In the beginning, most Zionists declared that "Jewish" is a purely
national identity. But after a long juridical struggle, it was accepted
in Israel that the only valid definition of "Jewish" was religious.
Israeli law says, therefore, that a Jew is a person whose mother is
Jewish, or who has converted to Judaism in a religious ceremony.
As Jews in Israel enjoy many overt and covert privileges, this
definition is very important. [When one says in Israel "I am an atheist’,
one is often asked in jest: "Jewish or Christian atheist?"]
If Israel is a Jewish state, it seems logical that a Jew in Paris has
the right to immigrate to Israel at any time and to automatically receive
Israel citizenship, while a Palestinian refugee in Paris, whose family has
lived in Haifa for centuries, has no right to return, much less to
citizenship. [The Knesset has been able to forbid the import of pork, in
direct contravention of a Basic Law. A huge part of the lands in the State
belongs to a Zionist fund, whose statutes expressly forbid their sale, or
even lease, to non-Jews.]
Recently it was reported that there is a secret "demographic"
department in the Prime Minister’s office, whose job is to encourage
Jewish mothers to bear as many children as possible, while discouraging
Arab mothers from doing so. For most Israelis, this makes sense, since the
aim of the Jewish state is to "ingather" as many Jews as possible. After
all, that is the Zionist raison d’etre.
But who are we Israelis? Are we really Jews? A new kind of Jews? Jewish
Israelis? Israeli Jews? Or just Israelis? I am a convinced atheist; I
think of myself primarily as a human being and then as a Hebrew-speaking
Israeli of Jewish descent.
Simple? Well, in a recent public opinion poll Israelis were asked how
they defined their identity. 34% answered "Jewish", 35% "Israeli", 30%
"Jewish and Israeli".
Among those who defined themselves as left-wing, 60% answered "Israeli".
Among 12-18-year-olds, 44.5% answered "Israeli". [Practically nobody had
the idea to identify himself primarily as a human being (in Hebrew: Ben
Adam, son of Adam).]
Are Israelis really Jews in the accepted sense? Not long ago a Polish
friend told me about one of his acquaintances in Warsaw, who had visited
Israel for the first time. He told him breathlessly: "Do you know what? In
Israel there are Jews too!" He meant, of course, orthodox Jews, those who
wear black gowns and hats, as they have done for centuries in Eastern
Europe. This Pole had probably never before seen a Jew, but in many
folklore shops in Poland you find, among other wooden figures of Polish
types, Jewish musicians dressed in black gowns and hats. This sounds like
a joke, but isn’t. Everybody understands that there is a huge difference
between Jews and Israelis.
[Only the orthodox think that religious Jews are the same all over the
world, because for them religious beliefs are more important that worldly
nonsense like state, nation and other such pagan notions. For this reason,
Theodor Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement, was cursed and damned
by all the "Torah Greats"of his time. Non-religious Israelis who identify
themselves primarily as Jews consider themselves "new Jews" and look down
with utmost contempt upon Jews in Brooklyn and Berlin.]
Even a casual observer perceives that over the last generations, Jews
in Palestine/Israel have become a new people. [By way of a metamorphose,
perhaps a mutation.] The religion, too, has changed. The
ultra-nationalist, messianic tribal religion of today’s settler movement,
which plays such a big role in Israeli politics, bears little resemblance
to the humanistic Jewish religion of Western Europe.
The main link that ties Israelis to the Jews everywhere is the memory
of the Holocaust and preceding persecutions. Indeed, the great Orthodox
philosopher, Jeshayahu Leibowitz alleged that Jewish religion had died 200
years ago, and that the holocaust was a kind of ersatz-religion, the only
that Jews around the world have in common.
There is a certain danger in this remembrance. It corresponds to a deep
urge. One cannot, one should not, forget this monstrous chapter because
that would be treason to the memory of the victims, our relatives, our
flesh and blood.
But this remembrance comes with the conviction that not only the Nazis,
not only the Germans, were to blame, but all the other peoples too – all
who did not raise a finger when the industrialized mass-murder was in
progress. This is a notion that comes naturally, nearly inevitably, to
Jews. But for Israelis it is dangerous.
[A few years ago entertainment groups of the Israeli army used to sing
a jolly melody to the words: "All the world is against us / But we don’t
give a damn. / It was always that way…"]
If one grows up with the conviction that the whole non-Jewish
world wants only to annihilate the Jews - indeed, that the whole of human
history is nothing but a chain of anti-Jewish persecutions - and that
Israelis are Jews like any other, than the logical conclusion is that we
Israelis cannot make peace, that peace is a dangerous illusion, that we
must be constantly on guard.
It is difficult to understand the Israeli reaction after the Oslo peace
accords without grasping the important role of this conviction in our
Yet Israel is a new nation. Millions of people were transplanted
not only from one country to another, but also from one culture to
another, from one language to another, from one climate to another, from
one way of life to another, from one geopolitical situation to another,
often also from one social class to another. It would have been a wonder
if nothing new came out of this.
[Australia and the United States are based on British culture and
British values, but they are, of course, new nations. Israel is Jewish as
Canada is British, yet both are new nations.]
This new nation, Israel, is suffering from great inner stresses. Today,
50 years after the official creation of the State, a deep rift passes
through its middle. We refer to "left" and "right’ but these terms have
little resemblance to the way they are understood in Europe.
Generally speaking, "left" in Israel means the social and
economic upper classes, the Jews of European origin ("Ashkenazim"), the
better educated, the non- and anti-religious. This left is reinforced by
practically all of the Arab citizens of Israel - a national minority of
"Right" means the socially and economically underprivileged,
the Jews of oriental descent [often referred to as "Sephardim"], the less
educated and the religious Jews of all shades. [The different definition
actually overlap: Most oriental Jews are religious or "traditional"’ and
belong to the "lower’ classes, etc. That’s why the various differences
have become one great dangerous rift.]
The rift between the two camps is widening constantly. Some speak
already about "two peoples", the left based in Tel-Aviv, the right in
Jerusalem. When the left’s Shimon Peres faced the right’s Benjamin
Netanyahu two years ago, the election results showed that each camp
commands almost exactly 50% of the vote.
The rift runs through all the problems of Israeli society: state and
religion (the "right" prevents any separation), the constitution (the
religious don’t want one), the laws and the Supreme Court (too liberal for
the religious), the education system (dominated by the religious), the
Arab minority in Israel proper (equal rights on paper only), even the
music is involved: the left’s pop versus Oriental songs.
The peace process has fallen into this abyss. The right hase condemned
the "Ashkenazi" Oslo-agreement; a rightist religious fanatic murdered
Yitzhak Rabin, an Ashkenazi par excellence, at a leftist
For the rightists, Greater Israel is vastly more important than peace.
Ironically, their leader, Netanyahu, is a typical Ashkenazi son of the
How will Israel develop over the next 50 years? Nobody knows. Only one
thing is certain: It will remain an interesting country.