PQC: Dear friends around the world, the end of this year is approaching very fast. Before going to take a long break, I would like to leave you with the last chapter, Chapter Five of “The Invention of The Jewish People”, which, as far as I am concerned, is the most important chapter of the whole book that needs to be read slowly and carefully. For this chapter, though in appearance, is about the absurdity and the destructiveness of the imagined Jewish identity, Jewish nationalism, but as a matter of fact, it’s about nationalism itself and all of the “nationalists” on this planet Earth.

“The Invention of The Jewish People” is not just about the imagined Jewishness of the so-called Jews alone, but in essence, it’s about the process of how “peoples” and “nations” were invented.

Shlomo Sand, in this “The Invention of The Jewish People” explains clearly with historical and scientific evidences how the whole process of forging a people, a nation, in this case the Jewish one, was done, or rather has been being done! No wonder why, not only the Jews are terrified by this book, but so is every nationalist on this planet. Nationalists of all colors would hate this book. The findings in this book shatters their dream or rather nightmare of pure race nation! Nationalists would read this book in their own state of denial, if they read it at all!

At the end of the book, Shlomo Sand, mysteriously somehow is still a statist, wrote:

” In the final account, if it was possible to have changed the historical imaginary so profoundly, why not put forth a similarly lavish effort of the imagination to create a different tomorrow? If the nation’s history was mainly a dream, why not begin to dream its future afresh, before it becomes a nightmare?”

Alas! Has he not seen that the statist world where we all are living has been being in this nightmare ever since the concept of God and that of Nation were invented? The irony is that “people” have always been threatened, oppressed, and murdered by their own fellow believers, their own “nation,” their own nationalists, their own compatriots more than by other “infidels” and foreign nations! This irony is one of the main causes that brought forth the creation of the modern USA. It’s very ironic indeed! (I had a chance to have a long conversation with a native American when I was in Albuquerque. The conversation took place when our Greyhound was stopped and searched by the USA-Gov-thugs. This native American told me about the nightmare his people had ever since the creation of the USA while staring at those thugs with contempt!

Nation is a nightmare, and religion has made it worse! For thousands of years, people have been enthusiastically murdering not only “foreigners” but also their owns because of these two inventions. Thus a wake up call is needed constantly!

Anyway, my friends, please find way to get away from your TV, your PC, your cellphone etc … as long and as much as you can afford in this season. Do not waste your valuable energy and precious time to trace after their fake news. Enjoy all the tranquility, peace, and freedoms with your loved and trusted ones while you still have them. I wish you, everyone all the best wherever you are.

CHAPTER FIVE: The Distinction: Identity Politics in Israel

The State of Israelwill foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.

—The Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, 1948

A candidates’ list shall not participate in elections to the Knesset if its objects or actions, expressly or by implication, include one of the following: (1) negation of the existence of the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish people; (2) negation of the democratic character of the State; (3) incitement to racism.

—Basic Law: The Knesset, Clause 7A, 1985

Before the great secularization in Europe, Jewish believers clung to the religious axiom that sustained them through times of trouble: they were the “chosen people,” God’s sacred congregation, destined to “illuminate the nations.” In reality, they knew that as minority groups existing in the shadow of other religions, they were subordinated to the stronger powers. The passion for proselytizing that had characterized these communities in the past had all but disappeared through the ages, largely from fear of the dominant religions. Over the centuries, thick layers of distrust and fear of propagating their faith padded the self-identification of the believers and bolstered the communal isolation that eventually became their distinguishing mark. In the Middle Ages, the exclusive belief in the “unique nation that dwells apart” also served to prevent large-scale desertion to the other monotheistic religions.

Like other minorities in periods of stress and hardship, the Jewish faith communities were knit together by group solidarity. In peaceful times, the rabbinical elites exchanged information about precepts and religious norms, and various aspects of their rites and ceremonies. For all the great differences between Marrakech and Kiev, Sanaa and London, differences not only in the secular sphere but even in the religious practices, there was always a common core of rabbinical attachment to the Talmudic law, a shared concept of deliverance from exile, and a profound religious devotion to the holy city Jerusalem, whence salvation would come.

The spread of secularization in Europe eroded the status of the religious frameworks and undermined the authority of the rabbis, their communities’ traditional intellectuals. Like members of other religious, cultural and linguistic groups, those who discarded their Jewish religion were swept up in the momentum of modernization. The depiction in Zionist theoretical and historical writings notwithstanding, they were not the only ones struggling to assimilate into the national cultures that were rising at this time. Perhaps peasants in Saxony, Protestant shopkeepers in France and Welsh laborers in Britain were affected differently by the rapid changes in ways of life and the migratory upheavals, but they suffered no less than did the Jewish believers. Entire worlds disappeared, and assimilation into the general economic, political, linguistic and supracultural systems demanded a painful renunciation of long-standing customs and mores.

Despite the particular difficulties experienced by the Jews, in some countries—France, the Netherlands, Britain, Germany—most of them became “Israelites,” meaning Frenchmen, Dutchmen, Britons or Germans of the Mosaic- faith. They became eager supporters of the new states; some even stressed their national identity and took great pride in it. Rightly so, as they were among the pioneer speakers of the national languages and consolidators of the national cultures, largely because of their concentration in the cities. They were thus among the first Britons, Frenchmen and Germans (it would not be an exaggeration to say that the poet Heinrich Heine was a German before Adolf Hider’s grandfather became one, if indeed he ever did). During the First World War, which witnessed the peak of mass nationalism in Europe, they set out to defend these new homelands, and probably also killed, without notable qualms, Jewish soldiers fighting on the other side of the front line.1 German Jewish reformists, French Jewish socialists and British Jewish liberals almost all volunteered to defend their newfound collective property: the national state and its territory.

Strangely enough, Zionists also became involved in the war culture that focused on Europe’s national boundaries, despite their belief in a separate national entity. At that time they were still too weak to offer an alternative identity that could defuse the fighting spirit arising from the varied nationalist attachments of their supporters and activists. In fact, from 1897, the year of the first Zionist Congress, until the end of the First World War, Zionism was

1 Amos Elon, The Pity of It All: A History of Jews in Germany, 1743-1933, New York: Metropolitan Books, 305-37. The French and German Israelites did not demonstrate much sympathy. Their attitude toward the Jews of Eastern Europe, the “inferior” Ostjuden, was cold and disdainful. Much the same attitude was later shown by the same Eastern European Jews toward the new “Eastern Jews” they encountered in Israel

a feeble and insignificant movement in the world’s Jewish communities, and often yielded to the national demands of the gentiles (in Germany in 1914, Zionists accounted for less than 2 percent of Germans of Jewish origin, and in France even less).

The Zionist idea was born in the second half of the nineteenth century in Central and Eastern Europe, in the lands between Vienna and Odessa. It grew uneasily on the fringes of German nationalism and reached the lively cultural marketplaces of the Yiddish population. In fact, for all its marginality, Zionism was part of the last wave of nationalist awakening in Europe, and coincided with the rise of other identity-shaping ideologies on the Continent. It can be viewed as an attempt at collective assimilation into modernity, exactly like the surrounding national enterprises that were then starting to take shape.2 While a significant number of its ideological progenitors belonged more or less to the Germanic culture—Moses Hess, Theodor Herzl, Max Nordau—those who developed, disseminated and implemented its theories came from the intelligentsia of the widespread Yiddish-speaking population, which was densely packed into the cities and towns of Poland, the Ukraine, Lithuania, Russia and Romania.

As noted in the second chapter, in these regions there was a secular, modern Yiddishist civilization such as did not exist in Jewish communities elsewhere, neither in London nor in Marrakech. It was this distinctive culture, rather than religion, that incubated the protonationalist and nationalist ferment. It was from this semi-autonomous world that young intellectuals arose. Finding their paths blocked to the centers of high culture—academic careers, free professions, civil service—many became socialist revolutionaries and democratic innovators, and a few became Zionists.

At the same time, the distinctive presence of the Yiddish communities fueled a revival of anti-Jewish feeling. The mosaic of nationalities emerging in Eastern Europe sought to eject the conspicuously different Yiddishist entity from its midst. Aside from the repression and traditional restrictions in the

2 Inevitably, the proponents of Jewish nationalism view it as unique and fundamentally different from other national movements. For example, the historian Jacob Katz wrote that “on the threshold of the modern age, the Jews were better prepared for a national movement than any other ethnic group in Europe”—this being a typical outlook among historians of other national groups. See his book, Jewish Nationalism: Essays and Studies, Jerusalem: The Zionist Library, 1983 (in Hebrew), 18. A historian of equal stature, Shmuel Ettinger, maintained that “the Jews may be the only known group in history that preserved its national consciousness for thousands of years.” See Studies in Modern Jewish History, I: History and Historians, Jerusalem: Zalman Shazar, 1992 (in Hebrew), 174.


Tsarist regime and the Romanian kingdom, in the 1880s a wave of popular pogroms, with emergent nationalist features, shocked millions of Jews and accelerated their mass migration westward. Between 1880 and 1914 some two and a half million Yiddish-speaking Jews transited through Germany toward receptive countries in the West. Some of them ended up on the safe shores of the American continent; less than 3 percent of them chose to migrate to Ottoman-ruled Palestine, and few of them stayed there.

One of the by-products of this large population shift was that it indirectly exacerbated the traditional hostility that simmered beneath the surface in Germany, scene of the transit. This fierce hatred, much of which is still left unexplained, would play out in one of the most horrendous acts of genocide in the twentieth century. In the process, it showed that there is no direct correlation between technological progress or cultural refinement and morality.

Modern anti-Semitism flourished throughout the world of European modernity, but its manifestation in Western and Southern Europe, as well as on the American continent, was quite different from its features and expressions in Central and Eastern Europe. The uncertainties and inner struggles of the young national identity created anxiety and fear almost everywhere. The cultural problems involved in the construction of nationalities were precisely those that turned the long-standing “dislike of the unlike” into an integral part of the new democratic mass politics. Any form of difference—different skin pigmentation, distinctive dialects or unfamiliar religious customs—irritated the bearers of the new national consciousness who were struggling to define and demarcate themselves as unambiguous collectivities. The level of abstraction in constructing the imagery of the nation demanded a definitive and unequivocal characterization of those who would not be a part of it. The nation, therefore, was imagined as an ancient, extended “blood” family, and it was convenient that its nearest neighbor would also be its most threatening enemy. Since for hundreds of years Christian civilization had depicted the Jewish believer as the ultimate other, it was a simple matter for the new collective identities to pick this element out of the old tradition and install it as the border post that marked the new national community.

In territories where civil and political nationalism prevailed, it was possible to enclose and seal off the ancient hatreds that were part of the Christian heritage and to include the ostracized Jew in the new identity. The US Constitution, the French Revolution, the laws of Great Britain were sufficiently amenable, forming a stable foundation for the development of inclusive tendencies, which through gradual struggle achieved a hegemonic position in the public arena. In these and other countries, Jews became integral parts of the nation.


However, this successful process was not free from turmoil and regression. The highly dramatic Dreyfus Affair in France in 1894 was a good historical example of the nonlinear, uncertain evolution of modern nationalism. The outburst of intense anti-Semitism that extruded Dreyfus from the body of the “Gallo-Catholic” nation exposed the tensions between conflicting sensibilities. Did the Jewish officer belong to the French nation, or was he a representative of an alien people who had insinuated itself from the East? To preserve its greatness, should France not be fundamentally Christian? Might not the Italian origin of Emile Zola account for his antipatriotic support for the “traitorous” Jewish captain? These and similar questions roiled the national imaginary and set off vibrations that shook the country to its foundations.

The tide of anti-Semitism was ultimately turned by the political and intellectual circles that understood the value of the civil sphere, and the persecuted army officer was “reattached” to the French nation. Supporters of the ethnoreligious national identity did not disappear—they arose again during the Nazi occupation, and some persist to this day. But culturally inclusive nationalism was invigorated after the Dreyfus Affair, and despite the horrific relapse during the Second World War, it continued to entrench itself through the twentieth century.

Similar, though not identical, transitions occurred in a less dramatic and more nuanced way in the United States (during the McCarthy period, for instance), in Great Britain, and in most of the nation-states on both sides of the Atlantic. Anti-Semitism, like other forms of racism, did not become extinct in these countries, but it ceased to be a meaningful signifier in the trends that directed the continued development of the collective supra-identity.

On the other hand, as noted in the first chapter, ethnobiological and ethnoreligious ideologies triumphed in the regions between Germany and Russia, Austria-Hungary and Poland, where they continued to determine the nature of nationalism for many years. The dominance of this anxious and exclusionary mindset enabled the anti-Jewish code of hatred to continue as one of the main indications of the “true” supra-identity. Although anti-Semitism was not always publicly demonstrated, and the ink used in the printed media and textbooks was not always spiked with venom, Judeophobia continued to insinuate itself into the crucial nodes of identity.

