Israel Declares for Ethnic Nationalism

The Israeli cabinet has approved a measure that would require persons applying for Israeli citizenship to affirm the “Jewish and democratic” character of Israel. The new oath would at the moment affect relatively few people, mainly Palestinians outside Israel who marry Palestinian-Israelis and who wish to unite the family on the Israeli side of the green line (and are permitted to do so). But the backer of the oath, Avigdor Lieberman (a former club bouncer from Moldavia), wants a similar or even stricter oath to be administered to all the Palestinian-Israelis, who form roughly 20 percent of Israel’s population.

Supporters of the measure, such as Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, point out that this language already exists in Israel’s organic law.

But Palestinian-Israeli community leaders and members of the Knesset (parliament) have lambasted the oath as racist.

“Jewish” as a marker of identity can refer either to a religion or to ethnicity (as defined in Israel, persons born of a Jewish mother). Ethnicity is arguably the more important of the two markers, since a practicing Jew in Israel born of a Gentile mother cannot be listed as “Jewish” in their identification papers. The most recent Israeli census said there were 7.2 million Israelis, with about 5.5 million Jews, 300,000 non-Jews, and 1.4 million Arabs or what I call Palestinian-Israelis. The non-Jews are mostly those children of mixed families where the mother was not Jewish. Most of them view themselves as Jewish and some are actively upset that they cannot be so listed. The 5.5 million Jews, moreover, included large numbers of Russians who do not practice Judaism but whose claims to Jewish ethnic ancestry were thought credible by the Israeli authorities. (Among Israeli intellectuals there are many skeptics about many of these Russian “Jews.”)

It seems obvious, then, that the “Jewish” in Netanyahu’s new oath is not primarily a religious marker, since otherwise many of the 300,000 would be “Jewish” on their identity cards and many of the Russians would be non-Jewish on grounds of love of ham sandwiches. Admittedly, religion is in the mix, since at some point in the past the matriarchs producing Jews were themselves religious Jews. In the past, religion preceded ethnicity, while in current Israeli law ethnicity precedes religion.

As such, asking someone to say that Israel is a “Jewish and democratic state” in order to gain citizenship would be analogous to asking a Hindu Indian immigrant to the United States to affirm that the US is “a white, ancestrally Christian democratic state.” That is, white ethnicity would be privileged and would be defined in part by Christian, and likely even Protestant, antecedents. (Early twentieth century racist judges had already clarified that while Hindu Indians might be Aryans insofar as they speak an Indo-European language, they were not “white.”)

It should be obvious that asking African or Asian immigrants, or even many Latinos, to make such an affirmation as the price of citizenship would be discriminatory and racist, insofar as their very oath would deprive them of first-class citizenship.

Political theorists distinguish between “civic” nationalism, such as that in the United States and France, and “ethnic” nationalism, more common in 19th century Central Europe. Civic nationalism is based on ideals (fealty to the US constitution, e.g.) and history. Thus, Crispus Attucks, an African-American, has often been seen as the first martyr to American independence, which was about ideals and not ethnicity. There was nevertheless a latent racism in American nationalism, which assumed that the “real” Americans were white Protestants. Thus, the ideal of civic nationalism is sometimes tainted by or intertwined with the sentiments of ethnic nationalism. But by and large over time, civic nationalism has won out in the American courts, though often only after a long struggle.

I don’t like ethnic nationalism, since at its worst it produces phenomena like Nazi Germany or Milosevic’s Serbia. If the nation is defined by a dominant ethnicity, then how “pure” does the ethnicity have to be? And is it polluted by the presence of other ethnic groups (might not they intermarry and dilute the core ethnicity?) In a globalizing world with massive labor migration, ethnic nationalism is a recipe for race war.

And, of course, as a historian I reject the whole idea of a “race” in the 19th century Romantic nationalist sense as a figment of the imagination. Brian Sykes found on looking at the mitochondrial DNA of Europeans that all the women had only one of 7 haplotypes or patterns in the chromosomes, and that the same 7 appeared in all linguistic and national groups, including e.g. the Basque, though the proportions varied. Germans are no different in this regard from the Irish or from Bulgarians. The vast majority of Ashkenazi Jewish women have one of the same 7 haplotypes rather than Palestinian ones. I.e. they are directly descended from Gentile great great grandmothers who married Jewish men. One only has to go back ten or twelve thousand years at most, probably, to find a common ancestor for all the Mediterranean populations. There are no races and all human beings are all mixed up in regard to ancestry. A recent excavation at Rome from the time of Augustus found a Chinese worker. How he got to the Roman Empire would make a great tale. But if he married a Roman woman and had children, likely all Italians now have some descent from him, and so are cousins of all the Chinese.

Ethnic nationalism is not only intrinsically unfair, but it is also based on a lie, that races are real things.

