Two academics get into a public intellectual debate over secular national identity and the characteristics of binationalism in the future of Israel or binational state. Despite their bitter assaults against one another’s ideas, they are far closer than they realize.
By Jeremiah Haber
It’s open season on Prof. Shlomo Sand of Tel Aviv University in the pages of Haaretz, following the publication of his latest book, How and Why I Stopped Being a Jew. The thesis of the book is that there is no such thing as secular Jewish experience (although he grants that there are people who have fashioned for themselves a secular Jewish identity), that being Jewish is fundamentally and foundationally a religious category. He certainly is right about that in the case of Israel, where the secular founders insisted on preserving a religious criterion for determining who is a Jew, and hence who is a member of the nation represented by the state. In the eyes of Israeli law, one can only become a member of the Jewish people through birth or through religious conversion, and this has practical implications, such as the pressure placed on the religious courts to facilitate the conversion of Israeli citizens from the former Soviet Union, so that they can be members of the Jewish nation and hence the recipients of rights and privileges accorded in Israel to Jews alone. Of course, saying that Jewish people is exclusively a religious category does not imply that only religious Jews are Jewish. Pork-eating atheists are considered Jews even by the orthodox, but only if they became a Jew through birth or through religious conversion.
But that’s not what I wish to talk about in this post. Rather I wish to discuss the recent exchange in Haaretz by Dimitri Shumsky and Shlomo Sand, in which the former argues for a Jewish/Palestinian binational state, and the latter for a civic Israeli nationalism. Both Shumsky and Sand go at each other with the passion of Leninists and Trotskyites, but lost in the battle is how much they share in common. Neither Shumsky’s Jewish-Palestinian binationalism nor Sand’s Israeli nationalism is palatable to the old guard of Jewish nationalist/liberal Zionists in Haaretz’s’ stable, like Shlomo Avineri, Alexander Yakobson or Yehuda Bauer.
Let’s start with Shumsky’s pat on Sand’s back:
Sands’ …declared political intentions − undermining the exclusive reservation of sovereignty in Israel for one group of its citizens and endeavoring to transfer sovereignty to all the state’s citizens − are very admirable.
What Sand doesn’t get, says Shumsky, is the depth of Jewish and Palestinian national identity that most Israelis, Jews and Palestinians, feel. Their concrete experience is of belonging to a group that extends beyond the State of Israel. To substitute an “Israeli nationalism” (maybe experienced by Sand and a few other progressive universalists like him) for this reality is a fantasy. It is akin to the 20th century Canaanite movement. The only way Israel can truly be a state of all its citizens is not by divorcing an Israeli national identity from its Jewish and Palestinian constituents but by negotiating rights for both national groups in an Israeli federation.
Will this [binationalism] put an end to the “Jewish state?” Absolutely not, if only because the idea of “Israeliness” carries with it the baggage of clear Jewish ethnic-religiousness. It is clear that the Palestinian citizens of the state, who join together in a covenant with the Jewish citizens within the framework of the “Israeli federation,” will be required to yield a much larger emotional concession than the Jews.
Sand’s response is basically to deny Shumsky’s concept of membership in a nation, both with respect to the Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs, respectively. Merely identifying with other members of a group, its history, language, etc., is not a sufficient basis for nationalism, and in the case of so-called Jewish nationalism, the problem is worse because of the religious element mentioned above.
Where Shumsky calls Israeli nationalism an “illusion,” Sand calls Jewish and Palestinian nationalism (in the sense that all Jews and Palestinians are members of common nations) “fictitious.” Shumsky accuses Sand of “Canaanism”; Sand accuses Shumsky of the benighted and outdated binationalism of Brit Shalom and the Shomer HaTzair, which was already detached from the everyday experience of Jews and Arabs under the British mandate.
What do they agree upon, besides the illegitimacy of the current state of affairs, in which the state is goverend within an an illiberal religious-ethnic exclusivist nationalist framework?