One reason for this was that defining the national entity in those rambling, branching cultural spaces required a great many “past” indications of a common origin, and any element that might challenge the myth of a unifying source provoked revulsion and fear. Even nationalists who were confirmed atheists resorted to traditional religious symbols in their self-definition, while respected clergymen accepted the principle of “blood” as a boundary marker.


In other words, just as Germanity at some stage needed abundant Aryanism to define itself, so Polishness needed Catholicism and Russianness needed Orthodox pan-Slavism to swaddle their national identities and imagery.

Unlike the Jewish religious reform movement, or the liberal and socialist intellectual groups that sought participation in the emergent national cultures, Zionism borrowed extensively from the dominant nationalist ideologies flourishing in the lands of its birth and infancy, and integrated them into its new platform. It included traces of German Volkism, while Polish romantic nationalist features characterized much of its rhetoric. But these were not mere imitations—it was not a case of an agonized victim taking on some features of his smiling executioner.

While the secular, seminationalistic outlook of the Bund, the widespread leftist Jewish movement, demanded cultural autonomy for the “people of Yiddishland,” rather than a single independent polity for all the Jews of the world, educated Zionists emulated the other nationalists in Europe and assumed an ethnoreligious or ethnobiological identity to conceptualize their self-definition. Seeking to build a bridge that could connect Jewish believers—mainly former believers, whose languages and secular customs were polyphonous and diverse—they were unable to build on the lively popular mores and turn them into a homogeneous, domesticated modern culture, as the Bund tried to do. To achieve their aim, the Zionists needed to erase existing ethnographic textures, forget specific histories, and take a flying leap backward to an ancient, mythological and religious past.

As the previous chapters have shown, while the chosen “history” ostensibly matched the religious imaginary, it was not really religious, because Jewish monotheism was not grounded in historical evolutionary time. Nor was it wholly secular, since it ceaselessly utilized materials from the old eschatological faith in order to structure the new collective identity. We must remember that Jewish nationalism had undertaken an almost impossible mission—to forge a single ethnos from a great variety of cultural-linguistic groups, each with a distinctive origin. This accounts for the adoption of the Old Testament as the storehouse of national memory. In their urgent need to establish a common origin for the “people” the national historians embraced uncritically the old Christian idea of the Jew as the eternal exile. In the process, they erased and forgot the mass proselytization carried out by early Judaism, thanks to which the religion of Moses grew enormously, both demographically and intellectually.

For the Jewish nationalists, Judaism ceased to be a rich and varied religious culture, and turned into something hermetic, like the German Volk or the Polish and Russian Narod, though with the unique characteristic that it


comprised an alien, wandering people, unrelated to the territories it inhabited. In this sense, Zionism became something of a negative reflection of the anti- Jewish image that accompanied the rise of collectivities in Eastern and Central Europe, This negative reflection correctly identified the national sensibilities in this region, and their physical proximity kept their menace in full view.

Zionism’s basic assumptions were correct and, as noted before, it borrowed many elements from the nationalism in which it was embedded. At the same time, it adopted the most exclusionary and conceited aspect of the Jewish religious tradition, the divine commandment that “the people shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations” (Num. 23:9). The ancient ideal of an elect, holy, monotheistic congregation was reinterpreted in an isolationist, secular plan of action. Zionism from its inception was an ethnocentric nationalist movement that firmly enclosed the historical people of its own invention, and barred any voluntary civil entry into the nation its platform began to design. At the same time, any withdrawal from the “people” was depicted as an unforgivable offense, and “assimilation” as a catastrophe, an existential danger to be averted at all costs.

No wonder, then, that to bind together the frangible secular Jewish identity, it was not enough to write a history of the Jews, so culturally disparate, so chronologically fragmentary. Zionism had to resort to another scientific discipline, that of biology—which was conscripted to reinforce the foundation of the “ancient Jewish nation.”


The second chapter of this book depicted Heinrich Graetz as the father of ethnonationalist historiography. He adopted the assumptions of German historians about the nation being born in primeval time as a changeless entity that advances through history in a linear fashion. But his personal “spirituality” prevented him from adopting excessively materialistic interpretations of history. His friend Moses Hess, in some ways the first proponent of Jewish nationalism whose assumptions deviated from tradition, needed a good deal of racial theory to dream up the Jewish people. He absorbed the dubious scientific ideas of his time, especially in physical anthropology, and integrated them into a novel theory of identity’. He was probably the first, but certainly not the last, to follow this ideological course in the formation of Jewish nationalism.

The thirty-five years that had passed since the publication of Hess’s Rome and Jerusalem in 1862 had seen a substantial rise in the number of Zionists in Europe, and in the number of anti-Semites. The racist pseudoscience that


flourished in all of Europe’s laboratories of learning during the imperialist era of the late nineteenth century percolated through ethnocentric nationalism into the central public arenas and became part of the ideological texture of the new political parties. Among them was the young Zionist movement.

The concept of the nation as an ethnic entity was upheld, with varying intensity, by all the different Zionist camps, which was why the new biological science captivated so many. The idea of heredity helped justify the claim to Palestine—that ancient Judea that the Zionists ceased to view as a sacred center from which deliverance would come, and by a bold paradigmatic shift revamped as the destined national homeland of all the Jews in the world. The historical myth required the appropriate “scientific” ideology—for if the Jews of modern times were not the direct descendants of the first exiles, how would they legitimize their settlement in the Holy Land, which was the “exclusive homeland of Israel”? The divine promise would not have sufficed for nationalism’s secular subjects, who had revolted against the passive tradition that left the conduct of history to the Almighty. If justice was not to be found in religious metaphysics, it had to be found, if only partially, in biology.

Nathan Birnbaum, perhaps the first Zionist intellectual—it was he who coined the term “Zionism” in 1890—picked up the argument where Hess left off:

You cannot explain a people’s particular mental and emotional distinction except by means of the natural studies. “Race is all,” said our great fellow national Lord Beaconsfield [Benjamin Disraeli]. The distinction of the people sterns from the distinction of the race. The variety of races accounts for the great diversity of nations. It is because of the differences between the races that the German or the Slav thinks differently from the Jew. It is this difference which explained why the German created the Song of the Nibelungen and the Jew, the Bible.3

As Birnbaum saw it, neither language nor culture, but only biology, could account for the rise of nations. Otherwise it was not possible to explain the existence of the Jewish nation, whose progeny were immersed in various national cultures and spoke different languages. Tribes and nations existed “because nature has produced, and keeps on producing, diverse races of men, just as it creates different seasons and climates”4 When Houston Stewart Chamberlain published his famous racialist book The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century in 1899, Birnbaum viewed it with understanding, rejecting

  • From “Nationalism and Language,” an article written in 1886, quoted by Joachim Doron in his The Zionist Thinking of Nathan Birnbaum, Jerusalem: The Zionist Library, 1988 (in Hebrew), 177.
  • Ibid, 63.


only the British thinker’s erroneous anti-Semitic position. The Jews were not “a bastard race,” as Chamberlain argued—they had actually preserved their lineage by marrying only among themselves, and they were, moreover, an integral part of the white race.

Although Birnbaum’s part in the rise of the Zionist movement was not insignificant, it is not necessary to dwell on it too long when tracing the evolution of the Jewish nationalist idea. Though he coined the term “Zionist,” he was not one of the leading thinkers of the new nationalism, and eventually he quit the movement and became Orthodox.

Theodor Herzl, the true founder of the Zionist movement, was less certain, and could not decide if the Jews arose from a homogeneous source. His writings include some comments that reflect a clearly ethnocentric outlook, and others that contradict it. The term “race” occurs several times in The Jewish State, but it is used in the manner of the period, as another word for “people,” sans biological connotations.

One evening in London, Herzl dined with the Anglo-Jewish author Israel Zangwill, who would later join the Zionist movement. In his personal diary that day, the handsome leader expressed dismay that the writer, who was famously ugly, thought that they shared the same origin. “He obsesses about the racial aspect, which I cannot accept. It’s enough for me to look at myself and at him. I say only this: We are a historical entity, a nation made up of different anthropological elements. That will suffice for the Jewish state. No nation has racial uniformity.”5 Herzl was not a theoretician, and scientific issues did not interest him beyond the demands of his immediate political work. He aspired to reach his goal without being overloaded with an excess of historical or biological arguments.

It was Max Nordau, Herzl’s confidante and right hand, and the person who conducted all the early Zionist congresses, who gave a more meaningful ideological dimension to the rise of Jewish nationalism. This gifted journalist and essayist was better known than Herzl in the intellectual arena of fin de siècle Europe. As the author of the popular book Entartung (“Degeneration”), he was one of the best known among the conservatives seeking to warn the world against the dangers of modern art, homosexuality, and mental illness, all of which were associated with physical racial degeneracy.

His encounter with Herzl turned him into an enthusiastic Zionist, but earlier he had been concerned about the physical and mental condition of the

  • Noted by the Zionist leader on November 21, 1895. See Theodor Herzl, Die Judensache

(The Jewish Cause: Diaries), vol. 1, Jerusalem: The Zionist Library, 1998 (in Hebrew), 258.


Jews. Born Simon Maximilian—Meir Simha—Südfeld (south field), he changed his “lowly Jewish” name for a proud European one, Nordau (north pasture). Like the Hungarian-born Herzl, he was from Budapest and, like him also, sought to identify himself as a German in every sense. The ugly anti-Semitism of the 1880s and 1890s halted the integration of this Eastern European Jew into the German nation. Like other Jews who found personal assimilation problematic, he opted for collective integration into the modern world—namely, Zionism. This was not, of course, the way Nordau himself thought of it. As he saw it, although anti-Jewish hate created nothing, it awakened the dormant consciousness of an existing race and revived its sense of its own distinction. The failure of “Germanization” led him to adopt a position of Jewish exclusivity, with the pessimistic conclusion that a race cannot be exchanged but only improved.

This Zionist leader, convinced that the Jews shared a homogeneous biological origin, wrote about the “blood ties that exist in the Israelite family.”6 But he wondered whether the Jews had always been physically small or had been made shorter by the conditions of their lives, which caused them to be weak and degenerate. Zionism opened exciting vistas for the improvement of the race by means of agricultural labor, accompanied by gymnastics and bodybuilding in the open air of the ancestral homeland. His famous speech at the second Zionist Congress, in which he first spoke of the lost “muscular Jewry,” expressed a passionate longing for a brawny nation-race.7 “In no other race or people can gymnastics fulfill such an important educational function, as it must do among us Jews,” he wrote. “It is needed to straighten our backs, in body and character alike.”8 For the ancient blood to be revived, the Jews needed a soil, and only Zionism could give them that.

If Nordau failed to become an “authentic” German, he did succeed in becoming an original Zionist Volkist. The essentialist romanticism fostered in various channels of German culture was blended into the ideological project that began to guide the new national ideology.

Nordau was in some ways a hesitant Volkist. By contrast, Martin Buber, who was for several years the editor in chief of Die Welt (“The World”), the Zionist movement’s main organ, was a bold and consistent Volkist. The philosopher of religious existentialism, who would later become a man of peace and strive to bring about a Jewish-Arab state in Palestine, began his nationalist career as one of the

  • Max Nordau, “History of Israel’s Children,” in Zionist Writings, vol. 2, Jerusalem: The Zionist Library, [1901] 1960 (in Hebrew), 47.
  • Max Nordau, “Address to the Second Congress,” in Zionist Writings, vol. 2, 117. This speech was preceded by music from Richard Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser,

8 Ibid., 187.


principal molders of the Jewish people as a “blood community” (Blutsgemeinschaft). Buber visualized the nation as a biological chain of generations from antiquity to the present, and felt the blood connection rising from an unfathomable past. There is a fair amount of Kabbalistic vagueness in the way he phrased it:

[B]lood is a deep-rooted nurturing force within individual man… the deepest layers of our being are determined by blood… our innermost thinking and our will are colored by it. Now he finds that the world around him is the world of imprints and of influences, whereas blood is the realm of a substance capable of being imprinted and influenced, a substance absorbing and assimilating all into its own form… The people are now for him a community of men who were, are, and will be—a community of the dead, the living, and the yet unborn—who, together, constitute a unity…

That his substance can, nevertheless, become a reality for the Jew is due to the fact that his origin means more than a mere connection with things past; it has planted something within us that does not leave us at any hour of our life, that determines every tone and every hue in our life, all that we do and all that befalls us: blood, the deepest, most potent stratum of our being.9

This neo-Romantic mysticism of heredity and soil underlay the spiritual nationalism of this charismatic thinker, who captivated young Jewish intellectuals in Eastern Europe. Among the Bar Kokhba circle of Buber’s followers in Prague was Hans Kohn, mentioned in the first chapter. This future historian, the first to try to conceptualize critically the issue of “organic” nationalism, knew his subject well, and the search for hereditary nationalism was the first station in his intellectual biography.

