On October 10, the Israeli cabinet approved a law requiring all non-Jewish immigrants to Israel to swear loyalty to “the laws of the state of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.” Up until now they’ve merely pledged loyalty to “the state of Israel.” Meanwhile Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demands that the Palestinian Authority headed by President Mahmud Abbas recognize Israel as a “Jewish state” as the precondition for even a six-month suspension of Israeli settlement construction on the West Bank (to say nothing of serious negotiations towards the establishment of a Palestinian state). Up until now the PA has said it will “never” recognize Israel as Jewish by definition. But on Wednesday a top Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) official, Yasser Abed Rabbo (who apparently has a sense of humor), stated, “Any formulation the Americans present – even asking us to call Israel the “Chinese State” – we will agree to it as long as we receive the 1967 borders.” This is an apparent effort to call Israel’s bluff, since the Israeli leadership has no intention of ever withdrawing to the 1967 borders, which exclude East Jerusalem.
But it is interesting and pleasing to note that many Israeli Jews are up in arms about the cabinet decision to force non-Jewish immigrants to pledge loyalty to a “Jewish state.” These include former Foreign Minister and head of the opposition Kadima party Tzipi Livni (Kadima) who calls the decision “politics at its worst,” adding, “The delicate and important topic of a Jewish and democratic state has turned into commercialized politics, and it is totally unnecessary. The central thing we need to protect is Israel’s existence as Jewish and equal for all of its citizens.” Minister of Welfare Isaac Herzog (of the Labor Party) calls it a step towards fascism. Even Likud Ministers Benny Begin and Dan Meridor warn it will harm relations with Israeli Arabs. Writer Sefi Rachlevsky, who organized a protest against the law, declares: “At the moment that you ask that everyone agree to this same belief, you are a fascist state,” adding, “every national catastrophe begins with decisions like this.”
Journalists throughout the world routinely refer to Israel as “the Jewish state.” The Declaration of Independence of 1948 defines Israel as a “Jewish Nation state.” The Basic Laws of Israel (which substitute for a constitution) define it as “a Jewish and democratic state.” Some people in this country wonder what the fuss is all about. The current U.S. Oath of Allegiance required of new citizens requires them to “support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies foreign and domestic.” Why is it so controversial in Israel and elsewhere to require (say) the Norwegian Lutheran husband of a Jewish Israeli woman to pledge loyalty to the Basic Laws of Israel which define it as a Jewish state?
One George Dargo in a letter to the editor in the Boston Globe addresses the problem. “The phrase itself [Jewish and democratic] is an oxymoron. How can a state openly favor one ethnic group above all others and declare itself to be democratic? …Israel must decide whether it wishes to favor a single religious-ethnic [group] or be truly democratic. It cannot have it both ways.”
I think there are two issues worth exploring. One is the demographic issue much on Netanyahu’s mind. Over 20% of all Israeli citizens are Arabs and about 5% other non-Jews such as Armenians, Circassians, Assyrians etc., or non-Jewish spouses and other family members of Jews who’ve acquired Israeli citizenship. As of 2008 only 75.5% of Israelis were Jewish. Given the fact that the Arab birthrate is twice that of Israeli Jews, and that immigration to Israel has slowed while emigration has surged, that figure is probably lower now. One study suggests that in Israel (excluding the occupied territories) Arabs will be 25% of the population in 20 years. They’re already a majority of the population in the north of Israel.
Over half the Jewish population increase in recent decades has been due to immigration. During some years in the nineties, over 100,000 Russian Jews (and non-Jewish family members) arrived in Israel, whereas last year the total number of immigrants from around the world was around just 50,000. (This is one reason Israeli leaders like to exaggerate the degree of anti-Semitism in France and other European countries, urging European Jews to flee and come to Israel.) And now tens of thousands of Israeli Jews are leaving the country every year. Indeed in some recent years (including 2007) emigrants have exceeded immigrants.
If one looks at Israel plus the Occupied Territories, Jews and Arabs are roughly matched at 50/50. The Arab figure is up from 30% in 1970. A Haifa University researcher estimates that it will climb to 57% by 2020. Given the long-term goal of the Israeli right and the influential settler movement to ultimately annex the West Bank outright, Jews will become a minority in Israel/Palestine. Benjamin Netanyahu has been warning since at least 2003 of the “demographic threat.”
Israeli leaders reject the universal Right to Return as codified in the in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which allows anyone to re-enter their country of origin. Meanwhile they maintain their own Law of Return which states that any Jew anywhere can immediately become Israeli. Having driven out over 700,000 Arabs through terror in 1948, the Israeli state cannot comply with repeated UN resolutions requiring their admission of those refugees and descendents. Israeli leaders are quite frank about the matter; they say the demographic shift would alter the character of the Jewish state. Which of course it would, to the world’s benefit!
