Sephardi Jews, Israel – many feel they have inferior status in the Israeli hierarchy of ‘nationalities’.
By Tia Goldenberg, Associated Press
October 04, 2013
JERUSALEM — Israel’s population registry lists a slew of “nationalities” and ethnicities, among them Jew, Arab, Druse and more. But one word is conspicuously absent from the list: Israeli.
Residents cannot identify themselves as Israelis in the national registry because the move could have far-reaching consequences for the country’s Jewish character, the Israeli Supreme Court wrote in documents obtained Thursday.
The ruling was a response to a demand by 21 Israelis, most of whom are officially registered as Jews, that the court decide whether they can be listed as Israeli in the registry. The group had argued that without a secular Israeli identity, Israeli policies will favor Jews and discriminate against minorities.
In its 26-page ruling, the court explained that doing so would have “weighty implications” on the state of Israel and could pose a danger to Israel’s founding principle: to be a Jewish state for the Jewish people.
The decision touches on a central debate in Israel, which considers itself both Jewish and democratic yet has struggled to balance both. The country has not officially recognized an Israeli nationality.
National and ethnic loyalties are often layered in Israel, a country founded on the heels of the British colonial mandate and initially populated by Jewish immigrants along with a small indigenous Jewish population and a larger Arab community.
There are Jews and Arabs. But the Jewish majority distinguishes itself between those from eastern Europe and those whose families originated in Arab countries. These communities are further divided based on the country, or even the village, their ancestors came from.
The 20 percent Arab minority also has Israeli citizenship, and many identify themselves as either Christian or Muslim. Israel is also home to a smattering of other minorities.
The national population registry lists a person’s religion and nationality or ethnicity, among other details. Any Jew, no matter what his country of origin, is listed as a Jew. Arabs are marked as such and other minorities, such as Druse, are listed by their ethnicity.
Judaism plays a central role in Israel. Religious holidays are also national holidays, and religious authorities oversee many ceremonies, such as weddings and funerals. Yet since Israel’s establishment in 1948, a distinct Israeli nationality has emerged, including foods, music and culture, and for most Jews, compulsory military service. While roughly half of Israel’s Jewish population define themselves first and foremost as Jewish, 41 percent of Israelis identify themselves as Israeli, according to the Israel Democracy Institute, a think-tank.
In the Supreme Court case, the 21 petitioners argued that Israel is not democratic because it is Jewish. They say that the country’s Arab minority faces discrimination because certain policies favor Jews and that a shared Israeli nationality could bring an end to such prejudice and unite all of Israel’s citizens.
“The Jewish identity is anti-democratic,” said Uzzi Ornan, the main petitioner who runs “I am Israeli,” a small organization devoted to having the Israeli nationality officially recognized.
“With an Israeli identity, we can be secure in our democracy, secure in equality between all citizens,” said Ornan, a 90-year-old professor of computational linguistics at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa.
Israeli Arabs have long contended that, despite their citizenship, they are victims of official discrimination, with their communities receiving fewer resources than Jewish towns. While some Arabs have made strides in recent years in entering the Israeli mainstream, they are on average poorer and less educated than their Jewish counterparts.
The court’s deliberation focused mainly on how an officially recognized Israeli identity could pose a threat to Israel’s founding ideals and cause disunity. The court said it was not casting doubt on the existence of an Israeli nation.
Anita Shapira, a professor emeritus of Jewish history at Tel Aviv University, said that Judaism and Jewish nationalism go hand in hand and that if nationalism develops into an Israeli one, the Jewish essence will be lost. She also said it could estrange Jews from other countries whose connection to Israel is through religion.
“The attempt to claim that there is a Jewish nationality in the state of Israel that is separate from the Jewish religion is something very revolutionary,” she said.
Ornan also appealed to Israel’s interior minister in 2000 and took the matter to court in 2003 in a failed attempt to identify as Israeli. He vowed to continue his campaign.
Others have also tried to tackle the population registry. The late Israeli author Yoram Kaniuk persuaded a court in 2011 to have him listed as being “without religion,” though his ethnicity remained “Jewish.” Secularists considered the change a coup.
By Ben White, MEMO
October 07, 2013
Last week, in response to a long-running legal challenge, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled in favour of the status quo whereby the country’s population registry does not allow “Israeli” as a permitted nationality. What at first glance appears confusing sheds light on a little known aspect of Israel’s discriminatory ethnocracy.
In denying the existence of an Israeli nationality distinct from a Jewish one, court President Asher Grunis and Justices Uzi Vogelman and Hanan Melcer upheld a 2008 Jerusalem District Court verdict, and also echoed the outcome of a similar case brought before the Supreme Court in the 1970s.
Israeli ID cards and population registry feature an ‘ethnicity’ category, or ‘nationhood’/nationality (Hebrew: le’om), with the most common being ‘Jewish’ and ‘Arab’ (for Palestinian citizens of Israel). The defeated petitioners sought the right to replace ‘Jewish’ with ‘Israeli’, a campaign led for decades by Prof. Uzzi Ornan.
The Supreme Court’s ruling, excerpts of which have been translated for MEMO by Ofer Neiman (see here), is essential reading for those looking to understand the ways in which Israel seeks to maintain itself ostensibly as both a “Jewish and democratic” state.