Both make the important point that there is an Israeliness that is more than a concomitant feature of citizenship. From the standpoint of Israeli citizenship there is no difference between MK Ahmed Tibi, a Russian Christian from the former Soviet Union, an Ethiopian-Israeli and an American-Israeli like myself. Yet there is no doubt in my mind that Tibi is much more Israeli than any of us, and, for that matter, much more Israeli than almost any American-Israeli I know, including Dore Gold and Michael Oren. So Israeliness is not merely a function of citizenship, since some citizens have much more of it than others. Tibi likes to say that he is an Israeli by citizenship but a Palestinian by nationality. He says this for nationalistic reason, and he is entitled to his self-definition. But in my opinion, he is not an Israeli merely through the fact of citizenship. He has a Palestinian-Israeli identity that is largely the product of his Palestinian-Israeli experiences.
That there is Israeliness, and that it is not coextensive with citizenship, suggests that it could be the basis for a shared national civic identity, were there a will to foster such an identity, e.g., in the educational system, in civics classes, etc. Not every Israeli citizen may buy into that shared national identity in the way that Shlomo Sand (or I) would; maybe most would not.
The problem is that the reigning Zionist ethos sees the formation of an Israeli national identity as a threat to the very existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish state. (Never mind that “Israel” means “the Jewish people.”)
And this is the liberal paradox. On the one hand, many liberal Israeli Jews are proud that Israel has Palestinian writers like Emile Habibi, Anton Shammas and Sayed Kashua. But their pride in them is not one of national pride as fellow Israelis but rather as the pride of Jews who have created a state where non-Jewish minority writers can win recognition writing in Hebrew. To me, that’s like an enlightened Christian in eighteenth-century Prussia being proud that his culture could produce a Mendelssohn, not because he saw him as an equal Prussian, but rather in a paternalistic, pat-on-his-enlightened-back way.
For Sand’s Israeli nationalistic vision to become reality it is not enough for Israelis to live a shared experience, although that is a necessary and inevitable condition. The vision needs to be accepted as a desirable goal, at least by the liberal members of the society, and fostered by the state and other institutions. There will always be Jewish and Palestinian nationalists opposed to the vision, but liberals should embrace it. Whereas for Shumsky’s vision to become reality, one needs a much thinner view of Jewish and Palestinian nationalism than both leaderships have been advocating; I would prefer something like trans-national communitarianism. The Law of Return would have to be scrapped altogether, or modified to give limited priority in immigration to persecuted Jews and Palestinians (I prefer the former alternative.) Shumsky’s view is thicker than mine – he wants to retain the Law of Return – but moves like that are entirely unnecessary, certainly to preserve the Jewish cultural heritage. Multinational states don’t need sweeping citizenship laws like the Law of Return for the preservation of their ethnic nationalities.
The Law of Return was a bad law from its inception; the only good thing to say about is that it is practically irrelevant today.
I am sure that Shlomo Sand wouldn’t be happy with an Israel as a Jewish state in the weak sense, any more than most American liberals would be happy with the United States as a Christian state in the weak sense in which it is seen today by millions of conservative Christian Americans. But I am also sure he would be much happier with that kind of “Jewish” state, a state in which Jews and Palestinians felt comfortable and at home because those are the dominant cultures, than with the current religio-ethnic exclusivist state that is a throwback to the early nineteenth century states with their established religions. Sand actually would like to see two republics, one Israeli and the other Palestinian, and it is clear that in the former the Jewish element would be preponderant. And surely Shumsky could live with that because whether there is a constitutional nod to Jewish and Palestinian national identities or not, the facts on the ground would bolster group identities, and hence group identifications beyond Israel’s borders. These facts on the ground don’t need a lot of the heavy baggage that Ben-Gurion and his associates saddled the state with.
The possibility for common ground between Shumsky and Sand is greater than may appear from their vituperative attacks on each other.
And that common ground is the Promised Land.
Jeremiah (Jerry) Haber is the nom de plume of an Orthodox Jewish studies and philosophy professor, who divides his time between Israel and the United States. This post was originally published on his blog, The Magnes Zionist, on June 9, 2013.