Confusions of Jewish identity

March 2, 2014
Sarah Benton

The three Haaretz articles are:
1) Ari Shavit: Four reasons why Israel must be recognized as a Jewish state;
2) Amos Schocken: Netanyahu’s outlandish demand for recognition;
3) Haim Guri: Israelis used to be Hebrews, now what are we?;
4) Notes and links, includes ‘Jews say no to Israel as Jewish state’ petition

This picture and caption – Young women wrap themselves in Israeli flags at the Western Wall’ – accompanied Ari Shavit’s article. Paradoxically, it makes the opposite point to his – for here women at the Judaic Western Wall wrap themselves not in Jewish insignia but in the national flag of the state of Israel. Photo by Michal Fattal

Four reasons why Israel must be recognized as a Jewish state

Ex-Mossad head Meir Dagan says demanding recognition as a Jewish state is nonsense. Here’s why he’s wrong.

By Ari Shavit, Haaretz
February 13, 2014 

Former Mossad chief Meir Dagan thinks the demand to recognize Israel as a Jewish state is nonsense. But it is not nonsense – it is the most natural and justified demand imaginable. For four different reasons we must support Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who are placing the demand at the top of the diplomatic agenda.

The first reason: The Israeli-Palestinian conflict did not start in 1967 and does not revolve around the occupation and the settlements. It is a deep national-religious-cultural-social conflict, whose foundation is blindness. For decades Zionism refused to see the Palestinian people and in doing so refused to recognize its right to establish a Palestinian state. To this day the Palestinian national movement refuses to see the Jewish people and recognize in this way its right to a Jewish state. This double and continuing blindness is what ignited the 100-year war between us and them. That is why, in order to end this war, we must recognize their nationalism and their state, and they must recognize our nationalism and our state. Just as peace is impossible without a Palestinian state, peace is impossible without a Jewish state.

The second reason: The great achievement of the Oslo Accords was in their bringing the Israelis to recognize the fact that there is a Palestinian people in the land of Israel with legitimate rights. The great achievement of the Camp David peace summit was in Israel recognizing the need to establish a Palestinian state. The cumulative result of Oslo and Camp David was a revolution in Israel. The people living in Zion finally saw that there is another people in this land and admitted that it is entitled to a different state, which will express its right to self determination. Thus, there is no reason that the people residing in Palestine cannot open its eyes finally and see that there is another people in the land, and that it is entitled to a different country that will express its right to self determination. Reciprocity is not a sin. Symmetry is not a war crime. Those who believe the Israelis and Palestinians are equal have a moral obligation to demand from the Palestinians exactly what they demand from the Israelis.

The third reason: The Palestinians will not give up on the demand for the right of return. The trauma of the Nakba is their foundational trauma, and the experience of the refugees is the experience that molded them, and there is no Palestinian leader who will declare that the Palestinians will never return to the cities and villages they lost in 1948. If there is any solution at all to the refugee problem, it will be a superficial and insignificant one. But because it is actually impossible to demand from the Palestinians that they change their spots and convert their identity, it is required to demand they recognize this: that the Jewish people is a people of this land, and it did not arrive here from Mars. It is necessary to demand of them to admit that the Jewish people has a history of its own and a tragedy of its own and its own justification. The Palestinians must concede that the Jews are not colonialists but legal neighbors. There will not be peace if the children growing up in the Deheisheh refugee camp will not know that the country across the border is a legitimate Jewish state of a true Jewish people, whom they are decreed to live with. It is those who give up on the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state who are actually giving up on peace.

The fourth reason: An Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement is to a great extent a one-sided agreement in which Israel gives and the Palestinians receive. Only the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state would turn the longed-for agreement into a two-sided one. While Israel will transfer concrete assets to its neighbor, territory and rights, the Palestinians will give the only gift they are capable of giving: legitimacy.

Meir Dagan is an Israeli due a great amount of respect. His biography is a heroic one of “by the rights of power.” But peace is not made by the right of power but by the power of right. Without the Palestinians’ explicit recognition of our name, identity and rights, there will not be peace.

