In a recent skirmish with leading members of the American Jewish activist community, the prize-winning Israeli novelist A B Yehoshua claimed that secular Jewish identity was meaningless outside Israel. Upsetting his audience in Washington, he argued that Jewishness in the Diaspora was impermanent: if China ever became the world’s foremost superpower, he warned, American Jews would migrate there to assimilate rather than in the US.
“For me there is no alternative … I cannot keep my identity outside Israel. Israeli is my skin, not my jacket. You [Jews in the Diaspora] are changing jackets … you are changing countries like changing jackets,” he told the leaders of the American Jewish Committee. Delegates called his comments “impertinent,” “foolish,” “tasteless,” and “impolite.”
However, this brief row had far more significance than perhaps either side cared to admit.
Although rooted in an interpretation of Jewish identity that has prevailed for less than a century, Yehoshua’s conviction is today the dominant one: it is the view of Jewish identity that underpins Zionism and the only one that makes sense of Jewish nationalism. It is a view shared by almost all Israelis and tacitly accepted by a majority of Diaspora Jews, even if they recoil from Yehoshua’s blunt conclusions.
The discomfort shown by Diaspora Jewry over the Israeli vision of Jewish identity derives in part from the fact Yehoshua happily exposes the double standard at the heart of Zionism. The Zionist demand a right for Jews to reinvent their identity in the age of the nation state while denying that same right to his Palestinian neighbors. Zionists like Yehoshua are having their cake and eating it.
Until the advent of Zionism at the turn of the twentieth century, Jews for whom their Jewishness mattered believed either that their identity was of a strictly religious nature or, if they were secular, that it was a meaningful marker of their ethnicity. In other words, Jews who wanted to identify themselves as Jews were either Jews in that they practiced a religion called Judaism or they were Jews in that they believed they belonged to a distinct ethnic group.
But Zionism added a third possible category of Jewish identity. A Jew no longer had to regard the choice simply in terms of either-or: the Jew either as a believer in a Jewish God or as a member of a group that shared a biological inheritance.
Instead a Jew could identify himself as belonging to a “nation”, whose rights derived from but could never be entirely satisfied at either the biological or metaphysical level. For the Zionist (or at least almost all those who identify themselves today as such), Jewishness as a national identity needed also to be realized at the territorial level. At the minimum the Jews required a state where their sovereignty could be exercised.
Of course today not all Zionists believe that they personally have to live in such a state for the Jewish nation to exist. A large number choose to live in Europe and America, and support the Jewish state from afar.
In their eyes the Jewish nation can exist independently of the state but, for most, it is only a theoretical nation -- a folk -- unless there is a concrete homeland in which Jewish national rights are embodied, Jewish interests can be asserted on the global stage, and to which Jews can turn in times of trouble.
This in essence is the view expounded by Yehoshua.
The new kind of Jewish identity was a strange hybrid from the outset. Zionists believed a Jewish state must exist for the Jews to be able to identify themselves as a nation but at the same time the only criteria by which to judge membership of this state were religious or ethnic, or both. In fusing the religious and ethnic identities, the Jewish nation became greater than the sum of its two parts.
So for a Jew to claim citizenship of the Jewish state -- to become an Israeli -- he needs to prove either that he is a practicing Jew or that he has inherited Jewish genes. This is the legal basis, the 1950 Law of Return, for determining who is admitted to the Jewish state.
No one should deny Jews the right to reinvent their identity and strive in so far as it is legal and moral to realize such an identity. Identity, by its nature, is fluid. For each of us it changes over time at the personal, political, social and cultural levels. But at the same time, for the sake of consistency and justice, Jews should not deny others the same rights they claim for themselves.
So in practice what has been the view of Zionists -- advocates of a Jewish state for a Jewish nation -- in relation to other distinct ethnic and religious groups who advocate a state for themselves? And more importantly what has been their attitude towards the national claims of the native inhabitants of Palestine, most of whom were displaced -- either through fear or force -- during the war of 1948 that established the Jewish state?
Today, these refugees and their descendants -- as well as those who remained on their land and now fall under Israeli rule either inside Israel or in the occupied West Bank and Gaza -- number more than eight million people. The overwhelming majority identify themselves as Palestinians, a nation whose homeland was once known as Palestine.
Throughout Israel’s history, Zionists have been willing to ascribe ethnic and religious identities to the Palestinians but not a national identity.
This is why Israelis usually refer to Palestinians are “Arabs” rather than as members of a nation. One of the most commonly heard retorts from Israelis to Palestinians who assert their national rights is: “Why do you need another state? You already have 22 Arab states. Go live in one of them.”
This is especially true in relation to Israel’s minority of one million Palestinian citizens. They are not allowed to identify themselves as Palestinians in the way that an Italian American can, and in fact is encouraged to, identify himself as a member of an Italian community living in the United States. Rather they are “Israeli Arabs,” whether they like it or not.