Buber was always a moderate and cautious Zionist, and ultimately his religious humanism overcame the “ethnic call of the blood.” By contrast, Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky, the leader of Zionist revisionism, craved power and detested concession and compromise. Nevertheless, the two Zionist leaders, so unalike in their political perceptions, shared a basic ideological hypothesis: Jews have a distinctive blood that sets them apart from other people. The intellectual father of the Zionist right from the 1930s to the present had no doubt about it:

It is quite clear that the source of the national sentiment cannot be found in education, but in something that precedes it. In what?—I thought about this question and answered myself: in the blood. And I persist in this view. The sense of national identity is inherent in man’s “blood,” in his physical-racial

  • Martin Buber, “Judaism and the Jews,” in On Judaism, New York: Schocken Books, 1972, 15-16. Later Buber himself tried, not very successfully, to shake off the image of Volkism.


type, and only in that… The people’s mental structure reflects their physical form even more perfectly and completely than does that of the individual… That is why we do not believe in mental assimilation. It is physically impossible for a Jew descended from several generations of pure, unmixed Jewish blood to adopt the mental state of a German or a Frenchman, just as it is impossible for a Negro to cease to be a Negro.10

For Jabotinsky, nations arise from racial groups (“ethnicities,” in today’s parlance), and their biological origin forms the psyche (today’s “mentality”) of peoples. Since Jews do not have a common history or a common language, nor a territory that they have inhabited for centuries, which might have given rise to a common ethnographic culture, one logically concludes as follows:

Natural terrain, language, religion, shared history—all of these do not constitute the essence of a nation; they are merely descriptions of it… But the essence of a nation, the alpha and omega of its distinctive character is its special physical attribute, the formula of its racial composition… in the final analysis when all shells arising from history, the climate, natural surroundings, and outside influences, have been removed the “nation” is reduced to its racial kernel.11

“Race” was always a scientific concept for Jabotinsky. He believed that even if there were no truly pure races, there was a “racial formula,” and he was also convinced that in the future it would be possible, by means of a blood test or a glandular secretion, to have a system of classification based on these formulae—the “Italian race,” the “Polish race” and of course the “Jewish race.” In order to understand the Jews and their conduct in history, it was necessary to discern their origin, and especially to preserve their distinctiveness. Without the protective armor of religion, prolonged residence among other nations might dissolve that distinctiveness and cause them to vanish. They should thus gather as soon as possible in a state of their own. Jabotinsky did have a liberal side, and even a surprisingly universalist worldview (or perhaps not surprising, as he had acquired his education in Italy rather than in Germany), but nevertheless he believed in the continued physical/biological existence of the Jewish people, which had sprung from a uniform ethnic and territorial source to which it must return as soon as possible. This was the focus of his entire historical thinking.

It should be pointed out that, despite the impression given by Israeli histo-

  1. Ze’ev Jabotinsky, “Letter on Autonomism,” in Selected Writings: Exile and Assimilation, Tel Aviv: Shlomo Zaltzman, 1936 (in Hebrew), 143-4.
  2. From a Jabotinsky manuscript quoted by Gideon Shimoni, The Zionist Ideology,

Hanover: Brandeis University Press, 1995, 240.


riography, the Zionist right did not have a monopoly on the essentialist concept of the nation. Even the well-known Marxist Ber Borochov was not free from “biology.” Zionist socialism shared the same conceptual mechanisms, and it, too, padded them with universalist rhetoric, though of a different sort.

As we saw in the third chapter, Borochov regarded the Palestinian fellahin as an integral part of the Jewish race, a population that could easily be welded into the steel structure of socialist Zionism. So did his disciples and the future founders of the State of Israel, Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Ben-Zvi—until the Arab uprising of 1929. Initially Borochov contended that, since the locals were as much descendants of the ancient people of Judea as were all the world’s Jews, they should be taken back into the body of the nation, while becoming acculturated in a secular manner. The Zionist left would never have considered admitting into the warm bosom of the Jewish people Muslim peasants of a different biological origin. But after the 1929 “pogroms” Borochov reversed this opinion with astonishing speed.

Arthur Ruppin was another leftist Zionist whose political outlook was profoundly shaken by the fateful events of 1929. That was when he began to distance himself from the pacifist Brith Shalom (“Peace Alliance”) group, a movement of intellectuals who strove to reach an accommodation with the Arab population by renouncing the demand for a sovereign Jewish majority in Palestine. Ruppin became convinced—correctly, as it happens—that a national-colonialist clash was inescapable, and became a committed Zionist.

Ruppin is a unique and fascinating figure in the history of Zionism. His career in the Jewish national movement began, like Kohn’s, in the new little “blood community” group of the Bar Kokhba circle in Prague. But earlier still, in 1900, he took part in an essay competition in Germany on the question, “What may be learned from the theory of evolution about internal political developments and political legislation?” The first prize went to Wilhelm Schallmayer, a pioneer of eugenics, whom the Nazis would greatly admire after his death. The second prize went to Ruppin for a paper that discussed Darwinism and the social sciences, and that two years later became his doctoral dissertation.

Ruppin was a confirmed Darwinist throughout his life. He believed that the Jewish nation was primarily a biological entity. He was aware that the Jews were not a “pure race,” since in the course of their wanderings in the world they had absorbed alien elements. Nevertheless, they constituted a hereditary unit, which alone gave substance to their national demands.

[T]his very likeness to the Asiatic peoples, from whom they have been separated for 2,000 years, shows that the Jews have remained unchanged, and


that in the Jews of to-day we may say we have the same people who fought victoriously under King David, who repented their misdeeds under Ezra and Nehemiah, died fighting for freedom under Bar-Kochba, were the great carriers of trade between Europe and the Orient in the early Middle Ages

… Thus the Jews have not only preserved their great natural racial gifts, but through a long process of selection these gifts have become strengthened. The terrible conditions under which the Jews lived during the last 500 years necessitated a bitter struggle for life in which only the cleverest and strongest survived… The result is that in the Jew of to-day, we have what is in some respects a particularly valuable human type. Other nations may have other points of superiority, but in respect of intellectual gifts the Jews can scarcely be surpassed by any nation.12

Did all the Jews in the world possess such exceptional mental qualities? The young Ruppin thought they did not, and stressed in a footnote, “It is perhaps owing to this severe process of selection that the Ashkenazim are to-day superior in activity, intelligence and scientific capacity to the Sephardim and Arabian Jews, in spite of their common ancestry.”13 The Zionist leader was therefore undecided whether the influx of Jews from Yemen, Morocco and the Caucasus to the Land of Israel was a positive occurrence: “But the spiritual and intellectual status of these Jews is so low that an immigration en masse would lower the general cultural standard of the Jews in Palestine and would be bad from several points of view.”14

The profoundly Eurocentric outlook was even stronger than the concept of the Jewish race, and this simplistic Orientalism was common in all the Zionist movements. But while there were doubts about the immigration of Jews from the Arab East, the Ashkenazi Jews were urged to hurry and return to their homeland so as to preserve and protect what was left of their racial distinction. For Ruppin as for other proponents of Zionism, assimilation of the Jews among the gentiles was an even greater threat to the existence of the people than was the gentiles’ hatred: “It is certain, however, that by intermarriage the race-character is lost, and that descendants of a mixed marriage are not likely to have any remarkable gifts.”15 They might eventually eliminate the Jewish ethnos. It was Ruppin who expressed in 1923 an idea that was widespread, though not often proclaimed:

12 Arthur Ruppin, The Jews of To-Day, London: Bell and Sons, 1913, 216-17. 13 Ibid., 271

14 Ibid., 294. Still, it would be good for small numbers of Jews from Arab countries to come, for they are satisfied with little and can replace the Arab laborers.

15 Ibid, 217.


I think that Zionism is less than ever justifiable now except by the fact that the Jews belong racially to the peoples of the Near East. I am now collecting material for a book on the Jews to be based on the problem of race. I want to include illustrations showing the ancient peoples of the Orient and the contemporary population and describe the types which used to and still predominate among the peoples living in Syria and Asia Minor. I want to demonstrate that these same types still exist among the Jews of today.16

The first edition of The Sociology of the Jews, in Hebrew and in German, appeared in 1930. The time—the beginning of the 1930s—and the places of publication—Berlin/Tel Aviv—were germane to the work’s basic rhetoric. The first chapters are entitled “The Racial Composition of the Jews in Eretz Israel” and “The History of the Jewish Race outside Eretz Israel.” The author states in the introduction that the subject of the origin of the Jews had preoccupied him for many years and remained unaltered. Alien blood had in fact seeped into the Jewish people, but the founder of the sociology department at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem continued to believe that “most Jews [continue to] resemble in their racial composition their ancient ancestors in Eretz Israel.”17

At the end of Ruppin’s first volume, there are many photographs of “typically Jewish” heads that provide visual support for the central theses about the distinctive variation and unity among Jews of different communities. The facial features and the shape of the skull supposedly proved that all the Jews had originated in ancient Asia. But the racial kinship with Asia did not need to cause anxiety—the cultural inferiority of the natives of Palestine ensured that the Jewish settlers would not intermarry with them.

Ruppin knew the “Orient” well. In 1908 he was appointed director of the Palestine Office of the central executive of the Zionist movement, with the specific task of buying land. He was the father of Jewish settlement, and it would not be an exaggeration to say that Ruppin was to Zionist colonization what Herzl was for the organized national movement. Although by 1948 only some 10 percent of the land of Palestine had been purchased, he could claim much of the credit for the agro-economic infrastructure on which Israel was established. He bought land all over the country, and also set up the central institutions that distributed it. He did much to ensure that the Zionist conquest of the soil would be totally separated from the Palestinian agricultural economy. The biological distinction had to be maintained by systematic “ethnic” separation.

  1. Alex Bein (ed), Arthur Ruppin: Memoirs, Diaries, Letters, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1971, 205.
  2. Arthur Ruppin, “The Social Structure of the Jews,” in vol. 1 of The Sociology of the Jews, 2nd edn., Berlin-Tel Aviv: Shtibel, [1930] 1934, 15.


Ruppin’s practical activity did not entirely interrupt his theoretical work. In 1926 he was appointed lecturer in “the sociology of the Jews” at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem; thereafter, till his death in 1943, he continued to develop his demographic ideas about the Darwinist struggle of the “Jewish race.” Right up until the outbreak of the Second World War, he even maintained academic ties with the eugenicist thinkers who were thriving in Germany. Amazingly, the victory of Nazism did not entirely curtail these contacts. After Hitler’s rise to power, the Jerusalem lecturer traveled to Germany to visit Hans Günther, the “pope” of racial theory, who joined the Nazi party in 1932, was the architect of the extermination of the Gypsies, and remained a Holocaust denier to his dying day.18

This bizarre association with the National Socialists must not be misunderstood. The juxtaposition of ethnocentric nationalism and biology would give rise to a monstrous perversion in the first half of the twentieth century, but most Zionists did not think in terms of blood purity nor did they seek such purification. The project of systematically expelling “aliens” from their midst never came up, because it was hardly needed, especially since the traditional Jewish religion, though no longer a hegemonic religious belief, was still useful in part as the confirmation of a Jewish identity. The secular Zionists continued to recognize, though not to celebrate, religious conversion. It should be remembered that some of the race proponents— from Hess through Nordau to Buber—were married to gentile women of “alien blood.”19

The purpose of Jewish biology was to promote separation from others, not actually to be purified of them. It sought to serve the project of ethnic nationalist consolidation in the taking over of an imaginary ancient homeland.

  1. Ruppin noted in his diary in August 1933: “At Dr Landauer’s suggestion, on 11 August I went to Jena to see Professor Gunther, the founder of the National-Socialist racial theory. We talked for two hours. Gunther was very affable. He argued that he had no copyright on the concept of Aryanism, and agreed with me that the Jews are not inferior, only different, and that the problem must be resolved fairly,” Arthur Ruppin, Chapters of My Life, Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 1968 (in Hebrew), 223; see also ibid., 181-2.
  2. Nordau wrote to Herzl on January 22, 1898: “My wife is a Christian Protestant. Of course, my upbringing makes me oppose any compulsion in matters of sentiment, and to prefer the human over the national. But today I think that it is necessary to place greater stress on the national element, and I regard mixed marriages as quite undesirable. Had I met my wife today, or had I met her in the past eighteen months, I would have resisted mightily my growing feeling for her, and would have told myself that as a Jew I have no right to allow my feelings to dominate me… I loved my wife before I became a Zionist, and I have no right to penalize her for the persecution of our race by her race.” Shalom Schwartz, Max Nordau in His Letters, Jerusalem: Schwartz, 1944 (in Hebrew), 70.