This is their bad karma. Their Jewish state that produced so much Arab suffering and displacement at its inception, that has through the occupation of more Arab land generated more pain and rage, is vulnerable to these demographic forces. More threatening than the suicide bomber is what Israeli leaders call the “time bomb” of human procreation. This demand that everyone accept Israel as a specifically Jewish state seems a reaction to the fact that Israel in fact becomes progressively less Jewish. It seems an effort to legitimatize, by whatever means necessary in the future (such as the mass expulsion of Palestinians from the West Bank), the maintenance of a Jewish majority.
Fortunately Israelis are divided, some comfortable with ethnic and religious diversity—such has become the norm in the western world— and some insisting on privileging Jews (despite the fact that the Basic Laws insure ethnic and religious equality.)
This new loyalty oath will not apply to Israeli Arabs. It will anger them, but they will not have to take it. It will largely affect non-Jewish, non-Palestinian spouses of Jews. What if my hypothetical Norwegian Lutheran immigrant, joining a spouse who has a lucrative job in Tel Aviv, finds the rampant anti-Arab racism revealed in Israeli public opinion polls repugnant, opposes the power of the rabbinate over many secular matters, and would like to work as a new Israeli citizen towards the reform of Israeli society? The loyalty oath tells him he must accept inferior guest status as a non-Jew. It is like asking the Nigerian immigrant to the U.S. not just to uphold the Constitution but to pledge loyalty to the U.S. as a state that is “white Christian and democratic.”
(Of course the U.S. is like Israel a settler-state, established by white Europeans at the expense of the native people, just as modern Israel was. It was formed out of colonies established by settlers who—often citing Old Testament accounts of the “Promised Land” and the annihilation of the Canaanites ordered by God—bear some resemblances to the Zionists of the 1940s. And it is about 75% Christian, just as Israel is 75% Jewish. But the current state does not rub the immigrant’s nose in that fact nor insult Native Americans by doing so. The U.S. in other words officially makes no assumptions about the ethnic or religious composition of the country, which is getting less and less “white,” and is not asking the new people to pledge allegiance to a white America.)
The second issue is the question of what it means to be a Jew, entitled automatically to inclusion in a specifically Jewish state. Jewishness (as opposed to Judaism) is a complicated category. (Similarly, “Arab” is a complicated category. It refers to a wide range of ethnic types loosely united in language and culture, and the general acceptance of Islam, although there are many Christian and even some Arab Jews.)
Jews are an ethnic group, or cluster of ethnic groups, including both religious and non-religious people. Some of the greatest minds of the modern world (Baruch Spinoza, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, not to mention Carl Sagan, Jacques Derrida, etc.) were non-believing or atheistic Jews. Theodor Herzl himself, founder of the Zionist movement, had little interest in religion. The Law of Return allows Jewish atheists, agnostics or converts to other faiths to acquire citizenship on the basis of bloodline alone. Over a third of Israeli Jews are agnostics or atheists.
Up until 1970, the Law of Return granted citizenship to children of Jewish mothers only (under what’s called the halakhic definition of Jew.) In 1970 the law was revised to allow citizenship for any “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.” That last part was changed when the High Court of Justice ruled in 2008 that Jews espousing Christianity were entitled to citizenship. Thus criteria for citizenship have been broadening, partly due to Israeli’s need to combat the Palestinian “demographic threat.”
The concept behind the Law of Return is that Jews are a people whose distant ancestors at some point lived in what is now Israel. According to the biblical narrative, God promised the patriarch Abraham, who had journeyed with his flocks and wives from Iraq to Israel, that this would be the land of his descendents. God repeated the promise to Abraham’s son Isaac and grandson Jacob. Jacob’s son Joseph was sold into slavery in Egypt, where the Hebrews became a great people, were enslaved and after a series of miracles liberated to wander towards the Promised Land led by Moses. Joshua then led them in smiting the native people, the Canaanites, wiping them out to establish Hebrew control and the eventual creation of a kingdom under Saul, then David, then Solomon. In the sixth century the kingdom of Judah was defeated by the Babylonians and the Jews were carried off into exile, but reestablishing their presence in Israel within the century (due to the kindness of the Persian emperor Cyrus). There they remained until uprisings against Roman rule in the late first and early second centuries produced the Diaspora, the forced dispersion of the Judeans throughout the world, where they faced constant discrimination and hardship.
Israeli leaders and the Israel Lobby in this country exploit the beliefs of Christian fundamentalists who believe all this, see Bible prophecy fulfilled in the establishment of Israel, and firmly endorse the Jewish “birthright” concept. They privately laugh at such supporters, with their belief that the re-establishment of Israel presages the Second Coming of Christ and all that, while they appreciate the valuable political support the evangelical Christians provide them in the U.S. But I doubt that many Israeli leaders believe the Bible tales. These comprise a colorful series of stories that has little or no relationship to historical reality, as some Israeli archeologists and even rabbis have pointed out. (For example, there is no evidence for Hebrew presence in Egypt at the time Moses was supposed to have lived.) Quite likely a collection of Semitic tribes formed a loose confederation in Canaan 3000 years ago and gradually composed the tales which scribes set down beginning in the 9th century BCE, continuously revising them into the 5th century or so.