Netanyahu’s outlandish demand for recognition

If a Palestinian state signs a peace treaty with Israel without recognizing Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, will it be licensed to do bad things?

By Amos Schocken
February 28, 2014 , Haaretz

How did the demand for the Palestinians to recognize Israel as the Jewish state or as the nation-state of the Jewish people become Israel’s main demand? The prime minister answered this question at the end of January, at a conference of the Institute for National Security Studies, but his argument isn’t convincing.

He said the Palestinians had a “basic objection to any Jewish presence” – an objection that, early in the last century, “grew and resulted in the attacks in 1929 in Hebron and of course the great riots of 1936-1939.”

According to Netanyahu, “This struggle was against the very existence of the Jewish state, against Zionism or any geographic expression of it, any State of Israel in any border. The conflict is not over these territories; it is not about settlements, and it is not about a Palestinian state …. [T]his conflict has gone on because of one reason: the stubborn opposition to recognize the Jewish state, the nation-state of the Jewish people.”

Indeed, the struggle was against the establishment of a Jewish state. It is beyond the scope of this article to ask if it was justified for the Jews to push aside Arab workers – for example, with “Hebrew labor,” or by the General Federation of Hebrew Laborers in the Land of Israel, and in countless other ways. It is beyond our scope to ask if there was a connection between this pushing aside and the Arabs’ refusal to agree to a Jewish state.

But Israel, which the Palestinians refused to recognize upon its founding and for many years afterward, is the country they are prepared to recognize today through a peace agreement, minus the settlements and the occupied territories.

Egypt and Jordan went to war with Israel in 1948 because, like the Palestinians, they rejected the establishment of Israel. They weren’t required to recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, and their recognition of Israel through peace treaties made up for their previous stance. It’s the same thing with the Palestinians.

The prime minister added that “we have been here continuously for nearly 4,000 years – 3,800 years. This is the land where our identity was forged. This is our homeland. Here is our country that was reborn. And the Palestinians must accept this.”

The birthplace of Isaac is also the birthplace of Ishmael; in any case, doesn’t Palestinian recognition of Israel mean coming to terms with “this”? Or could it be that the Palestinians are being asked by a historian’s son to erase their history and swear allegiance to Israel on the Bible? Is there anything that epitomizes the connection between the Jews and their land better than the revival of the Jewish people in their land? Is there anyone who does not understand this?

According to Netanyahu, if the Palestinians don’t recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, the Palestinian state that arises through a peace treaty “will continue to subvert the foundation for the existence of the Jewish state … try to flood us with refugees … [and] advance irredentist claims from within the State of Israel’s territory – territorial claims, national claims.”

But Netanyahu isn’t convincing. If a Palestinian state recognizes Israel and signs a peace treaty without recognizing Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, will it be able to do all these bad things? And if it recognizes it as the nation-state of the Jewish people, it won’t? Usually, when countries make a peace deal, the “subverting” stops. And if this subverting is inevitable, a piece of paper recognizing a nation-state won’t prevent it.

There are hints that in a comprehensive framework deal, there will be an agreement on the refugee issue. But it won’t be achieved by the ploy of recognizing the nation-state of the Jews. It will be achieved through negotiations.

Yes, there have been irredentist claims – by the prime minister regarding the settlements. He’s interested in Jewish irredentism in the Palestinian state. On the other hand, Arab Israelis can make national claims without anything to do with the question of the Palestinians recognizing Israel in general or as the Jewish national home. Ironically, Israel defining itself as the nation-state of the Jewish people could justify national or irredentist claims by Israel’s Palestinian citizens.

Israeli Arabs protesting on Land Day, 2010. Photo by Yaron Kaminsky

Netanyahu forgot that he’s also prime minister of Arab Israelis – a fifth of all Israeli citizens. They’re not happy with defining the state as Jewish and democratic, but this definition includes a key component regarding their connection to the state. Defining Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people would disconnect them from Israel at a time when we need to strengthen their connection to it.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas certainly can’t write them off by agreeing to the definition that Netanyahu demands. His responsibility toward them is no less than that of Israel to world Jewry.

