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Is a binational identity possible in Israel?

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 JewThe 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.

Shumsky ends,

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.

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    1. XYZ

      Do you consider multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-confessional Middle Eastern states like Lebanon, Iraq and Syria big successes and a model for the solution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict? Keep in mind that the people butchering each other in those countries are fellow Arabs and/or Muslims. The Palestinian conflict with the JEWS is much deeper and bitter.

      Reply to Comment
    2. NY

      With rare exceptions, you’ll always hear these ideas from someone who “divides his time between Israel and the United States” – Barenboim, Aloni – since, unlike the poor single-citizenship plebes, they can afford to think creatively and take bold risks.

      After all, in the likely event that this arrangement leads to a bloodbath like it did in Lebanon, Iraq or Syria, Prof. Haber will just divide a little more of his time to the US rather than Israel. Why won’t we all?

      Reply to Comment
    3. Dave Boxthorn

      Maybe a binational identity is possible in the University of Maryland, Charlie, but not in the Mideast.

      Reply to Comment
    4. a Jerusalemite

      In Jerusalem this reality almost exists right now as in the last year or two east Jerusalem Arabs come to what were the Jewish parts of town to work, shop etc. The light rail and Mamilla mall have created a bridge between the 2 parts of the city like never before. It seem like the taboo among the Arabs in east Jerusalem regarding anything Israeli has ended and now they come in huge numbers to mingle with Jews in west and center Jerusalem. In addition, many of the shop vendors, bus drivers, taxi drivers, waitresses etc. are Arabs. Arab now participate in the cultural events organized by the (Jewish) Jerusalem municipality etc. On an average weeks day you’ll see as many Arabs as Jews (sometimes even more) in Jerusalem main street. strolling, shopping, drinking coffee. It seems like the Arabs of east Jerusalem totally adopted the Israeli way of life and just love the Israeli coffee shops, stores, parks etc. This is something that has never happened, not since the start of Zionism. There was always a separation between the populations – in the places they lived, spent their leisure time etc. Even before 1948 you didn’t see Arab families from Jaffa sitting in Jewish coffee shops in tel Aviv. What’s happening now in Jerusalem is a totally new thing. I have to say that I, like many other Jews in Jerusalem whom I spoke with about this, don’t like this. I don’t feel connected to the Arabs of east Jerusalem in anyway and it’s a strange and not a nice feeling for me to sit in my old coffee shops in Jerusalem – all Israeli coffee shop and around me to see so many Arabs speaking Arabic. None of whom have any connection to Zionism. None served in the army or national service or contributed in anyway to the country. Most are not even Israeli citizens. I feel that they enjoy the fruits of the hard work and sacrifice and planing of the Israeli Jews and in addition they have this very arrogant attitude and act as if it’s them who belong here more than we do. they forget that they come to a town that was built and developed by Jews, not Arabs, and they are the outsiders or guests.
      I don’t feel at home in my own town. I’m talking about the Jewish parts of town. It’s not like I’m going to east Jerusalem and feel uncomfortable there, it’s the Arabs who come in big numbers now to west Jerusalem. to the parts of town who were under Israeli control since 1948, and were built and developed by Israelis and reflect the Israeli way of life. They come to us and I don’t like it. Since there is no legal way to reverse this situation I think that Israel should give east Jerusalem to the Palestinian authority. That’s the only way to insure that the Jewish parts of Jerusalem will continue to have their character and not become half Arab. I don’t see anything that the Arabs can contribute to us only the opposite. I think that in many aspects – education, mentality, respect for the environment, respect for the law etc., the Israelis are in a much better place than the Arabs. Why mix with such a population that will only be a bad influence on us and in addition does not share our national identity?

      Reply to Comment
      • carl

        Jerusalimite, you are either ignorant or racist. “I don’t see anything that the Arabs can contribute to us only the opposite”: because you probably came in Jerusalem from another continent and so you perceive them as strangers. Many Jews from Jerusalem that I know think differently (baruk ashem).
        Btw, the soul of Lifta, katamon,Ein Karem, Al-Malha ect, once entirely Palestinian, is still there: this is not a secondary contribution in your West Jerusalem.

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      • shmuel

        The city of uru-shalem was built by arabs and Jews, and was founded 2000 years before that king david, allegedly, set a foot on the spot. if you perceive palestinian as foreigners or guests is because you received a wrong education. the same would be true in the opposite direction.

        Reply to Comment
    5. The Law of Return is as definitional to Israel as was mostly open immigration during the first century of the US; indeed, the Statue of Liberty is a generalized icon for the absorption of the persecuted. Consider what happened in the US when the 9th Circuit struk down “under God” from the pledge of allligence; the Supreme Court vacated the decision 9-0 on standing, thereby skirting the issue of religious establishment completely (I am not prone to pledges, but would not say this one for that phrase). People need their verbal worlds; all one can do is work around that. If you want Arab Israeli citizens to identify at least as much with Israel as citizens relative to exterior Arab nationalisms, you must allow them to have the chance to win within the Israeli system. This is presently mostly not the case. One is then left with XYZ’s view of stateless nations in ever conflict.

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    6. Rawad Abdel Massih

      for the fellows who r giving Syria n Iraq as examples. these states r multinational by name but by practice they r ruthless discriminative dictatorships.
      the point is, a multinational, nationalistic, non-ethnic, non-discriminative state will always win…guys what is USA for god’s sake, there is no US citizen who looks like the other. but these secular states will work if there is JUSTICE. no justice no peace, not in Israel or Syria or anywhere else.
      also, do u consider the project of the Jewish State successful? this project actually is the one that indirectly created the whole mess in the neighboring states u mentioned.
      guys u will be at war until a one unified secular democratic state happens. ur surrounding environment wont accept u in no way, and u will always have Palestinians rioting and this never ending cycle will go on forever….there is no justice.
      Jews in Damascus before the Belfor declaration were one of the most prosperous communities. Jews fled from Spain came to Aleppo. these r facts. the Jewish State project will automatically create hostility from others surrounding you. the rhetoric of that project was to solve “the Jewish question” because Jews were persecuted by Europeans. ok, they r not anymore, and that rhetoric just falls today. there is no need for a Jewish state or an Islamic state or a Christian state.
      and I am Syrian born and lived in Syria so nobody accuses me of having the “luxury of having 2 nationalities”

      Reply to Comment
      • a Jerusalemite

        The Jews in the Muslim world were never a 100% safe. They were at the mercy of whomever ruled the country they lived in. If there was a monarch there who liked them then fine, if not, they were persecuted and discriminated against.
        A one state solution will not work. We Jews want a Jewish state where we can be the masters of our own fate and not a persecuted minority. Israelis have nothing in common with Arab Palestinians to have a unified state with them. Yes at the moment there are about 20% Arab Israeli citizens but they are a minority in a state whose character is Jewish Israeli. A one state will have a split character, mentality, culture, religion, nationality. In America it is the Europeans who molded the character of the state before all the others came. Britain has its own character and so is France and all other democracies in the world. They have a distinct culture, history, mentality, language. Israeli Jews and Arabs don’t have anything in common. Frankly I think the Arabs will destroy everything that the Jews have built in Israel if it turned into a one state. They don’t know what democracy, rule of law, equal rights to women etc. are. We Israelis will practically be taking a 1st world developed country that our fathers and mothers built with a lot of sacrifice and turn it into an under-developed 3rd world country by taking in millions (more) of Arabs. No Thanks!

        Reply to Comment