As far as Israeli Jews are concerned, a Palestinian citizen of Israel who demands that his Palestinian identity be recognized automatically raises doubts about where his loyalties lie, the assumption being that he cannot be at once a Palestinian and loyal to Israel. Of course, no Jew would accept such an attribution of double loyalties in his own case. An American Jew, however Zionist, would denounce as anti-Semitic any suggestion that he is not always a loyal American citizen.
Zionists are also more than happy to concede to the Palestinians religious identities. This is evident again inside Israel, where the authorities prefer to treat the Palestinian minority not as a national minority, or even a single ethnic group, but as a series of discrete communities: religious ones such as the Muslims and Christians, as well as what Israel considers to be separate ethno-religious groups such as the Druze and Bedouin.
This Israeli counter-approach to the Palestinians’ assertion of a national identity is a useful -- and well-developed -- colonial strategy: simple “divide and rule”.
In the occupied territories too Israel has worked to accentuate the religious identity of Palestinians -- and particularly the large Muslim majority. It encouraged and funded the network of Islamic organizations that later congealed into Hamas as a way to undermine allegiance to the secular nationalism of Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement. For obvious reasons, Israel has preferred to contend with a Muslim resistance fighting for the return of the caliphate than to face the opposition of a national liberation movement.
So whereas the Zionist demands that the profound differences contained within the Jewish people -- the ethnic cleavages separating Ashkenazi, Mizrahi, Ethiopian and Russian Jews, and the religious cleavages between the Orthodox, the Haredim, the Conservative and Reform streams, and the secular -- be ignored, he insists that the Palestinian cleavages not only be emphasized but used to preclude any Palestinian right to nationhood and a homeland.
Why are the Zionists so determined to refuse the Palestinians a right they demand for themselves?
Because the territorial homeland to which Palestinians lay claim has been under Israeli dominion for only a few decades. The Palestinians, like many other national groups in the colonial era, may not have had sovereignty in their homeland after centuries of occupation (in their case, by the Ottomans, Britain, Jordan, Egypt, and Israel) but it was nonetheless their homeland. After all, they could not have been occupied had they not been living there for generations.
By contrast, the Jews’ claim to nationhood in Palestine (rather than somewhere else) cannot be derived from either national or ethnic claims. Until the dispossession of the Palestinians began a century ago, the number of Jews living in Palestine had been minuscule for nearly 2,000 years. Their numbers were far higher almost everywhere else: in America, Europe and the rest of the Middle East.
Instead, Zionists seek legitimacy for their claim to Palestine from a religious claim: that the Jews were promised the land by God. This mostly unspoken assumption among Zionists has two problematic consequences.
It raises to the point of irrational dogma the belief that Israelis should never make concessions either on sovereignty or on the territory they now possess. It means that there can be no discussion of a right of return for dispossessed Palestinians, of power sharing, of a binational state, of democratizing Israel (changing it from a Jewish state into a state of all its citizens).
It also continues to obstruct the emergence of a separate Palestinian state, and certainly a viable one. Because, according to the Bible, God did not promise Tel Aviv or Haifa, he promised the West Bank cities of Nablus, Hebron, Bethlehem and Jerusalem -- parts of the Holy Land which under international law still belong to the Palestinians.
So although the settlers have come to personify the aggressive craving for places holy to the Jewish people, they are only mirroring the irrational assumptions at the heart of Zionism’s reshaping of Jewish identity, of the kind expressed by secular intellectuals like Yehoshua.
Given this context, the international debate on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict applies a terrible double standard. While the West accepts the conflict as one between two rival nationalisms fighting for the same territory, it places the onus on the Palestinians (a dispersed non-people) to recognize Israel (a nation state), to such a degree that the international community is currently starving the Palestinians and their Hamas leadership into submission through sanctions.
But in truth, the conflict endures because Israel and its Zionist supporters refuse to recognize the Palestinians, and because they continue to act in bad faith in peace negotiations. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s convergence plan, like the Oslo process before it, is a way of dressing up an illusory territorial separation that ensures continuing recognition of a Jewish national identity in Israel while denying a meaningful Palestinian national identity in Palestine.
Olmert wants to preserve and strengthen the Jewish state, including by expanding its borders, at the terminal expense of Palestinian national goals. The Palestinians will be caged into a series of ghettos that may eventually be labeled a Palestinian state but in which they will not be able to exercise sovereignty.
Yehoshua may be right that his Jewish national identity can only survive in Israel, where regional integration and compromise appear, as ever, not to be on the agenda. In Israel it easier than in the Diaspora to avoid admitting that Jewish nationalism is driven by outdated, exclusivist ethnic and religious impulses. Only in Israel can Jewish tribalism hope to triumph. For in Israel Yehoshua’s kind of Jew need not share anything.
Jonathan Cook, a British journalist living in Nazareth, is the author of Blood and Religion: The Unmasking of the Jewish and Democratic State, to be published next month by Pluto Press. His website is: www.jkcook.net.
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