If most countries have a mix of civic nationalist emphases with ethnic nationalist ones, there is nevertheless typically a predominance of one over the other. However privileged French-speaking Catholics tracing themselves to the Gaulois were in post-Revolutionary France, the long-term keynotes of French law and political practice tended toward acceptance of all who stood with the Rights of Man and other key French revolutionary traditions.

In Israel, it is the ethnic nationalism that has been predominant, though there nevertheless have been some civic-nationalist aspects to Israeli politics. Thus, Palestinian-Israelis are citizens, can vote, can form political parties, and have representation in the Knesset (Parliament), though they can also fairly easily be expelled from that body. Their civic rights are fragile and less stable than those of Jewish Israelis.

What Lieberman and Netanyahu have done with this loyalty oath is to put the emphasis even further on ethnic nationalism, with Jews as the core or privileged ethnicity. They are right that it is not a new gesture, but are wrong if they think it is not a departure of sorts in the degree of emphasis on the ethnic versus the civic.

That changing balance in favor of a privileged ethnicity is why the Palestinian-Israeli politicians and community leaders are crying racism.

It would be an exaggeration to say that the oath makes Israel an Apartheid state inside the Green Line, i.e. inside 67 borders. Palestinian Israelis are citizens, can socially mix with Jewish Israelis, can go to university and attend the same schools, etc. They can even intermarry if they are willing and able to do so abroad. The oath does not make for Apartheid, but for an ethnic nationalism of the older German or Serbian sort. It is of course shameful for Jews to adopt such exclusivist political ideas, which harmed Jews so much.

It is the situation of non-Israeli Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza that more resembles Apartheid policies of creating cantonments for the Africans.

Aljazeera English has a video report:

18 Responses

  1. Juan,

    Do you not think it’s also important to mention, in addition to to the conceptual and ideological core of this law (which is of extreme importance, of course) that it also has a very clear practical function: dealing with the demographic time bomb and the right of return.

    Even the ‘dove’ Livni recognises the threat and sees the Palestinian-Israelis’ future outside of Israel, so do you think laws (and their subsequent expansion) like this are clearly aimed at establishing a legal basis for dealing with these concrete issues.

    It has been interesting to see the internal Israeli opposition to this law has been largely centred around Israel’s projected image, as opposed to the idea of a ethnic Jewish state.

    Would be good to hear your thoughts.

  2. You’re right about the typically arrogant Israeli legislation, but you’re wrong about race. The populations of Korea, Senegal, and Norway are biologically distinct. Read Cavalli-Sforza. There are racial differences ranging from lactose tolerance to intelligence, whether it’s PC to say so or not.

    • That is not race! That is a higher statistical likelihood of some genes than others. Senegalese are very diverse– Wolof, Mandinka, Malian, Moroccan (Tijani missionaries & traders), Portuguese, French… Read some 19th century German thinkers on the purity of the Teutons and you will see the difference.

      • BOOYAH, JUAN! :) My thoughts exactly, and you’re right on. Keep up the great work—People really need to venture beyond what mass media spoonfeeds them..

  3. So when will it become a requirement for American ‘s who have dual citizenship in Israel to take an oath that states that they are committed to U.S. National Security?

  4. It’s going to get worse.

    According to Gush Shalon, Israel is now planning detention camps and mass arrests in the event of Lieberman’s plan to mass revoke Arab citizenship. That’s right, folks, Arab “concentration camps.”

    Israel: Liebermania in Action
    mrzine dot monthlyreview dot org/2010/gs111010.html

    Israeli academic: Loyalty oath resembles racist laws of 1935
    www dot haaretz dot com/news/national/israeli-academic-loyalty-oath-resembles-racist-laws-of-1935-1.318275

    MK Tibi: Israel is a democracy for Jews, but not for Arabs.
    www dot haaretz dot com/news/national/livni-loyalty-oath-amendment-is-politics-at-its-worst-1.318219

    It’s only a matter of time before all Arabs in Israel are kicked out, to be followed by the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.

  5. I had heard that any Jews who had visited Israel as a tourist in the 12 months preceding their census were counted as Israeli Jews. Has anyone else heard this ?

  6. Definitely a negative, but as you hinted, it may be the political price of an extension of the settlement freeze. And it may turn out to be fairly meaningless, like the “loyalty oaths” that polluted the American landscape in the 1940s and 50s.
    It would be very helpful if the other Arab states would offer carrots to Israel in addition to sticks. I.e., make it clear that the benefits of progress in the negotiations would extend beyond better relations between Israel and the Palestinians.

    • @Phud 1:
      “It would be very helpful if the other Arab states would offer carrots to Israel … make it clear that the benefits of progress in the negotiations would extend beyond better relations between Israel and the Palestinians.”

      They have already made that clear, repeatedly. See, for instance, link to enwp.org

  7. Interesting and informative piece Dr Cole.

    I believe the comparison between Israel and Serbia is particularly accurate. Recently I have been doing a lot of online research in the Yugoslav Wars, since it was always the one modern conflict I was fuzzy on and had difficulty grasping (so much different factions involved).