Summarising the grounds on which the case had already been rejected, Judge Uzi Vogelman cited the Jerusalem District Court’s conclusion that “a ruling on the existence of an Israeli nationality would have far reaching and crucial implications for the identity of the state, its character and its future”.
Judge Meltzer, meanwhile, took the time while expounding his own opinion to lay out “three central elements” in which “the recognition of the legitimacy of Israel’s existence as a Jewish state is grounded”, citing the UN General Assembly resolution in 1947 on partition, the “moral recognition of the Jewish people’s right to self-determination within a national framework”, and thirdly, the claim that the “democratic system” does not require “a nationally ‘neutral state’.”
President Asher Grunis confirmed the court’s view of “the Tamarin ruling still applying to the subject of the appeal”, a reference to the decades-old precedent when the Court had ruled that “there is no Israeli nation separation from the Jewish nation”. At the time, the then-president of the High Court Shimon Agranat said that an Israeli nationality “would negate the very foundation upon which the State of Israel was formed” – i.e. as a Jewish state.
In response to the Supreme Court decision, Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, writing in its editorial on the problem with the lack of recognition of “an Israeli nationality independent of religious or ethnic affiliation”, pointed out how: “Jews in other countries would object to their Judaism being registered in their local population registries and ID cards, and this subject is not relevant in a democratic nation.”
In another piece on the issue published by Ha’aretz, Aeyal Gross encapsulated how the citizenship/nationality distinction relates to the broader questions of ethnocratic, structural discrimination in the Jewish state:
In Israel the separation between the citizenship element and the nationality element, taken with the identification of the state with one specific national group, creates a hierarchy and exclusion, which is expressed not just on the level of symbols and declarations, but also in terms of allocating resources, governmental power, jobs, discrimination (formal or informal) and the need to indicate in the Population Registry who is a Jew and who isn’t…The distinction between citizenship and nationality ostensibly justifies and rationalizes discrimination and exclusion.
Gross’ conclusion is that “the distinction between citizenship and nationality, taken with the state’s being identified with only one of the national groups, will continue to obscure the possibility of having real democracy in Israel”. While true, this lack of genuine democracy does not primarily affect Jews who wish to change their ethnicity on an ID card, but rather millions of Palestinians who are second-class citizens – or, excluded altogether from their homeland.
Uzzi Ornan tries to understand why Ministry of Interior is willing to recognize dozens of nationalities, but not Israeli one
By Prof. Uzzi Ornan, Ynet news
September 08, 2008
Most countries have citizens who categorize themselves not only according to their country of origin, but by ethnic, religious or cultural affiliation as well; however, all are considered to be of the same nationality, and the authorities make it a point not to list any other affiliation in any official document.
Imagine the uproar amongst the Jewish communities in the US or France, if the authorities tried to list “Jewish” or “Christian” in any official document.
Israel’s Declaration of Independence too states that all of Israel’s citizens are of one nationality, which is, according to it – Israeli. Israel, says the Declaration of Independence, will be “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.”
The declaration omits the term “nationality,” proving that when envisioned, the Declaration of Independence saw all citizens as the children of one state and one nationality. And still, the Ministry of Interior insists on holding on to an age-old Ottoman tradition and divides Israelis into ethnic and religious sub-categories, which it dubbed “nationalities”: Jews, Arabs, Druze, Circassians, Assyrian Samaritans, etc.
New Israeli citizens are listed by the ministry as belonging to their original homeland. The “nationality” clause in new citizens’ passports still reads “Spanish,” “French” or “Singaporean.” The Ministry of Interior has over 120 nationality listings, but should a new citizen be Jewish, regardless of his origin, he will be noted as such. Nationality then, according to the ministry, can indicate both your religion – “ethnic nationality” – and your origin.
The makings of a recognizable nationality
Out of its 120 nationalities, the Ministry of Interior fails to recognize just one relevant one – the Israeli nationality – despite the fact that other countries around the world most certainly do. To them, the citizens of Israel are of Israeli Nationality – it is as simple as that.
Segmentation according to ethnic nationality serves only to deepen Israeli society, as it serves as a backdrop for discrimination. Flash your ID card and whatever government clerk sitting across from you immediately knows which “clan” you belong to, and can refer you to those best suited to “handle your kind.”
Behind the usual “security considerations” lies the Jewish nationality’s aspiration to separate itself from anyone who has not undergone an Orthodox conversion. Some Israelis, however, are more than willing to open the Israeli nation to anyone wishing to join it, no questions asked. It is inconceivable that a country, which recognized dozens of different nationalities, refuse to recognize the one nationality it is suppose to represent.
In order to allow Israelis who wish to be known as just that – Israelis, with no religious or ethnic denomination – the Ani Israeli (“I am Israeli”) Association filed a motion with the Jerusalem District Court, asking it to order the Ministry of Interior to list the petitioners as “Israelis” in all official documents.
The judge rejected the petition, claiming in his ruling that he “cannot create a new nationality via court order,” and further ruling the matter “non-justiciable.” The former is, of course, not true, since the Declaration of Independence created the Israeli nationality, leaving it up to no court to create.
The Ani Israeli Association is currently working on a High Court appeal of the ruling.
Prof. Uzzi Ornan is an Israeli linguist, a member of the Academy of the Hebrew Language and the chairman of the Ani Israeli Association
Israeli Supreme Court rejects Israeli Nationality Status: Excerpts from Ruling Translation by Ofer Neiman, October 2013
Ani Israeli (Hebrew)