Moreover, most if not all of the Zionist supporters of the blood theory rejected the explicit and deterministic hierarchy of “racial groups.” In their outlook, the theory about superior and inferior races was marginal. To be sure, there was no shortage of praise and adulation for Jewish genius, no shortage of swaggering about its extraordinary qualities (at times, this resembled anti-Semitic stereotypes). But uttered by a helpless, persecuted minority, this was perceived as more ridiculous than threatening, pathetic but not dangerous.

It should be noted, however, that the Jewish blood theory was not held exclusively by the handful of leading thinkers quoted above. It was popular in all currents of the Zionist movement, and its imprint can be found in almost all its publications, congresses and conferences. Young intellectuals of the movement’s second rank copied and distributed it among the activists and supporters, and it became a kind of axiom that inspired dreams and imaginings of the ancient Jewish people.20

The concept of Jewish heredity, and even the theory of eugenics associated with it, was especially prominent among the scientists and physicians who joined Zionism. Raphael Falk’s bold book Zionism and the Biology of the Jews recapitulated their story in detail.21 Dr. Aaron Sandler, a leading Zionist in Germany who emigrated to Mandatory Palestine in 1934 and became the physician of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, knew that there were no pure races but argued that the Jews had, in effect, become a racial entity. On the other hand, Dr. Elias Auerbach, who settled in Haifa back in 1905, was convinced that the Jewish people had always been a pure race, and that Jews had not intermarried with gentiles since the time of Titus. Dr. Aaron Binyamini, who became, after his arrival in Palestine, the physician of the famous Gymnasia Herzliya, continued to measure and weigh his students to prove the principles of natural selection. Dr. Mordechai Boruchov, who also lived in Mandatory Palestine, argued in 1922 that “in the struggle between the nations, in the secret, cultural’ war between one nation and another, the winner is the one who ensures the improvement of the race and the biological enhancement of his offspring.”22

  • On the presence of Jewish racial theory in Zionist circles, see the excellent article by Rina Rekem-Peled, “Zionism: A Reflection of Anti-Semitism: On the Relationship Between Zionism and Anti-Semitism in Germany of the Second Reich,” in J. Borut and O. Heilbronner (eds.), German Anti-Semitism, Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 2000 (in Hebrew), 133-56.
  • See Raphael Falk, Zionism and the Biology of the Jews, Tel Aviv: Resling, 2006 (in Hebrew), 97-109. This book is a treasure trove of information about Zionist and Israeli scientists’ views on race and heredity, despite some conceptual weakness, especially in the summary. Regarding British and German scientists who searched eagerly for a Jewish race, see also John M. Efron, Defenders of the Race: Jewish Doctors and Race Science in Fin-de- Siècle Europe, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994.
  • Quoted in Falk, Zionism and the Biology of the Jews, 147.


During the violent Arab uprising in 1929, Dr. Yaacov Zess, another physician, published an essay entitled “The Hygiene of the Body and the Spirit,” in which he emphasized that “we, more than other nations, need racial hygiene.” Dr. Yosef Meir, head of the Labor Federation’s Sick Fund, who would later become the first director-general of the Israeli ministry of health, agreed with Zess, and stated in the 1934 guide to members of the fund, “For us, eugenics in general, and preventing the transmission of hereditary diseases in particular, is of even greater value than for other nations!”23

The greatest of them all was the well-known physician and biologist Redcliffe Nathan Salaman. This British Zionist, who contributed a great deal to the Faculty of Life Sciences at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and was a member of its board of trustees, was also the first to try to transpose assumptions from physical anthropology to genetics, which was then a young science with a brilliant future. An article of his entitled “The Heredity of the Jews” appeared in the first issue of the pioneering Journal of Genetics in 1911. Thereafter, Salaman insisted that even if the Jews were not a pure race, it posed no problem—they were still a solid biological entity. Aside from the fact that the Jew was identifiable by the shape of his skull, his features and his bodily measurements, there was also a Jewish allele that was responsible for this distinctive physical appearance.24 There were of course differences between the fair Ashkenazi and the swarthy Sephardi, but the reasons for them were straightforward: the latter had mixed more with their neighbors. The noticeable Ashkenazi fairness sprang from the ancient Philistines, who were absorbed by the Jewish nation in antiquity. Long-skulled European invaders became part of the Hebrew people, hence their whitish appearance. The reason the Yemenite Jews were of smaller stature and submissive character was that “they are not Jews. They are black, with an elongated skull, Arab half-castes… The true Jew is the European Ashkenazi, and I support him against all the others.”25

Salaman was more of a eugenicist than a geneticist; to him, Zionism was a eugenic project designed to improve the Jewish race. The young people in Palestine seemed to him bigger and stronger: “Some force has acted on them to produce anew the Philistine type in Philistia.” The mysterious force was the natural selection that reinvigorated the Philistine genes in the genetic stock of the Jews. A similar process was taking place in Britain, where the Anglo-Jews,

23 Ibid., 150.

24 Ibid., 106-9. An allele is one of several alternative versions of a gene that is responsible for hereditary variation.

25 Ibid, 129.


especially those who donated money to the Zionist enterprise, were acquiring an unmistakable Hittite expression.26

Were it not for the tragic consequences of twentieth-century eugenics, and had Salaman been a marginal figure in the early days of Jewish science in the land of Israel, this text would merely make us smile. But eugenics contributed to grave ideological perversions, and as we shall see, Salaman had too many successors in the departments of life sciences in the State of the Jewish people.

The broad Israeli historiography contains a good deal of apologetics excusing the presence of “biology” in the Zionist discourse, noting that this was a common fashion at the end of the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century. True, many scientific publications, as much as daily newspapers and popular weeklies, carried articles that confounded heredity and culture, blood and national identity. The term “race” was frequently used by anti-Semites, but it was also used by the respectable press and in liberal and socialist circles. The Zionist thinkers and promoters who discussed theories of blood and race, the argument goes, did not really take them seriously, and certainly they could not have anticipated the horrific developments that these ideas would help bring about. But this contextual historical argument, though convenient, is far from accurate.

It is true that borrowing from biology to describe historical developments was a widespread practice before the Second World War, but it must not be forgotten that the physical anthropology that classified races, and the science of blood that complemented it, was contested by scholars. The simplistic transposition of natural laws into human society and culture rang a warning bell among thinkers and scientists in various disciplines. Some of the critics even challenged directly the idea of a Jewish race, the very idea that anti-Semites and Zionists were beginning to acclaim. Two prominent illustrations, taken from two ends of the ideological spectrum of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, can illustrate the argument.

In 1883 the well-known French scholar Ernest Renan was invited to address the Saint-Simon circle in Paris, which had a good number of French Israelites as members. In the 1850s and 1860s, Renan’s early philological writings had contributed to the consolidation of Orientalism and “scientific” racialism throughout Europe. Racists of all sorts derived much encouragement from his classification of the Aryan and Semitic languages, which he padded with a fair amount of prejudice. Yet apparently the rise of racist anti-Semitism in the early 1880s worried him, leading him to entitle a lecture “Judaism as Race and as Religion.”27

26 Ibid., 180.

27 Ernest Renan, Le Judaïsme comme race et religion, Paris: Calmann Lévy, 1883. This lecture continued the tendency expressed in his lecture the previous year, in which Renan


Renan’s rhetoric was still replete with such terms as “race” and even “blood,” but his historical erudition resisted the dominant verbal conventions. By dint of a short, sharp empirical analysis, he joined the outlook of the German historian Theodor Mommsen and attacked the popular views ascribing to the Jews qualities of an ancient, closed race of uniform origin.

Christianity, Renan stated, was not the first religion that called on all humanity to believe in a single deity; it was Judaism that began the great campaign of religious conversion. To demonstrate his thesis, he began by surveying the wave of Judaization during the Hellenistic and Roman period, until Cassius Dio’s famous assertion in the third century CE that the term “Jew” no longer applied to people of Judean descent (see Chapter 3, above). The Jews used to convert their slaves, and their synagogues were effective venues that attracted their neighbors to join them. The masses of Jewish believers in Italy, Gaul and elsewhere were mostly local people who had converted to Judaism.28 Renan went on to talk about the Adiabene kingdom, the Falashas, and the vast conversion under the Khazars.

In conclusion, Renan repeated, there is no Jewish race, nor one typical Jewish appearance. At most, self-isolation, endogenous marriage and the long periods in the ghettoes had produced certain Jewish types. The Jews’ secluded social life had affected their behavior and even their physiognomy. Heredity and blood had nothing to do with it. This social existence and even the typical occupations had not been freely chosen by the Jews, but imposed on them in the Middle Ages. In many ways the Jews of France did not differ from the Protestants. The Jews, mainly Gauls who had been Judaized in antiquity and become an oppressed religious minority, were liberated by the French Revolution, which ended the ghettoes. Thereafter, the Jews were part and parcel of the national culture of France, and the question of race had no significance whatsoever.

This contribution by the leading French intellectual of his day, the Jean-Paul Sartre of the period, undoubtedly lent significant support to the liberal-democratic camp, which would ultimately roll back the ethnocentric and anti-Semitic nationalist wave of the Dreyfus Affair. A similar role, in another political, national and cultural arena, was played by Karl Kautsky.

This “pope” of the Marxism of the Second International, a methodical thinker of Czech origin, succeeded Marx and Engels at the head of Europe’s socialist camp at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth

sought to define the nation on a voluntarist basis (see the Chapter 1). The lecture on Judaism was translated into English and published by the American Jewish Committee as a response to German racism in Contemporary Jewish Record 6: 4 (1943), 436-48.

28 Ibid, 444.


century. Though there were anti-Semitic elements in the organized workers’ parties, the movement itself opposed racism, and Kautsky was one of its leading guides in the labyrinth of ideological modernization. In 1914, on the eve of the war, he set out to tackle one of the most pressing questions on the German cultural scene. His book Judaism and Race—which appeared in English in 1926 under the title Are the Jews a Race?—sought to clarify the issue, which was becoming toxic and troubling.29

Unlike Marx, Kautsky was free of prejudice concerning Jews and Judaism, but he followed the great German thinker in his materialist view of history. Hence, though he accepted the Darwinist theories of evolution, he refused to apply them to the human sphere. All living beings adapt themselves to their environment in order to survive, he contended, but humanity also adapts its environment to suit its needs. Thus human labor creates a different kind of evolution, in which man’s consciousness changes as he works—in other words, in the process of altering his environment.

As Kautsky saw it, many of the scientific theories in the capitalist era were used to justify the ruling classes’ domination and exploitation of society. The new ideas about the human races went hand in hand with colonialist expansion, and were promoted mainly to legitimize the brutal might of the great powers: Why complain if nature, rather than social history, created masters and slaves? In Germany the racist ideology was also applied to the power relations in Europe: the descendants of the blond Teutons were gifted, while the Latins, heirs of the dark Celts who rose up in the French Revolution, lacked productive strength. These two races were locked in permanent struggle. But the worst and most dangerous race, according to the new racist scientists, were the Jews, a strange and alien element.

Jews were easily distinguished by their appearance: the shape of the skull, the nose, the hair, the eyes. All these were distinctive features of the dangerous wandering race. But Kautsky argued that significant statistics showed that there were variations in these physical features, which made it impossible to use them to identify supporters of the Mosaic religion. For example, Jews from the Caucasus were short-skulled (brachycephalic), and the Jews of North Africa and the Arab countries were long-skulled (dolichocephalic), while among European Jews the shape was average and varied. The Jews resembled in appearance the populations among whom they lived, far more than they

  • Karl Kautsky, Are the Jews a Race?, New York: Jonathan Cape, 1926. The quotes are taken from an online version available at www.marxists.org, where the entire text can be found. It is noteworthy that while several of Kautsky’s works have been translated into Hebrew, this one has not.


resembled their coreligionists elsewhere. The same might be said of their physical conduct, their gestures and their mental qualities.

If certain Jewish communities had distinctive qualities, they were due to history, not biology. The economic functions to which they were diverted gave rise to a specific subculture and concomitant linguistic markers. But modernization was slowly eroding the traditional Jewish separation and was integrating Jewish believers into the new national cultures. Thus, if the arguments of anti-Semitism were scientifically worthless, so, too, were those of the Zionist ideology that complemented them with similar reasoning. Kautsky had witnessed the suffering of the Jews of Eastern Europe, especially the persecutions instigated by the Tsarist regime, but as a socialist he could propose only one solution to the problem of anti-Semitism— the struggle for a new and egalitarian world, in which national problems would be resolved and the issue of race would disappear from the political agenda.