If Palestinian recognition of the nation-state of the Jewish people is no more valuable than simply recognizing Israel, what’s the point in asking for something that Abbas can’t agree to? U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry probably understands this.

Amos Schocken is the publisher of Haaretz

4th century sculpture, The Three Hebrews and the Fiery Furnace (Daniel 3), showing King Nebuchadnezzar presenting the statue that the young Hebrews refuse to worship.

Israelis used to be Hebrews, now what are we?

By Haim Guri, Haaretz
February 25, 2014

It used to be that we were all thought of as Hebrews around here. There was “the General Federation of Hebrew Workers in the Land of Israel,” “Tel Aviv, the first Hebrew city,” “the Hebrew University,” “the Hebrew policeman” – and even “the Hebrew thief” joined the Hebrew revival movement. The renewal of all things Hebrew defined the national identity that was taking shape in the land of Israel, amid waves of immigration.

Hebrew identity was not the diametric opposite of Jewish identity, which is how the Canaanite movement saw it. Rather, it was an expression of a historical and revolutionary change of direction among those who came from the Diaspora and their offspring, who created the local mode of existence in this land. Years before the First Zionist Congress in 1897, author Micha Josef Berdyczewski wrote: “Are we the last Jews or the first Hebrews?” Being Hebrew was an expression of renewal and change.

The Hebrew language was the language of this people. “Hebrew [man], speak Hebrew!” – we were commanded. When we filled the streets in 1939, tens of thousands of us demonstrating against the British White Paper regime, we shouted: “Free immigration! A Hebrew state!” We did not call for a “Jewish state,” even though most of us, a vast majority, saw ourselves as part of the Jewish people throughout the generations and in all the diasporas.

This is the very special people which, since its beginnings, has been scattered among the gentiles – the people that preserved its identity through, and recited all its prayers for redemption in Hebrew. This is the people that created a wonderful life of spirit and intellect, making a glorious contribution to human culture even while being isolated, hated and sorely persecuted.

Now, in my waning years, I often ponder the problem of our national identity in the land of Israel, in the State of Israel. Today, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is demanding of the Palestinians that they recognize Israel as “the state of the Jewish people,” as a condition for a peace agreement.

However, the premier would do well to remember that Ze’ev Jabotinsky, head of the Betar movement and founder of the Revisionist movement – the major precursor of Netanyahu’s Likud party – wrote in the Betar anthem: “Even if poor, a Hebrew is princely / Be he a slave or a tramp / You have been crowned the son of a king / With David’s coronet.”

And in his lament for those who died at Tel Hai defending their homes in 1920, Jabotinsky wrote: “Hebrews’ blood has saturated meadows, vales and hills / but throughout the generations / the purest blood ever spilled / is of the plowers at Tel Hai.”

The first volume of the 1940 book “Writings,” about the ideas and deeds of the Lehi (pre-state underground militia), presents the principles of revival that this organization espoused: “The homeland is the land of Israel, in the borders of the (divine) promise, where the Hebrew people in its entirety will dwell securely.” The aim was “the unification of the entire people around the flag of the Hebrew independence movement.” The Lehi was “the Hebrew army of salvation, with its flag, its weapons and its commanders”; its role was “the renewal of Hebrew sovereignty over the redeemed land.”

On this entire page, of which I have quoted only part, there is not a single mention of the words Jew or Jewish. Hebrew reigns supreme.

I sit and ponder David Ben-Gurion’s error when, in the earliest days of the state of Israel, the country’s first prime minister turned the Jewish religion into a coercive, establishment force. By law, it was supposed to control life and death, marriage and divorce, both the kosher and the unclean, the state-supported regiments of rabbis, the separate education system, and the yeshiva world that has since expanded to inconceivable dimensions.

