the most feared solidarity in Israel is actually the one between Jews and Palestinians. Granted that most Palestinians would not want to identify as Israeli, the Court, as an instrument of the state, was unwilling to allow the creation of a category that potentially could – officially and formally – unify these currently divided groups
In the deliberations, Justice Uzi Vogelman justified his position by explaining that a “person cannot be a member of two nationalities. If we recognise an Israeli nationality, then the people of Jewish nationality in Israel would have to choose between the two: if they are Israeli, then they are not Jews; or if they are Jews, then they cannot be Israeli; and the same for the other minorities [in Israel]”. Justice Melcer agreed.
Prof Ornan found this statement peculiar and recently decided to submit an appeal to the Court. He notes that the ruling has implications for diaspora Jews who according to Israeli law have “the right of return” and can become Israeli citizens whenever they wish. On what basis, Ornan ponders, can the Israeli High Court of Justice determine the nationality of diaspora Jews, who are members of different nationalities? Jews in Turkey choose to be Turkish, in France, French, and in Italy, Italian. How, Ornan asks, can the Court deny these Jews the right to be members of more than one nationality, since according to the view expressed by the two Justices, one cannot belong to more than one nationality.
The ruling exposed one of the contradictions currently informing the Zionist project. On the one hand, the Court was desperate to deny the identification of all residents of Israel as Israeli since this could inadvertently advance the idea of a state for all its citizens and undermine the existing national distinctions. On the other hand, the Court had to adopt a position that is incongruent with another well ingrained Zionist policy: Namely, that all diaspora Jews not only have a right to move to Israel without giving up their previous nationality, but that these Jews are in some sense connected to Israel simply by being Jewish. In order to uphold the existing divisions among the residents of Israel, the judges were willing, in effect, to undermine the age old Zionist policy of binding – willingly or not – diaspora Jews to Israel.
While this contradiction of Zionism is being played out, Jewish Israelis travelling abroad will have to decide how to identify, because Israelis they apparently are not.
Neve Gordon is the author of Israel's Occupation and can be reached through his website.