In his lecture against the concept of a Jewish race, Kautsky referred, inter alia, to two anthropologists, both of them Americans of Jewish background, who contested both the popular biological interpretation of human history and the racialization of the Jews. Both Franz Boas, often described as the father of American anthropology, and Maurice Fishberg, who was also a demographer, published important books in 1911. Boas’s book, The Mind of Primitive Man, sought to demolish the speculative connections between racial origin and culture, and Fishberg’s The Jews: A Study of Race and Environment used an empirical approach to show that the physical form and the origin of the Jews were not uniform on any level.30 Boas’s decisive influence on freeing American anthropology from nineteenth-century biological Darwinism has been much written about. No wonder that in Germany, in 1933, excited Nazi students burned copies of the German edition of his book.31

Fishberg’s book received less notice, but it helped discredit the views of anti-Jewish racists. His research was based on a morphological examination of three thousand immigrants in New York, accompanied by original observations that drew attention to the broad range of characteristics, linked to the history of the Jews. His comprehensive work ended with the conclusion that there was no basis for assuming an ethnic unity among modern Jews, nor a Jewish race, any more than one could speak of the ethnic unity of Christians or Muslims, or of a Unitarian, Presbyterian or Methodist race.

  • Franz Boas, The Mind of Primitive Man, New York: The Free Press, 1965. First published in 1911, it is considered a classic. See also Maurice Fishberg, The Jews: A Study of Race and Environment, Whitefish: Kessinger Publishing, 2007.
  • On Boas’s theories, see Vernon Williams Jr., Rethinking Race: Franz Boas and His Contemporaries, Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1996.



Fishberg’s book was never translated into Hebrew, nor did three other books that continued his scientific legacy attract any attention in Israel: Harry L. Shapiro’s antiracist The Jewish People: A Biological History, published in 1960; The Myth of the Jewish Race, a massive tome by Raphael Patai and his daughter Jennifer Patai; and The Myth of the Jewish Race: A Biologist’s Point of View, by Alain Corcos. None of them was translated into Hebrew, and their theses were never discussed in Israeli arenas of culture and research.32 It would seem that the “scientific” structure that Ruppin and Salaman installed in Jerusalem in the 1930s and 1940s effectively blocked the importation into Israel of anthropological and genetic literature that cast doubt on the very existence of a Jewish race-nation, and might have impeded the ideological production line of the Zionist enterprise.

After the Second World War, of course, the use of the terms “race” and “blood” became awkward. In 1950, a much-publicized declaration by a number of senior scientists, under the aegis of UNESCO, completely rejected any connection between biology and national cultures, stating that the concept of race was a social myth rather than a scientific fact, after which serious researchers avoided the term.33 But this general acceptance did not deter the workers in the life sciences in Israel, nor did it undermine the profound Zionist belief in the common origin of the wandering people. “The Jewish race” disappeared from the vocabulary of conventional research, but it was replaced by a scientific field with a respectable title: “the study of the origin of the Jewish communities.” Popular journalism dubbed it simply “the search for the Jewish gene.”

The State of Israel, which had begun to import people from the Jewish communities of Europe and later imported many Jews from the Muslim world, was now confronted with the urgency of creating a new nation. As noted in previous chapters, the principal function in this cultural production was undertaken by the Hebrew intellectuals who had immigrated to Mandatory Palestine and whose early educational endeavor preceded the establishment of the State. The “organic history of the Jewish people,” stretching from the Bible to the Palmah (a combat force of the pre-State Jewish community), was taught throughout the State educational system.

  • Respectively, Harry L. Shapiro, The Jewish People: A Biological History, Paris: UNESCO, 1960; Raphael Patai and Jennifer Patai, The Myth of the Jewish Race, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1989; and Alain F. Corcos, The Myth of the Jewish Race: A Biologist’s Point of View, Bethlehem: Lehigh University Press, 2005.
  • The Race Concept: Results of an Inquiry, Paris: UNESCO, 1952.


Zionist pedagogy produced generations of students who believed wholeheartedly in the ethnic uniqueness of their nation. But in the age of scientific positivism, nationalist ideology needed more substantial reification than the “soft” materials produced in the humanities. The biological laboratories were called upon to provide it, and at first they did so in fairly subdued manner.

Nurit Kirsh, who in recent years completed her doctoral dissertation at Tel Aviv University, has investigated the early stages of genetics research in Israel.34 Her conclusion is unambiguous: genetics, just like archaeology at the time, was a tendentious science subordinated to the national historical concept, which sought at all costs to discover a biological homogeneity among the Jews in the world. The geneticists internalized the Zionist myth and, consciously or not, attempted to adapt their findings to it. As she sees it, the main difference between the Zionist anthropologists in the pre-State period and the new scientists in Israel was that genetics became less prominent in the public arena in Israel. Research findings that, despite their ideological bias, were published in international scientific journals were hardly noticed in the Hebrew-language media. This meant that their pedagogical function in the general education system was marginal.

It is possible that in the 1950s and early 1960s the new and hesitant Israeli genetics served only the professional elite. But the attempt to detect a Jewish particularity in fingerprints, for example, or the search for diseases that only Jews were subject to, did not succeed. It transpired that Jews did not have fingerprints specific to ancient deicides, and that diseases found among Eastern European Jews (e.g., Tay-Sachs) did not resemble diseases found among Iraqi or Yemenite Jews (e.g., favism). But the valuable biomedical and genetic information accumulated in Israeli laboratories would later achieve a more respectable status.

In 1978 Oxford University Press published The Genetics of the Jews, by a team of researchers headed by Arthur E. Mourant.35 This British scholar was influenced by a much-loved mentor who belonged to a sect that believed the British people were descendants of the “Ten Lost Tribes,” hence his interest in the Jews. For much of his life, the enthusiastic Mourant believed that he and all

  • Nurit Kirsh, The Teaching and Research of Genetics at the Hebrew University (1935- 1961), unpublished, Tel Aviv University, 2003 (in Hebrew); also, see her article “Population Genetics in Israel in the 1950s: The Unconscious Internalization of Ideology,” ISIS, Journal of the History of Science 94 (2003), 631-55.
  • Arthur E. Mourant et al., The Genetics of the Jews, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978.


the people around him were authentic Jews. When the British forces captured Palestine, he was convinced that this signaled the beginning of salvation. Years later, he set out to discover the common biological origin of the “real” Jews, and adapted his genetic anthropology to the biblical story. As the Israeli geneticist Raphael Falk described it, the British scientist “first fired his arrows, then drew the target around them”36 To Mourant and his colleagues, the marked differences between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews notwithstanding, they all had to have a single common origin. By examining the frequency of A and B alleles in separate communities, he strove to show that the genes of Jews from different regions displayed a higher degree of uniformity than could be found when those same subjects’ genes were compared to those of their non-Jewish neighbors. But if the genetic findings did not exactly support the ideological purpose, it would be necessary to search for other results.

Although Mourant’s theory was weak and unfounded—the application of genetics to such diffuse categories as “Ashkenazi” and “Sephardic” was senseless, as they represent varieties of religious rituals—it legitimized and invigorated the search for the Jewish gene in the life sciences at Israeli universities. The passage of time since the Second World War removed the remaining inhibitions. Israel’s rule since 1967 over a growing non-Jewish population intensified the urge to find an enclosing ethnobiological boundary. In 1980 an article by Bat Sheva Bonné-Tamir of Tel Aviv University’s School of Medicine, entitled “A New Look at the Genetics of the Jews,” appeared in the Israeli science monthly Mada (“Science”). The writer proudly described the originality of the fresh search for the Jewish genes, and opened the article with the statement “In the 1970s many new studies were published in the field of the genetic anthropology of the Jews, studies dealing with such subjects as ‘What is the origin of the Jewish people?’ and ‘Is there a Jewish race?’ “37

Before the 1970s, she asserted, the studies were biased because of the anti- racist motivations that lay behind them; they set out to emphasize the genetic differences between Jewish communities. The new studies, however, based on tremendous developments in the field, highlighted the basic genetic similarities among the various communities, and the small proportion of “alien” genes in the genetic stock characteristic of Jews: “One of the prominent findings shows the genetic kinship between the Jews of North Africa, Iraq and

  • Falk, Zionism and the Biology of the Jews, 175.
  • Bat Sheva Bonne-Tamir, “A New Look at the Genetics of the Jews,” Mada 44: 4-5, 1980 (in Hebrew), 181-6. See also her much more cautious article, Bonne-Tamir et al., “Analysis of Genetic Data on Jewish Populations. I. Historical Background, Demographic Features, Genetic Markers,” American Journal of Human Genetics 31: 3 (1979), 324-40.


the Ashkenazis. In most cases they form a single block, whereas the non-Jews (Arabs, Armenians, Samaritans and Europeans) were significantly remote from them.”38 The scientist hastened to point out that she had not set out to isolate a Jewish race—on the contrary, she had intended to use blood groups to reveal the heterogeneity of Jewish characteristics—but was quite astonished by the new findings. These corroborated the literature about the dispersal and wanderings of the Jews from ancient times to the present. At last, biology confirmed history.

The Zionist idea of the Jewish nation-race materialized as a solid life science, and a new discipline was born: “Jewish genetics.” What could be more convincing than publication in respected journals in the Anglo-Saxon world? The gates of Western canonical science—mainly in the United States—opened to the industrious Israeli researchers, who regularly blended historical mythologies and sociological assumptions with dubious and scanty genetic findings. Despite the limited resources available in Israel for academic research, it became a world leader in the “investigation of the origins of populations.” In 1981 Israel hosted the sixth international conference on human heredity, with Professor Bonne-Tamir acting as its secretary. From that time on, Israeli researchers received generous funds from government and private foundations, and the scientific results soon followed. Over the next twenty years, interest in Jewish genetics spread to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, and the Technion in Haifa. No less significant was that, in contrast to the cautious 1950s, the findings were now trumpeted in the public arena. Toward the end of the twentieth century, the average Israeli knew that he or she belonged to a definite genetic group of fairly homogeneous ancient origin.

In November 2000 the Israeli daily Haaretz published an illuminating report about the research of Professor Ariela Oppenheim and her colleagues at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The actual findings were published that month in Human Genetics, a scientific periodical published by Springer Verlag in Germany.39 The reason for the media interest was the discovery made by the team of a remarkable closeness between certain mutations in the Y-chromosome of Jews, both “Ashkenazi” and “Sephardic,” and those of the “Israeli Arabs” and the

  • Bonne-Tamir, “A new look at the genetics of the Jews,” 185.
  • Tamara Traubman, “The Jews and the Palestinians in Israel and the Territories Have Common Ancestors,” Haaretz, November 12, 2000; and A. Oppenheim et al., “High- Resolution Y Chromosome Haplotypes of Israeli and Palestinian Arabs Reveal Geographic Substructure and Substantial Overlap with Haplotypes of Jews,” Human Genetics 107 (2000), 630-41.


Palestinians. The conclusion reached was that two-thirds of the Palestinians and roughly the same proportion of Jews shared three male ancestors eight thousand years ago. In actual fact, the expanded scientific paper showed a somewhat more complex, and much more confusing, picture: those mutations in the Y-chromosome also indicated that the “Jews” resembled the “Lebanese Arabs” more than the Czechs, but the “Ashkenazis,” as opposed to the “Sephardics,” were relatively closer to the “Welsh” than to the “Arabs.”

The study had been written and edited during the period of the Oslo Accords, before the outbreak of the Second Intifada. Unfortunately, by the time it appeared in print the uprising had already broken out. The genetic data showing that Jews and Palestinians had some ancient ancestors in common did not cause the conflict to be described as an internecine war, but it did indirectly reinforce the assumption, which had struck root some time earlier, that the origin of all the Jews lay unquestionably in the Near East.

The rigor of those investigating Jewish DNA in Israel was demonstrated by the sequel to the team’s biological adventure. A little over a year after the first important discovery, the inside pages of Haaretz carried a sensational new scoop. It transpired that the genetic resemblance between the Jews and the Palestinians, discovered by the previous research, did not exist. The scientists admitted that their earlier experiment had not been sufficiently grounded and detailed, and that its conclusions had been hasty. In fact, the Jews—or, at any rate, the male ones—were related not to the neighboring Palestinians but rather to the distant Kurds. The new paper, published first by the American Society of Human Genetics, showed that the sly Y-chromosome had fooled its inexperienced investigators.40 But never fear, the updated genetic picture still indicated that the Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews were related, only now they did not resemble the local Arabs, but rather the Armenians, Turks, and chiefly, as noted, the Kurds. Needless to say, it is not suggested that the raging intifada had indirectly advanced the science of genetics in Israel, yet from then on the blood brothers were once more apart and alien.