All that has been at the expense of the state, of those who build and fight for it and give their lives for it. At the expense of its researchers and inventors, its doctors, writers and artists – creators of a culture profoundly entwined with the Jewish people, but also open to what is universally human.

In meetings that Ben-Gurion held with ultra-Orthodox figures such as Rabbi Yitzhak-Meir Levin and Rabbi Avrohom Yeshaya Karelitz (aka the Chazon Ish), it was decided that a few hundred “Torah learners” would continue their yeshiva studies. Over the years these became tens and hundreds of thousands, alienated from every element of Israeliness. Ben-Gurion agreed to the rabbis’ request in response to the terrible demise of such students in Europe during the Holocaust. However, already in the early 1950s he witnessed the violation of this agreement.

Today not a trace remains of Ben-Gurion’s vision of a state-run educational system or compulsory military service.

Torah, paratroops, Treblinka

There is something ugly and unacceptable both to the mind and the heart in the ultra-Orthodox refusal to be a part of the Israeli culture being created here on the potter’s wheel of schools and universities – in Hebrew literature as it was flourishing, in theater, cinema, music. In the hard work and prizewinning scientific achievements. And also in the Israel Defense Forces. We have often heard from yeshiva students that their contribution of Torah learning to Israel’s security is equivalent to that of brigades of paratroopers. The Chazon Ish, too, saw Torah learning in yeshivas as a shelter for Israel, as a means of protection from its enemies. What isn’t explained is how Torah learning in Europe did not prevent Treblinka.

It has been difficult to come to terms with their boycott of the IDF and with the fact that they have been living at the expense of the state they hate. The secular response has been harsh and angry; desecration of the Sabbath at huge shopping centers has become a national plague. During the British Mandate in Tel Aviv, the city of my birth, there was not a single shop open on the Sabbath. What should have been a free and beneficial choice within a shared life was transformed into hostile alienation stemming from the coercive rabbinical way of life. Purely ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, towns and cities developed, culminating in the disgrace of Beit Shemesh.*

I think about the millions of Jews from the Soviet Union who immigrated to Israel and changed it immeasurably. Before our very eyes, what had been considered a tribe lost to the Jewish people became a wonderful reality. These people were recognized as Jews under the Law of Return, though many of them have been rejected as goyim – heaven help us! – by the religious establishment. To this day.

They are not recognized as belonging to the nation. They remain “others,” and suffer from this greatly. They are working hard at building this country and many of them are Hebrew-speakers. A new generation born to these immigrants is now an integral part of our children’s, our grandchildren’s and our great grandchildren’s generations.

With their intellect and practical wisdom they are contributing to the Israeli experience. They serve in our army, they get killed in our wars. And despite this, they are “others.” It is estimated that there are a quarter of a million of these people. The country’s coercive rabbinical regime refuses to ease their conversion. Therefore, they are “Israelis” only by virtue of their citizenship.

A Jewish home

The problem of identity never leaves us, even after 66 years of independence. My parents were Jews, speakers of wonderful Hebrew, who came to this country in December of 1919 on the ship Ruslan, at the beginning of the third wave of immigration to Palestine. They sailed from Odessa and anchored in Jaffa.

I was born in Tel Aviv. In one of my autobiographical poems I write: “Between me and my father – the sea.” But I owe my local, sabra identity to generations of Jews. I too come from them and embody their continuation. I felt myself to be a Hebrew, and later, until this very day, an Israeli.

With the Declaration of Independence and the establishment of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948, the concept of “Hebrew” gave way to that of “Israeli.” We became “Israelis.” At least the secular population of the nascent nation saw itself as “Israeli.”

To this day, different varieties of religious people have remained “Jews,” among them tens of thousands of settlers, who cry: “A Jew does not expel a Jew!” “A Jew loves Jews.” And now Habayit Hayehudi – “the Jewish Home” – is a party in the Knesset! The Israeli right and many different religious communities all see themselves as the real Jews. No wonder that during the 1999 election campaign, Netanyahu whispered to the elderly kabbalist Rabbi Yitzhak Kaduri: “They have forgotten what it is to be Jewish,” and the latter nodded his gray head in agreement.

