Sunday, November 7, 2010

Israel “Arab Problem,” Part Three – The Israeli Nation-State

As a rejoinder to Shalem Center's Rabbi Daniel Gordis, who hails from the United States, I publish here a partial translation of a recent Haaretz opinion piece by Hebrew University's Prof. Dimitry Shumsky, who hails from Russia. So much for national generalizations: Gordis' writing reads like the work of a nineteenth century ethnic nationalist, whereas Shumsky is a liberal nationalist of the twenty-first century. Shumsky is the author of an important book, From Bilingualism to Binationalism: Czecho-German Jewry, the Prague Zionists, and the Origins of the Binational Idea in Zionism, 1900-1930, in which he argues that binationalist Zionism has its roots in the political experience of young Prague Zionists as Czech-German Jews, i.e., Jews who embraced both cultures and neither to the exclusion of the other. These Jews included Hugo Bergmann, Hans Kohen, Robert Weltsch and Max Brod, who later became identified with the "radical" faction of Brit Shalom in Jerusalem. The book is currently in Hebrew; I hope it is being translated.

Shumsky's thesis articulated below needs to be fleshed out in details. But it is more than a step in the right direction.

The Israeli Nation State

Dimitry Shumsky

In 1915 David ben Gurion published an article entitled, "On Determining the Origins of the Falahin," in which he formulated, systematically, the claim that was commonly accepted by the members of the Second Aliyah – that the rural Arabs of the Land of Israel were the descendants of the ancient Jews who had converted during periods of persecution. This idea, which in hindsight appears rather naïve, did not arouse much enthusiasm among the Arabs of Palestine of the Jews of the Land of Israel, each of whom clung to their national-religious identities, which over the years increasingly became polar opposites.

Still, underlying Ben-Gurion's line of thought was a deep political insight that was not bereft of an element of healthy political realism. This insight was the recognition that the future state would have to formulate a national-civic myth that would be shared by Jews returning to their homeland, and by Arabs dwelling in their homeland.

In spite of the continuing bloody conflict between Jews and Palestinians, there has developed over the years the beginnings of civil-territorial consciousness that is shared by most of the Jewish citizens and some of the Arab citizens – an Israeli identity. Yet in recent years, anybody who suggests taking the name of Israeli, which is familiar in the international community, seriously, and to recognize Israel as the Israeli nation state is called a "post- Zionist" or an "anti-Zionist," who seemingly wishes to undermine the principle of self-determination for the Jewish nation.

But it would be an illusion to think that the conception of an Israeli identity excludes the notion of Jewish nationalism. On the contrary, the term "Israeli" contains within it the religious, cultural, and national "baggage" of the Jewish past. Most of the Jewish citizens of the State of Israel see themselves, through voluntary and conscious choice, as Israelis.

At the same time, the abstract concept "Israeli" signifies not merely the Jewish religio-ethnic dimension, but also the status of citizenship that is common to all Israeli citizens. As a result, even among the young Arab population in Israel, at an age where one would expect them to be most influenced by radical trends, it turns out that half of them see themselves as Israelis [and not as Palestinians – JH], according to a pole conducted by the Maagar Mohot Research Institute.

A new self-definition of Israel as the state of the Israeli nation would not undermine the collective right of its Jewish citizens to define themselves as members of the Jewish nation. On the contrary, the former definition would reinforce the latter definition within a broader civil framework, in which Jews would share citizenship in common with Arabs. In this old-new framework, not a single one of the essential components of Jewish national sovereignty would lose its validity, neither the freedom of the Jewish nation to foster its values of cultural, ethnic, and religious inheritance, nor his right to provide the members of his Jewish national diaspora with citizenship. Nevertheless, such a definition would put an end once and for all to the anomalous, humiliating, and perverted situation where citizens of the State of Israel, whose ancestors dwelt in the country for generation before the founding of the state, are prevented from joining the sovereign nation of the state – unless they convert to the religion of the founders of the state, who recently returned to their homeland.

Theodor Herzl in "Altneuland" believed that the civic foundations shared by Jews and Muslims in the "Old New Land" could be formed on the basis of the monotheism held in common by both sides. Ben-Gurion saw this basis in the idea of the common ethnic origins of the returnees to Zion and its inhabitants. The experience of Israeli citizenship, common to both Jews and Arabs, has fostered, despite its inherently unequal character, the concrete possibility to establish this foundation within the idea of an old-new Israel nation, which is able to contain within it all the memories, values, and national symbols of the Jewish majority as well as those of the Arab minority, in all its complexity.

The realization of this possibility will signify therefore the completion of the civic vision of statist Zionist and the sole way to establish a "Jewish and Democratic" state, not merely as an empty slogan, but as vital reality.




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