What the tales really show is a lot of imagination and a lot of cultural influence from Mesopotamia and Egypt, no doubt the result of trade. But Israeli leaders, whether or not they talk of a land promised by God to a chosen people, do promote the idea that people with Jewish ancestry have a “birthright” to Israeli citizenship. They are returning to the land of their ancestors. This itself is an entirely faith-based proposition.
Hard truth: the Jews of the twenty-first century are not necessarily the descendents of those driven from Roman Judea at the time of the Diaspora. In all likelihood lots of Judeans remained in what was already a variegated society including Syrians, Greeks, Romans, and others, and many of these Palestinian Jews later converted to Christianity or Islam. That is to say: many Judeans never left and some present-day Palestinians carry more of their DNA than your typical European Jew.
Meanwhile there was considerable conversion of Gentiles to Judaism in the Roman Empire as of the time of St. Paul (mid-1st century). There were Jews dispersed all over the Empire before the Diaspora, many voluntarily, pursuing trade. When you read St. Paul’s epistles, you realize that in Roman times there were synagogues all over what is now Turkey, Greece, Italy and beyond. Every major trade hub, such as Corinth in Greece or Ephesus on the Anatolian coast, had a synagogue in the 50s CE.
Today we don’t see Judaism as a missionary religion, but these synagogues welcomed attendance by interested Gentiles. The Old Testament had been available in Greek translation since the third century BCE and many non-Jews read and were impressed by it. A significant number of Gentile men took the big step and got themselves circumcised. In other words, there are Jews descended from Galatians (a Celtic people), Thessalonians (Macedonians), Greeks and Romans whose earliest Jewish ancestors probably never set foot on Palestinian soil.
And many others, from Ethiopia to India. The kingdom of the Khazars in southern Russia converted to Judaism in the Middle Ages and its (Turkic) people contributed to the gene pool of people following the Jewish faith. Many Ashkenazi Jews are likely descended from them. They have no more “right” to “return” to Palestinian land appropriated from Palestinians than I do.
There is an organization called “Birthright Israel” initiated by the Israeli government in 1994 that visits college campuses and offers free 10-day tours of Israel to Jewish students. It is of course an effort to encourage immigration to Israel and build sympathy for it. My college student son, of Japanese, Norwegian, Swedish, Swiss, and Irish ancestry, in that order, approached someone from the group, asking “Can I go?” He’d love to visit Israel for free! He was told of course he can’t because he’s not Jewish so it’s not his birthright. He could have said, “Well the Swiss Leupps are related to the Leopoldi Austrian Jews and so I do have Jewish ancestry”—which may in fact be true. But he just laughed in their faces at the ridiculousness of the concept. He and I have a right to visit the Swiss township where my Leupp ancestors have lived since the sixteenth century. But it’s not a “birthright,” just normal tourism that we have to self-finance. The whole concept of “Birthright Israel” is appalling, feeding into racist delusion. I think campuses should discourage it. Or at least insist that it fund visits by Palestinians and Palestinian-Americans—who’ve been denied their birthright—studying in the visited schools as well. Shouldn’t the grandchild of someone from Hebron who had to flee during the Nakhba have a birthright to go back for 10 days, all expenses paid, along with the Jewish kids who have no clue about when their ancestors lived in the “Jewish homeland”?
Israeli historian Shlomo Sand, who teaches at Tel Aviv University, published a book two years ago, now available in English. In The Invention of the Jewish People he argues that there has never been a Jewish “people” per se but only a religion. He contends that Jewish communities cropped up in Yemen, North Africa, Spain and the Caucasus with no relationship to the Judeans who once lived in what is now Israel. He undercuts “the case for Israel” and endorses a one-state solution. The demand that new non-Jewish citizens pledge loyalty to a “Jewish and democratic” state is to place them on record as rejecting this type of historical understanding or favoring that one-state resolution. It is a demand for ideological conformity. Sefi Rachlevsky is right to declare, “At the moment that you ask that everyone agree to this same belief, you are a fascist state.”
Palestinian Knesset member Ahmed Tibi (whom Likud and other right-wing politicians in Israel have tried to disqualify from office) says the cabinet has “turned into the stooge of Israel Beiteinu [the party of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman] and its fascist doctrine. There is no country in the world that forces its citizens or those naturalizing to swear their loyalty to ideology or a sectarian obligation. Israel is proving that it is not egalitarian and is in fact democratic for Jews and Jewish for Arabs.”
But it is good to see some Israeli Jews challenging the decision.
GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org