The scientific correspondent of Haaretz, who was positive that the Jews were the descendants of the ancient Hebrews, at once approached historians of antiquity to explain this disturbing discovery of a strange origin. Several respected professors were unable to help—they had no information about an

  • Tamara Traubman, “A Great Genetic Resemblance Between the Jews and the Kurds,” Haaretz, December 21, 2001; and Oppenheim et al., “The Y Chromosome Pool of Jews as Part of the Genetic Landscape of the Middle East,” American Society of Human Genetics 69 (2001), 1,095-112. It should be noted that mutations on the Y-chromosome can point to a single patrilineal inheritance, not the entire descent on the father’s side.


ancient migration from the northern Fertile Crescent to the area of Canaan (the patriarch Abraham famously “made aliyah” from southern Iraq). Was it possible that the finding corroborated the thesis that the Jews descended from the Khazars, rather than from the seed of the venerable Abraham? Speaking by telephone from Stanford University in the United States, the respected scientist Professor Marc Feldman assured the correspondent that there was no need to reach such an extreme conclusion—the particular mutation in the Y chromosome of the Kurds, Armenians and Jews was also found in other peoples in the region of the Fertile Crescent, not necessarily in the Khazars, people forgotten by God and history.

Barely a year later, Haaretz came up with a new report. It was now quite certain that the Jewish males originated in the Near East, but with respect to Jewish women the investigation had run into an awkward difficulty.41 A new scientific study that investigated the mitochondrial DNA (which is inherited only from the mother) in nine Jewish communities discovered that the origin of the supposedly kosher Jewish women did not lie in the Near East at all. This worrisome finding showed that “each community had a small number of founding mothers,” but they were not interconnected at all. The uncomfortable explanation was that Jewish men had come from the Near East unattached and were forced to take local wives, whom they undoubtedly converted to Judaism in the proper manner.

This last dubious revelation worried those rooting for the Jewish gene, and a doctoral dissertation apparently began to be written at the Haifa Technion, concluding that in spite of the ancient mothers’ scandalous disrespect for Jewish uniqueness, some 40 percent of all the Ashkenazis in the world descend from four matriarchs (as in the Bible). Haaretz, as always, reported the discovery faithfully and extensively. Maariv, a more popular daily, added that those ancient grandmothers “were born about 1,500 years ago in Eretz Israel, from whence their families migrated to Italy, later to the Rhine and the Champagne regions.”42

A summary of this reassuring dissertation by Doron Behar about “Ashkenazi mitochondrial DNA” was published in the American Journal of Human Genetics.43 Its supervisor was Karl Skorecki, a veteran researcher in Jewish genetics. This Orthodox professor, who came to the Technion’s medical

  • Tamara Traubman, “The Ancient Jewish Males Have Origins in the Middle East: The Origin of the Females Is Still a Mystery,” Haaretz, 16 May 2002.
  • Tamara Traubman, “40% of the Ashkenazis Descend From Four Mothers,” Haaretz, January 14, 2006; Alex Doron, “40% of the Ashkenazis: Descendants of Four Mothers from the 6th Century,” Maariv, January 3, 2006.
  • Doron M, Behar et al., “The Matrilineal Ancestry of Ashkenazi Jewry: Portrait of a Recent Founder Event,” American Journal of Human Genetics 78 (2006), 487-97,


school from the University of Toronto, had earlier attracted attention when he discovered the amazing “seal of priesthood.” Skorecki himself is of course also a cohen, and an incident at his synagogue in Canada in the 1990s prompted him to investigate his “aristocratic” origin. Fortunately, he was invited by Rabbi Yaacov Kleiman, who as well as being a cohen himself, was also the director of the Center of Cohanim in Jerusalem, to investigate the origin of all those named Cohen in our time.44 The Center of Cohanim is an institution that is preparing for the construction of the Third Temple in Jerusalem. For this purpose, it trains the future priests who would serve in the temple when the Al-Aqsa mosque is demolished and the Jewish temple rises in its place. The center must have been well endowed financially to be able to fund the wished-for research.

This story might seem esoteric and fantastic, but given the “ethnic” realities of the late twentieth century, it grew into a “solid” science that attracted unusual attention and created a large following in Israel and the Jewish world. The cohanim—the ancient blood-aristocracy descended from Aaron, the brother of Moses—became unexpectedly popular in the age of molecular genetics. Sections of the genome called haplotypes (defined as a group of alleles of different genes on a single chromosome that are linked closely enough to be inherited, usually as a unit) were supposedly found to be distinctive among more than 50 percent of the men surnamed Cohen. Scientists from Britain, Italy and Israel participated in Skorecki’s investigation, and its findings were published in the prestigious British journal Nature.45 It proved beyond question that the Jewish priesthood was indeed founded by a common ancestor thirty-three centuries ago. The Israeli press hastened to publish the discovery, to great genetic joy.

The amusing aspect of this story is that the “priestly gene” could just as easily be a “non-Jewish gene.” Judaism is inherited from the mother, so it would not be far-fetched to assume that since the nineteenth century a good many non- believing cohanim have married “gentile” women, although the Halakhah forbids them to do so. These men may well have fathered “non-Jewish” offspring, who, according to Skorecki’s research, would bear the “genetic seal” of the cohanim. But Jewish scientists are not expected to consider minor details, especially as God is no longer involved—in this era of enlightened rationalism, pure Jewish science has replaced the ancient Jewish faith, with its burden of prejudices.

  • The rabbi’s book begins with the crucial event at the Canadian synagogue that led Professor Skorecki to take an interest in the genetics of the cohanim. Yaakov Kleiman, DNA and Tradition: The Genetic Link to the Ancient Hebrew, Jerusalem, New York: Devora Publishing, 2004, 17. Skorecki himself wrote the introduction and dubbed the book “masterful,”
  • K. Skorecki et al., “Y-Chromosomes of Jewish Priests,” Nature 385 (1997).


While the media celebrated the discovery and overlooked the potential contradiction in the thesis of the Jewish priestly gene, nobody asked why a costly biological investigation was devoted to the search for a hereditary religious caste. Similarly, no newspaper bothered to publish the findings of Professor Uzi Ritte, of the Department of Genetics at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who had examined those same priestly haplotypes on the Y-chromosome and found nothing distinctive about them.46

Once again, the public’s veneration of the “hard” sciences paid off. Laymen have no reason to doubt the truth of information derived from what is perceived to be a precise science. Like the field of physical anthropology in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which released dubious scientific- discoveries to the race-hungry public, the science of molecular genetics at the end of the twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first century feeds fragmentary findings and half-truths to the identity-seeking media. Yet so far, no research had found unique and unifying characteristics of Jewish heredity based on a random sampling of genetic material whose ethnic origin is not known in advance. By and large, what little is known about the methods of selecting test subjects seems very questionable. Moreover, the hasty findings are all too often constructed and supported by historical rhetoric unconnected to the research laboratories. The bottom line is that, after all the costly “scientific” endeavors, a Jewish individual cannot be defined by any biological criteria whatsoever.

This is not to preclude the potential contribution of genetic anthropology in uncovering important aspects of human history, and importantly in the fight against disease. Most probably, the investigation of DNA, a relatively young science, has a brilliant future. But in a state in which the law prevents marriage between a “Jew” and a “non-Jew,” we should be very wary about research that seeks genetic markers common to the “chosen people.” Like similar investigations carried out by Macedonian racists, Lebanese Phalangists, Lapps in northern Scandinavia, and so on,47 such Jewish-Israeli research cannot be entirely free from crude and dangerous racism.

  • Falk, Zionism and the Biology of the Jews, 189. On the methods used by various scientists, see the article by John P. A. Ioannidis, “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False,” PLos Med 2(8) (2005): e124.
  • On the Macedonian genes, see for example Antonio Arnaiz-Villena et al., “HLA Genes in Macedonians and the Sub-Saharan Origins of the Greeks,” Tissue Antigens 57: 2 (2001), 118-27. On the “Case of the Jews,” see the instructive article by Katya Gibel Azoulay, “Not an Innocent Pursuit: The politics of a ‘Jewish’ Genetic Signature,” Developing World Bioethics 3: 2 (2003), 119-26; and also Avshalom Zoossmann-Diskin et al., “Protein Electrophoretic Markers in Israel: Compilation of Data and Genetic Affinities,” Annals of Human Biology 29: 2 (2002), 142-75.


In 1940 the philosopher Walter Benjamin told a story about a famous chess-playing automaton (known as the Turk) that used to astonish audiences with its clever moves. Underneath the table hid a hunchbacked dwarf who actually played the game. In Benjamin’s analogy, the automaton represented materialistic thinking, and the hidden dwarf theology—meaning that in the age of modern rationalism, religious faith had to stay hidden.48

This image may be applied to the culture of biological science in Israel, and the public arena that it periodically furnishes with novelties: the genetic robot appears to be making the moves on the chessboard, while the little hunchback—the traditional idea of race—is obliged to hide because of the politically correct world discourse, yet continues to dupe and conduct the thrilling chromosome show.

In a state that defines itself as Jewish yet does not present distinguishing cultural markers that might define a worldwide secular Jewish existence— except for some depleted, secularized remnants of religious folklore—the collective identity needs a misty, promising image of an ancient biological common origin. Behind every act in Israel’s identity politics stretches, like a long black shadow, the idea of an eternal people and race.


In 1947 the UN General Assembly resolved by a majority vote to establish a “Jewish state” and an “Arab state” in the territory that had previously been known as “Palestine/Eretz Israel.”49 At that time, many thousands of displaced Jewish persons were wandering in Europe, and the small community that had been created by the Zionist settlement enterprise was supposed to take them in. The United States, which before 1924 had taken in many of the Yiddish Jews, now refused to open its gates to the broken remnants of the great Nazi massacre. So did the other rich countries. In the end, it was easier for these countries to solve the troublesome Jewish problem by offering a faraway land that was not theirs.

The governments that voted for the resolution did not concern themselves with the precise meaning of the term “Jew,” and did not imagine what it would come to mean as the new state consolidated. At the time, the Zionist elite— which had aspired and struggled to achieve a Jewish sovereignty—would have been unable to define clearly who was a Jew and who a gentile. Physical

  • Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History,” in Selected Writings, vol. 4, Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003, p. 389.
  • See the declaration available at www.knesset.gov.il.

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anthropology and, later, imported molecular genetics also failed to come up with a scientific yardstick by which to determine the origin of an individual Jew. Let us not forget that the Nazis themselves—despite their biological race doctrine, the jewel in their ideological crown—had been unable to do this, and so they ended up having to categorize Jews on the basis of bureaucratic documentation.

The first important mission to be undertaken by the new state was the removal, as best it could, of those who definitely did not regard themselves as Jews. The Arab states’ stubborn refusal to accept the UN’s partition resolution of 1947, and their joint assault on the young Jewish state, actually helped it to consolidate. Of the approximately 900,000 Palestinians who should have remained in Israel and the additional territories it had seized in its military victory, some 730,000 fled or were expelled—more than the total number of Jews in the country at that time (630,000).50 More significant for the country’s future was the ideological principle that it was the historical patrimony of the “Jewish people,” so that the state could without compunction refuse to allow the hundreds of thousands of refugees to return to their homes and fields when the fighting was over.

This partial cleansing did not entirely solve the identity problems in the new state. About 170,000 Arabs remained within its boundaries, and many of the displaced people who arrived from Europe brought their non- Jewish spouses. The 1947 UN resolution had clearly stated that the minorities remaining in both of the new states should have civil rights, and made this a condition of admitting them to the organization. Israel therefore had to grant citizenship to the Palestinians who remained. It expropriated more than half their land, and kept them under military government and harsh restrictions until 1966, but legally they were Israeli citizens.51

The Proclamation of Independence, the State of Israel’s founding charter, reflected this ambivalence. On the one hand, it met the UN requirements regarding the state’s democratic character—it promised “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; [and] freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.” On the other hand, it would embody the Zionist vision of its founders—

  • On the origin of the Palestinian refugee problem, see Benny Morris, “The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003; Ilan Pappe, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2007; see also Dominique Vidal, Comment Israel expulsa les Palestiniens (1947-1949), Paris: L’Atelier, 2007.
  • On the politics of land expropriation in Israel, see the impressive book of Oren Yiftachel, Ethnocracy: Land and Identity Politics in Israel/Palestine, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.


to implement “the right of the Jewish people to national rebirth in its own country” through “the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz-Israel.” How was this ambivalent? The following pages will try to answer this question.

Every large human group that thinks of itself as a people, even if it never was one and its past is entirely imaginary, has the right to national self-determination. Indeed, struggles for political independence have created more nations than nations have fought national struggles. It is well known that any attempt to deny a human group its self-determination only intensifies its demand for sovereignty and enhances its collective identity. This does not, of course, give a particular group that sees itself as a people the right to dispossess another group of its land in order to achieve its self-determination. But that is precisely what happened in Mandatory Palestine in the first half of the twentieth century (in 1880 there were in Palestine 25,000 Jews and 300,000 Arabs, and in 1947 there were still just 650,000 Jews and 1,3 million Palestinians). Nevertheless, the project of Zionist settlement that took in the persecuted and excluded Jews and that then became independent Israel could have devised its constitutional foundations so that in time they would become genuinely democratic. This would have meant applying the principle of equality to all its citizens, rather than to its Jews alone.