True, Israeliness is mostly secular, but in its heart it also contains the Jewish heritage. It is the emerging identity of the citizens of the State of Israel. Israeliness also encompasses, as stipulated in the Declaration of Independence, the non-Jews, the Arabs, the Druze and the Circassians, as well as the tens of thousands of immigrants from Russia who are considered “others.”

It is a pity that our Declaration of Independence is not learned by heart. After all, we live in “the State of Israel.” And the Hebrew and the Jew meet in that declaration, in which the Israel that was born of blood and fire extends a hand of peace to its Arab enemies and promises them a brotherhood of nations and equal rights.

Now Netanyahu comes along and demands of them, after seven wars, that they recognize Israel as “the Jewish state.” Otherwise, there will be no peace agreement. As though the “State of Israel,” with that explicit name, does not exist, does not have a declaration of independence and needs to be granted another name.

The State of Israel includes the members of the minorities within it. Right at the inception of the state, then fighting for its life, these things were written: “The state … will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture … and will take steps to bring about the economic union of the whole of the land of Israel.”

And as if that were not sufficient, the same declaration adds: “We appeal – in the very midst of the onslaught launched against us now for months – to the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve peace and participate in the upbuilding of the state on the basis of full and equal citizenship … We extend our hand to all neighboring states and their peoples in an offer of peace and good neighborliness, and appeal to them to establish bonds of cooperation and mutual help with the sovereign Hebrew people in its own land.”

Two brothers, still weeping

Years have gone by and our country continues to bleed from all the wars we have had since then – a continuation of 1948-9. The nation is split and completely divided over the main issues of the malignant conflict between the peoples of this land, and over the question of how to put an end to it. Without an agreement, in the foreseeable future the descendants of Isaac and Ishmael, two brothers, will continue to weep.

To our regret, the war between these two national movements has become a religious war in the land and in the region, and has spread to the entire world. To this are added the phenomena of hostility, shunning and threats of boycott from some civilized countries that see Israel as guilty.

From the height of my 90 years, as a son of this land, I am witnessing scenes and hearing voices that cannot be believed. I read the nasty epithets the “price- tag” people who commit anti-Arab hate crimes scrawl on the walls of mosques and also churches. If “Mohammed is a pig,” then “Jesus is a monkey.” Priests, monks and nuns are publicly spat upon and shoved in the streets of Jerusalem. There is a call to go up on the Temple Mount and build “the Third Temple,” to purify the mount of “all this garbage.” And I have not yet mentioned the innumerable olive trees, the ancient symbol of this homeland, that have been uprooted and chopped down.

The Declaration of Independence is crying out and its voice is not being heard, or it is getting lost in the boring indifference.

I am still alive. The last signatory to the manifesto of the Movement for the Greater Land of Israel after the Six-Day War. Since my youth I had clung to that belief. I wrote about this in my 1950 book “Till Dawn.”

The land was united in the Six-Day War. I participated in it as a reserve company commander in the battle for Jerusalem. After that we were a task force in Ramallah and then in Azzariyeh, on the road to Jericho. I saw and heard everything. I witnessed the real friction with the neighboring people under our rule. I did not use the term “occupation.” The people of Israel is not an occupier in the land of Israel.

But I came to learn the meaning of the prolonged rule over another people, with all the danger and unfairness it entails – from the decrees and the harassment and the closure and the curfews and the encirclement. From the massacre in 1994 at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron by Baruch Goldstein, to the malignant “price tag” spectacles, for which all of us will pay. There is a huge abyss between necessary and tough defense in face of cruel and indiscriminate terror, and deeds over which flutters the black flag of a blatantly illegal directive.

Let us tell our children, our grandchildren, our great-grandchildren and our students the truth about this conflict since its inception, and let us discuss these issues together. We will be justly proud of what was right and courageous and necessary, and we will be ashamed of what is disgraceful and contrary to our culture.