    But the essential element that caused the death of Yugoslavia was the passing of Tito who used the slogan “Brotherhood and Unity” to keep the Croatian/Bosnian/Slovenian/Serbian/Macedonian nationalist from engaging in conflict with each other. This led to the ethnocentric Serbian rise.

    Once Milosevic, who rose to power claiming to represent the “downtrodden” Serbians took over the comparison between Serbia and Israel becomes eerily familiar. Milosevic advocated a “Greater Serbia” similar to the Greater Israel concept.

    Radovan Karadzic as a Serb living in Bosnia (Bosnian Serb) also acted very similar to the settler parties of Israel. Karadzic advocated Bosnian Serbs secede from Bosnia and to join Serbia and he later helped Serbia to “create a cleansed statelet in Bosnia that would be the most ethnically pure nation in Europe” as he termed it. He also called the war “just and holy”.

    Add to that the forced evictions of Bosnian Muslims and Croat Bosnians from their homes, the two year siege of Srebrenica before the genocide there in order to make the population so desperate that they leave.

    Then there is this report from the UNHCR on Serbia “loyalty oaths on college campuses.
    link to unhcr.org,,HRW,,SRB,,3ae6a7f58,0.html

    “The new law also abrogated the contracts of all professors and teaching staff by requiring them, regardless of the terms of existing contracts and guarantees of tenure, to sign new contracts within sixty days of enactment of the law. Many professors saw the new contract requirement as, in effect, a mandatory oath of loyalty to the regime. Despite the obvious risks to their careers, roughly 150 professors refused to sign.”

  8. “Jewish and democratic” is every bit an oxymoron as “Christian and democratic” or “Islamic and democratic.” Privileging one ethnic, racial, or religious group and its laws or practices over others is simply incompatible with democracy. This was a principle that was recognized at the founding of the United States. It shocks me that so many American Zionists seem to not really believe it and that so many Israelis can’t see it.

    • David is right. As a percentage, there are more Arab citizens of Israel than there are African-American citizens of the US. How would any of us feel (and for that matter how would Obama feel) about declaring the US as a “homeland for the Anglo-Saxon people”, or a “white and democratic” nation? It means “others can live here, but they are lesser citizens than I am. They are here at my sufferance, on my terms, and until I change my mind.” It’s a repellent and profoundly anti-democratic notion that belongs to the dark past of prior centuries.

      • Luca says:
        How would any of us feel (and for that matter how would Obama feel) about declaring the US as a “homeland for the Anglo-Saxon people”, or a “white and democratic”.
        Lucas, you do not have to go too far in US history. From the inception of this country in 1776 to 1964, this country was exactly what you are saying, that is “white and democratic”.
        Until 1964 blacks has no right to vote & before that white women had no right to vote either. Dr. King would not have made his famous speech “I have a Dream”; there was no need to have Civil Rights Movement either if blacks had same rights as whites.
        Mr. Obama is the first non-white president that is why some far right whites are having difficult time to comprehend “The Change”.

  9. This is surely thin edge of the wedge stuff. It’s been emphasised that this law will only apply to potential new citizens and not to current Israeli citizens, but it wouldn’t be too much of a leap to extend it to all non-Jewish Israelis. Israel is becoming a deeply unpleasant place and it’s becoming ever more impossible for its defenders to portray it as a Western-style liberal democracy.

    The tactic taken by most of said defenders seems to be that this is little different from, say, the UK having an established religion or the US demanding that new citizens pledge alliegance to ‘one nation under God’. Aside from the fact that the latter isn’t acutally true (you can ask for an alternative wording to the pledge) it’s disengeneous at best to claim that this law is religious in nature. As Juan’s post explains, exactly what constitutes “Jewishness” is very unclear, probably deliberately so, but in practice there’s little doubt that Israel favours an ‘ethnic’ over a ‘religous’ definition of Jewishness. There is no way that Isreal is a Jewish state in the way Iran is an Islamic state – just look at the fact that almost all of its leades have been secular. The obvious conclusion is that the ‘Jewish state is understood as an ethnocracy. Of course this cannot be said out loud, as priviliging people according to ill-defined notions of ‘ethnicity is not acceptable in polite society in the 21st century.

    But there can be little doubt that that is what we are dealing with in Israel. Which also begs the question: if and when the percentage of non-Jewish citizens in Israel becomes unaceptalbe in an ethnically defined Jewish state, what happens then? Ethnic cleansing? Hard to think otherwise.

  10. Gonna start betting futures on Wall Street based around the likelihood of Israel going “fuck it, let’s just kill all of them already”
    I mean they already believe they can do no wrong and that no matter how right they are that they will be vilified by the entire world, and everything they do is just one more step up the Fascist escalator, and ethnic wars always turn into a blood orgy at some point.

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