In the first chapter of this book I argued that not only is there no inherent contradiction between nationalism and democracy, but that in fact they complement each other. So far, there has been no modern democracy—that is, a state of which the sovereign is the citizenry—without there being some national or multinational framework that contains and expresses this sovereignty. The strength of the national identity derives from the consciousness that all the state’s citizens are equal. It would not be wrong to say that the terms “democracy” and “national identity” usually overlap, encompassing the same historical process.

The choice of the new state’s name, and the ensuing debate around it, offer a glimpse into the camera obscura of Jewish rebirth. The ancient kingdom of Israel under the Omride dynasty did not, in the religious tradition, have a good reputation, and so there was some searching of the heart in regard to calling the state “Israel.” There were also supporters for “State of Judea,” to be a direct successor to the House of David and the Hasmonean kingdom, and for “State of Zion,” in honor of the movement that conceived it. But if the state were named “Judea,” then all its citizens would be called Judeans, meaning Jews, and if it were named “Zion,” its citizens would be called Zionists. The former would have infringed on the identity of Jewish believers throughout the world, and the Arab citizens would have become Jewish citizens with full civil rights (as


Ber Borochov and the young Ben-Gurion had hoped long before). In the latter case, the world Zionist movement would probably have had to disband after independence, and the Arab citizens would have been classified as Zionists.

There was no choice but to call the new state “Israel.” Ever since then, all its citizens, Jews and non-Jews alike, have been called Israelis. As we shall see, the state would not be content with the Jewish hegemony expressed by the name “Israel,” by its flag, its anthem and its state emblems. Because of its ethnocentric nationalist character, it would refuse to belong, formally and effectively, to all its citizens. It had been created expressly for the “Jewish people,” and although a major part of this ethnos has failed to implement its right to self- determination within its borders, the state has always insisted that it belongs to this ethnos.

What is the Jewish ethnos? We have surveyed Jewry’s possible historical origins and, beginning in the second half of the nineteenth century, the essentialist construction of a “people” out of the vestiges and memories of this variegated Jewry. But who would be included among the authorized proprietors of the Jewish state that was being “reestablished” after two thousand years in “Israel’s exclusive land”? Would it be anyone who saw himself or herself as a Jew? Or any person who became an Israeli citizen? This complex issue would become one of the main pivots on which identity politics in Israel would revolve.

To understand this development, we must go back to the eve of the Proclamation of Independence. In 1947 it had already been decided that Jews would not be able to marry non-Jews in the new state. The official reason for this civil segregation—in a society that was predominantly secular—was the unwillingness to create a secular-religious split. In the famous “status quo” letter that David Ben-Gurion, as head of the Jewish Agency, co-signed with leaders of the religious bloc, he undertook, inter alia, to leave the laws of personal status in the new state in the hands of the rabbinate.52 For reasons of his own, he also supported the religious camp’s firm opposition to a written constitution. Ben-Gurion was an experienced politician, skilled at getting what he wanted.

In 1953 the political promise to bar civil marriage in Israel was given a legal basis. The law defining the legal status of the rabbinical courts determined that they would have exclusive jurisdiction over marriage and divorce of Jews in Israel. By this means, the dominant socialist Zionism harnessed the principles of the traditional rabbinate as an alibi for its fearful imaginary that was

52 See the letter in the annex to the article by Menacem Friedman, “The history of the Status-Quo: Religion and State in Israel,” in The Transition from “Yishuv” to State 1947-1949: Continuity and Change, Varda Pilowsky (ed), Haifa: Herzl Institute, 1990 (in Hebrew), 66-7.


terrified of assimilation and “mixed marriage.”53

This was the first demonstration of the states cynical exploitation of the Jewish religion to accomplish the aims of Zionism. Many scholars who have studied the relations between religion and state in Israel have described them as Jewish nationalism submitting helplessly to the pressures applied by a powerful rabbinical camp and its burdensome theocratic tradition.54 It is true there were tensions, misunderstandings and clashes between secular and religious sectors in the Zionist movement and later in the State of Israel. But a close examination reveals that nationalism needed the religious pressure, and often invited it in order to carry out its agenda. The late Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz was more perceptive than most when he described Israel as a secular state in religious cohabitation. Given the great difficulty of defining a secular Jewish identity, and the highly uncertain boundaries of this impossible entity, it had no choice but to submit to the rabbinical tradition.55

It must be stated, however, that a secular Israeli culture soon began to emerge, and surprisingly fast. Although some of its features—such as festivals, holidays and symbols—derived from Jewish sources, this culture could not serve as a common foundation for the “worldwide Jewish people.” With its distinctive elements—from language, music and food to literature, the arts and cinema— the new culture began to demarcate a new society, quite different from what those who are known as Jews and their children experience in London, Paris, New York and Moscow. Members of the “Jewish people” around the world do not speak, read or write in Hebrew, are not imprinted by Israel’s urban or rural landscapes, do not experience the divisions, tragedies and joys of Israeli society, don’t even know how to cheer their football teams, don’t grumble about the country’s Income Tax and don’t eulogize the party leaders, who invariably let down the “people of Israel.”

Consequently, the attitude that emerged in Zionist ideology toward the young Israeli culture was equivocal. Here was an adored infant who was not

  • The educational system in Israel is likewise almost totally divided. There are hardly any schools attended by both Judeo-Israelis and Palestino-Israelis. The separation is not due to concern for Palestinian cultural autonomy and preservation of memory—the educational system and curricula are wholly subordinate to the Israeli Ministry of Education. The kibbutz movement, the jewel in Israeli socialism’s crown, has also always practiced such segregation. Arabs were not accepted by the kibbutzim, nor have they ever been integrated in other Jewish communal frameworks.
  • See for example Gershon Weiler, Jewish Theocracy, Leiden: Brill, 1988.
  • On this subject see also Baruch Kimmerling, “The Cultural Code of Jewishness: Religion and Nationalism,” in The Invention and Decline of Israeliness: State, Society, and Military, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001, 173-207.


entirely legitimate, a bastard child to be cherished without looking closely at its distinctive features, which were fascinating but unprecedented in history and tradition. These modern features—which both derived from tradition and rejected it, which included elements of identity taken from both East and West and also erased them—formed a new and unfamiliar symbiosis. This secular culture is hard to define as entirely Jewish, for three main reasons:

  1. the discrepancy between it and all the Jewish religious cultures, past and present, is too conspicuous;
  2. the Jews of the world are not familiar with it and have no share in its rich variety and evolution;
  3. non-Jews in the State of Israel, whether Palestino-Israelis, Russian immigrants, or even foreign workers residing in it, know its nuances far better than Jews elsewhere in the world, and increasingly experience it, even while preserving their own distinctions.

Zionist thinking has always been careful not to call the new Israeli society a people, much less a nation. Just as in the past it refused, in contrast to the popular Bund party, to define the large Yiddish population as a distinctive Eastern European people, it has refused to acknowledge the Jewish-Israeli entity, which manifests the attributes of a people, or even a nation, by any criterion—language, mass culture, territory, economy, sovereignty’, and so on. The specific historical character of this new people has been denied time and again by its founders and shapers. It is perceived by Zionism, as it is by Arab nationalism, as “neither a people nor a nation,” but as those segments of world Jewry that intend to “make aliyah to” (or invade) “Eretz Israel” (or Palestine).

But the main unifying basis for international Jewry, apart from the painful memory of the Holocaust—which unfortunately grants anti-Semitism a permanent, if indirect, say in defining the Jew—remains the old, depleted religious culture (with the genetic demon slithering quietly behind). There has never been a secular Jewish culture common to all the Jews in the world, and the well-known argument of Rabbi Yeshaiahu Karelitz—that “the [secular- Jewish] cart is empty”—was and remains correct. But in his traditionalist naiveté, the great rabbinical scholar expected the empty secular cart to make way for the loaded religious cart. He failed to see that modern nationalism had cleverly succeeded in lightening the payload of the heavy cart and diverting it to its own destination.

As in such countries as Poland, Greece and Ireland before the Second World War, or even today’s Estonia and Sri Lanka, the Zionist identity contains a very distinctive blend of ethnocentric nationalism with traditional religion,


where the religion becomes an instrument serving the leaders of the imaginary ethnos. Liah Greenfeld described these particular types of problematic nationalism as follows:

… religion being no longer the expression of the revealed truth and inner personal conviction, but an outward sign and symbol of their collective distinctness… What is of greater moment is that, when valued chiefly for this external—and mundane—function, religion becomes an ethnic characteristic, an ascriptive, unalterable attribute of a collectivity, and, as such, a reflection of necessity, rather than personal responsibility and choice; that is to say, in the final analysis, a reflection of race.56

In later years, when the socialist ethos and myth of secular Zionism sank under the financial impact of the free market, far more layers of religious paint would be needed to decorate the fictitious ethnos. But even then, toward the end of the twentieth century, Israel would not become a more theocratic state. While the religious elements in the dynamics of Israeli politics have been growing stronger, so has the modernization of these very elements; they become progressively more nationalistic and hence much more racist. The lack of separation between the rabbinate and the state never reflected the real strength of the faith, whose authentic religious impulse has in fact waned over the years. The absence of separation has been a direct product of the endemic weakness of the insecure nationalism, which was forced to borrow the bulk of its imagery and symbols from the traditional religion and its texts, thereby becoming its hostage.

Just as Israel was unable to decide on its territorial borders, it did not manage to draw the boundaries of its national identity. From the start it hesitated to define the membership of the Jewish ethnos. To begin with, the state appeared to accept an open definition mat a Jew was any person who saw himself or herself as a Jew. In the first census, held on November 8, 1948, residents were asked to fill out a questionnaire in which they stated their nationality and religion, and these were what served as the basis for civil registration. In this way the young state managed quietly to Judaize many spouses who were not Jews. In 1950, newborn children were registered on a separate page without reference to nationality and religion— but there were two such forms, one in Hebrew and one in Arabic, and whoever filled out a Hebrew form was assumed to be a Jew.57

Also in 1950, Israel’s parliament—the Knesset—passed the Law of Return.

  • Liah Greenfeld, “The Modern Religion,” in Nationalism and the Mind: Essays on Modern Culture, Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2006, 109.
  • On this subject see Yigal Elam, Judaism as a Status Quo, Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 2000 (in Hebrew), 16.


This was the first basic law that gave legal force to what the Proclamation of Independence had declared. This law declared: “Every Jew has the right to come to this country as an oleh [immigrant]” unless he “(1) is engaged in an activity directed against the Jewish people; or (2) is likely to endanger public health or the security of the State.” Then in 1952 came the law that granted automatic citizenship on the basis of the Law of Return.58

Beginning in the late 1940s, the world rightly viewed Israel as a refuge for the persecuted and the displaced. The systematic massacre of the Jews of Europe and the total destruction of the Yiddish-speaking people drew widespread public sympathy for the creation of a state that would be a safe haven for the remnant. In the 1950s, provoked by the Israeli-Arab conflict but also by the rise of authoritarian Arab nationalism, semireligious and not especially tolerant, hundreds of thousands of Arab Jews were driven from their homelands. Not all were able to reach Europe or Canada; some went to Israel, whether or not they wished to go there. The state was gratified and even sought to attract them (though it viewed with unease and contempt the diverse Arab cultures they brought with their scanty belongings).59 The law that granted the right of immigration to every Jewish refugee who was subject to persecution on account of faith or origin was quite legitimate in these circumstances. Even today such a law would not conflict with the basic principles in any liberal democracy, when many of the citizens feel kinship and a common historical destiny with people close to them who suffer discrimination in other countries.

Yet the Law of Return was not a statute designed to make Israel a safe haven for those who were persecuted in the past, present or future because people hated them as Jews. Had the framers of this law wished to do so, they could have placed it on a platform of humanist principle, linking the privilege of asylum to the existence and threat of anti-Semitism. But the Law of Return and the associated Law of Citizenship were direct products of an ethnic nationalist worldview, designed to provide a legal basis for the concept that the State of Israel belongs to the Jews of the world. As Ben-Gurion declared at the start of the parliamentary debate on the Law of Return: “This is not a Jewish state only because most of its inhabitants are Jews. It is a state for the Jews wherever they may be, and for any Jew who wishes to be here.”60

Anyone who was included in “the Jewish people”—including such notables as Pierre Mendes-France, the French prime minister in the early 1950s;

  • Available at www.knesset.gov.il/laws/special/heb/chok_hashvut.htm.
  • On this immigrant absorption, see Yehouda Shenhav, The Arab Jews: A Postcolonial Reading of Nationalism, Religion, and Ethnicity, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006.
  • In Divray Haknesset (“Protocols of the Knesset”) 6, 1950, 2035.