In her book “Path and Temple,” my mother wrote: “The difference between one person and another is the number of moments of regret.” Between peoples, too, this difference is evident.

I am not commenting here on the dead. I do not know what some of the great figures of Hebrew literature who signed that manifesto for the Greater Land of Israel would say today. Natan Alterman was the founder of this movement. I knew him, his work and his opinions well. He was a true humanist. All his life he believed in the justice of our people’s struggle for existence in its land, but he never stopped speaking out against injustices done to members of the neighboring peoples, against the stifling and concealment of the truth, until in the face of these deeds, he cried out “war crimes!”

The Israeli people, torn by an increasingly virulent dispute, is having difficulty making war and is having difficulty making peace. It would do well to act within reality and not outside it. This was the way of Zionism from the beginning of the return to Zion. The Israelis would do well to go back to reading the Declaration of Independence. I hear its weeping.

Notes and links

*Beit Shemesh is a town which is deeply divided between the Haredim and the rest.News from JPost, Feb 27th 2014

Jews say NO to “Israel as the Jewish State”, Facebook page which carries the petition with this demand.
The Page is in support of a petition addressed to the international diplomatic community (John Kerry, UK foreign office, EU etc) to express Jewish opposition to the assumption that Israel speaks for Jews worldwide and is their country or homeland. It has been posted by One Democracy.

The time-scale for this petition is urgent, as the current round of “peace talks” is due to conclude in April 2014.
Who’s Israeli?
from the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, April 2013

The Jewish population numbers approximately 6.042 million residents (75.3% of the total population); the Arab population numbers approximately 1.658 million residents (20.7%, [of whom about 82% are Muslims]; and the population of “others,” referring to non-Arab Christians, members of other religions, and persons not classified by religion in the Ministry of the Interior, numbers 318,000 (4.0%)

World Jewish population
The Jewish Virtual Library estimated that in 2012 42.9% of all Jews (just under 6m) lived in Israel followed by 39.5% (5,425,000} in the USA, 3.5% in France (480,000) 2.7% in Canada (375,000), 2.1% in the UK (291,000)1.4% in Russia (194,000). The biggest change since then has been a decline in the number and proportion of Jews in Russia and a corresponding increase in the number and proportion living in Israel.

Hebrew v Jewish
From Forward, July 2007

“Hebrew” vs. “Jew” seemed to them a question not of a religious vs. a secular identity but of a genteel and respectable nativeness vs. a scruffily suspicious foreignness. A “Hebrew” was for them an American Jew who spoke or aspired to speak a proper English, to adopt American ways and to be outwardly no different from his Christian neighbors; since these neighbors went to church Sunday, there was nothing “un-Hebrew” about going to synagogue Saturday. The same held true of such countries as Russia and Italy. A yevrei or ebreo was a Russian or Italian in good standing, fully accepted in liberal Russian or Italian society; a zhid or a giudeo was a looked down-upon outsider. And yet inasmuch as the Hebrew, yevrei or ebreo was definitely a non-Orthodox Jew who did not make too much of his religion, there was a decided element of “secularity” in the term, after all.

Curiously, one finds a similar phenomenon in Hebrew in the early years of the State of Israel. The intellectual and literary movement known as “Canaanism,” which conceived of homo Israelicus as a proud new creature, the very opposite of the meek Diaspora Jew, also preferred to speak of Israelis as ivrim, “Hebrews,” and of Israel as a medina ivrit, a “Hebrew state,” rather than use the word yehudi, “Jew” or “Jewish.” By the 1960s, however, Canaanism and its ideology were things of the past.

Indeed, the “Hebrew”/“Jewish” dichotomy does not have much of a basis in Jewish history or tradition. It is true that ivri, “Hebrew,” in the Bible refers to an ethnic group rather than to a religion; but yehudi, “Jew,” whose original meaning is “Judean,” occurs in the Bible only once, in the Book of Esther, and was hardly ever used in later rabbinical literature, where the accepted term for “Jew” was yisra’el, “Israelite.”

© Copyright JFJFP 2017