Bruno Kreisky, the Austrian chancellor in the 1970s; Henry Kissinger, the US secretary of state at that time; or Joe Lieberman, the Democratic candidate for vice president of the United States in 2000—was a potential citizen of the Jewish state, and their right to settle there was guaranteed by the Law of Return. A member of the “Jewish nation” might be a full citizen with equal rights in some liberal national democracy, might even be the holder of an elected position in it, but Zionist principle held that such a person was destined, or even obliged, to migrate to Israel and become its citizen. Moreover, immigrants could leave Israel immediately after arrival, yet keep their Israeli citizenship for the rest of their lives.

This privilege, which was not extended even to close family members of non- Jewish Israeli citizens, should have included a clear definition of who was truly qualified to enjoy it. But neither the Law of Return nor the Law of Citizenship— which ensured the continued official status of the Zionist Federation and the Jewish National Fund in Israel, further consolidating Israel as the state of world Jewry—includes such a definition. The question hardly came up during the first decade of the state’s existence. The society that was taking shape and tripling its population was engaged in creating a common cultural foundation for the masses of immigrants, and the really urgent question was: How does one become an Israeli?

The political failure and the forced withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula in 1956 cooled the overheated atmosphere that prevailed after the military victory in the Suez war. In March 1958, during this calmer period in the national mood, Minister of the Interior Israel Bar Yehudah, a faithful representative of the Zionist left (as a leader of Ahdut Ha’avodah), instructed his office that “a person declaring sincerely that he is a Jew will be registered as a Jew, and no further proof will be required”61 The representatives of the national- religious camp were predictably furious. The astute Prime Minister Ben-Gurion, knowing full well that it would be impossible in an immigrant state to determine on a purely voluntary basis who was a Jew, soon overturned the secular gesture of his minister of the interior, and ambiguous order was restored. The Ministry of the Interior was then handed to the Orthodox camp, which went back to registering people as Jews on the basis of their mother’s “identity.”

The nature of Jewish nationalism, enshrined in the laws of the state, was cast into sharp focus four years later. In 1962 Shmuel Oswald Rufeisen, known as “Brother Daniel,” petitioned the High Court of Justice (the Supreme Court) to instruct the state to recognize him as a Jew by nationality. Rufeisen was born

  • Elam, Judaism as a Status Quo, 12.


to a Jewish family in Poland in 1922, and as a teenager joined a Zionist youth movement. He fought as a partisan against the Nazi occupation and saved the lives of many Jews. At some point he hid in a monastery, where he converted to Christianity. After the war he studied for the priesthood, and in order to go to Israel he became a Carmelite monk.62 In 1958 he went to Israel because he wished to take part in the Jewish destiny and still saw himself as a Zionist. Having given up his Polish citizenship, he applied to become an Israeli citizen on the basis of the Law of Return, arguing that although he was a Catholic by religion, he was still a Jew by “nationality.” When his application was rejected by the Ministry of the Interior, he petitioned the High Court of Justice. By a four-to-one decision, the court rejected his petition to be given Israeli citizenship on the basis of the Law of Return. He was, however, granted an Israeli identity card, which stated, “Nationality: Not clear.”63

Ultimately, Brother Daniel’s betrayal of Judaism by joining the religion of the Nazarene overcame the deterministic biological imaginary. It was categorically decided that there was no Jewish nationality without its religious shell. Ethnocentric Zionism needed the Halakhic precepts as its principal criteria, and the secular judges understood this national-historical necessity very well. Another effect that this decision had on the concept of identity in Israel was to deny the right of the individual to declare himself a Jew—now, only the sovereign judicial authority could determine the “nationality” of a citizen living in his own country.64

Another important test case for the definition of a Jew took place toward the end of the decade. In 1968 Major Binyamin Shalit petitioned the High Court of Justice to order the minister of the interior to register his two sons as Jews. Unlike Brother Daniel, the mother of these boys was not a born Jew but a Scottish gentile. Shalit, a well-regarded officer in Israel’s victorious army, argued that his sons were growing up as Jews and wished to be considered full citizens in the state of the Jewish people. By what seemed a miracle, five of the nine judges who heard the petition decided that the boys were Jewish by nationality, if not by religion. But this exceptional decision shook the entire political structure. This was after the Six-Day War of 1967, when Israel had captured a large non-Jewish population, and the opposition to mingling with gentiles had actually grown more rigid. In 1970, under pressure from the reli-

  • On this unique and heroic figure, see Nechama Tec, In the Lion’s Den: The Life of Oswald Rufeisen, New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

63 Ibid., 231.

64 On the judges’ different positions, see Ron Margolin, (ed), The State of Israel as a Jewish and Democratic State, Jerusalem: The World Union for Jewish Studies, 1999 (in Hebrew), 209-28.


gious camp, the Law of Return was amended to include, finally, a full and exact definition of who is an authentic member of the people of Israel: “A Jew is one who was born to a Jewish mother, or converted to Judaism and does not belong to another religion.” After twenty-two years of hesitation and questioning, the instrumental link between the rabbinical religion and the essentialist nationalism was now well and truly welded.

Needless to say, many secular supporters of nationalism would have preferred more flexible or scientific criteria by which to define Jews—for example, accepting cases where the father was a Jew, or finding some genetic- marker to reveal a person’s Jewishness. But in the absence of looser criteria or a reliable scientific one, the Jewish Israeli majority resigned itself to the Halakhic verdict. To them, the rigid tradition was preferable to a serious blurring of the Jewish distinction and to turning Israel into a mere liberal democracy belonging to all its citizens. Not all Israelis, of course, accepted the strict definition of their Jewishness.

After the amendment to the Law of Return, one person petitioned to change the nationality stated on his identity card from Jewish to Israeli. Georg Rafael Tamarin was a lecturer in education at Tel Aviv University. He had come to Israel from Yugoslavia in 1949, and declared himself to be a Jew. In the early 1970s he applied to have his nationality changed from Jewish to Israeli for two reasons: one, that the new criterion for defining a Jew had become, in his opinion, a “racial-religious” one; and two, that the establishment of the State of Israel had created an Israeli nationality, to which he felt he belonged. His petition was rejected by a unanimous vote; the judges decided that he had to remain a Jew by nationality, as an Israeli nationality did not exist.65

Curiously, the president of the Supreme Court, Justice Shimon Agranat, Israel Prize laureate, did not simply base his decision on the Proclamation of Independence. He also proceeded to explain why there was a Jewish nation but absolutely not an Israeli one. Agranat’s conceptualization of nationhood and nationality was inconsistent, as it rested entirely on subjective aspects yet refused to allow individual choice, and it reflected the dominant ideology in Israel. He cited as proof of the existence of a Jewish nation the emotion and tears of the Israeli paratroopers who captured the Western Wall, thus showing himself influenced more by journalistic stories than by books of history and

65 “Tamarin versus the State of Israel” in the High Court of Justice, decision 630/70, January 20, 1972 Tamarin based his petition on the work of the French sociologist Georges Friedmann, The End of the Jewish People?, New York: Doubleday, 1967. The conclusion of this highly pro-Israel book is that an Israeli nation is gradually taking shape whose features differ from those of historical Jewry.


political philosophy—though this did not prevent him from flaunting his scholarship throughout the written decision.

Despite the narrow definition of the Jew in the Law of Return, the state’s pragmatic needs were too strong to exclude other “white” immigrants. Following a wave of anti-Semitism in Poland in 1968, many of the families who emigrated from there had one non-Jewish partner. In the second half of the twentieth century, both in the Soviet Union and the Communist bloc and in the liberal-democratic countries, there were numerous “mixed marriages,” which promoted assimilation in the various national cultures. (This phenomenon led Golda Meir, Israel’s truculent prime minister, to declare that a Jew who married a gentile was in effect joining the six million victims of the Nazis.)

This grave situation forced the lawmakers to balance the narrow definition of the Jew by widening significantly the right of aliyah—immigration to Israel. Clause 4a was added to the Law of Return. Dubbed the “grandchild clause,” it enabled not only Jews but also their “non-Jewish” children, grandchildren and spouses to immigrate to Israel. It was enough for one grandparent to qualify as a Jew for the offspring to become citizens of Israel. This important clause would later open the door to the huge influx of immigrants that began in the early 1990s, with the fall of Communism. This immigration, which had no ideological dimension—Israel had begun in the 1980s to urge the United States not to accept Soviet Jewish refugees—meant that more than 30 percent of the newcomers could not be registered as Jews on their identity cards.

While nearly three hundred thousand new immigrants were not classified as members of the Jewish people (“an assimilatory time-bomb,” as the Israeli press described it), this did not prevent the continued intensification of ethnocentric- identity—an intensification that had begun in the late 1970s. Paradoxically, the rise of the Likud party, led by Menahem Begin, strengthened two processes that had been evident in Israel’s political culture for some time: liberalization and ethnicization.

The decline of Zionist socialism, whose Eastern European origins had not been especially tolerant or pluralistic, and the corning to power of a popular right-wing party, disliked by most Israeli intellectuals, gave greater legitimacy to political and cultural confrontation. Israel became accustomed to periodic power changes, such as it had not known during the first thirty years of its existence. The tradition of protest and criticism also changed. The first war in Lebanon showed that it was possible to attack the government even while battles raged, and yet not to be denounced as a traitor.

At the same time, the gradual shrinking of the socialist-Zionist welfare state and the rise of economic neoliberalism loosened somewhat the constraints of


the state supra-identity. When the omnipotent national state became a limited- liability institution, alternative sub-identities, especially ethnic and communal ones, grew stronger. This was a global process, not confined to Israel, and will be discussed further.

Though Israeli culture continued to develop and flourish during the first twenty years of power over the territories seized in 1967—two decades that passed fairly quietly—prospects for the consolidation of an Israeli civil identity were weakened. The policy of massive settlement in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip was conducted in an undisguisedly apartheid manner— while encouraging its citizens to settle in the occupied territories, Israel did not legally annex most of them, so as to avoid being responsible for the local inhabitants. This led to the creation of a state-subsidized “masters’ democracy” in the new spaces, reinforcing a lordly ethnocentric consciousness even in Israel’s relatively democratic circles.

Another factor that heightened the exclusionary essentialist tendency in the Jewish population, especially in its tradition-minded and socioeconomically weaker sectors, was the eruption into the public arena and audio-visual media of Palestino-Israeli figures of a new kind, who dared to claim their right to an equal share in the joint homeland. Fear of losing the Zionist privileges that had been granted because of the “Jewish” nature of the state exacerbated a selfish “ethnic” exclusivity among the masses, especially the “eastern Jews” or “Russian Jews,” who had not been sufficiently acculturated by Israel and hence were economically underrewarded. These groups felt especially threatened by the growing demands for equality coming from representatives of the Arab population.


The liberalization and ethnicization of the 1980s gave rise, among other developments, to a new Arab-Jewish party—more radical in its criticism than the traditional Communist Party, which had previously represented the Arab protest, and far more challenging in its attitude to the identity politics of the State of Israel. The Progressive List for Peace, led by Mohammed Mi’ari, expressed a different kind of criticism about the character of the State of Israel, including calls for its de-Zionization. This was just the start. When elections for the Knesset approached, the parliamentary elections committee disqualified the new party, as well as the far-right party led by Rabbi Meir Kahane. The Supreme Court, which was becoming the stronghold of Israeli liberalism, overruled the disqualification, and both lists were allowed to run.


Unlike earlier Palestino-Israeli movements, such as al-Ard in the 1960s and Sons of the Village in the 1970s, the Progressive List, with retired Major General Mattityahu Peled as the number two on its list, won two seats in the 120-seat house in 1984. The new Knesset reacted to this modest achievement in 1985 by passing, by a large majority and with no opposition, a new amendment to the Basic Law: The Knesset.66 Clause 7a stated that a party would not be allowed to run for the Israel parliament if its platform included one of the following: “(1) negation of the existence of the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish people; (2) negation of the democratic character of the State; (3) incitement to racism.”

Despite the new law, again thanks to the intervention of the Supreme Court, the Progressive List for Peace was able to run. Subsequently, more Arab parties appeared that, without defying the law, kept challenging the Israeli public with questions about the nature of the state. A whole generation of Palestinian intellectuals—too young to have experienced the Nakbah and the military government, and who had undergone Israelization by adopting Hebrew culture in addition to their own Arab culture—began to voice with growing confidence their dissatisfaction with the political state of affairs. They pointed out that the State of Israel—into which they had been born, in which they constituted one-fifth of the population, and of which they were formally full citizens—insisted that it was not their state but belonged to a different people, most of whom remained overseas.

An outstanding early figure in this protest against Jewish exclusivity was the writer and translator Anton Shammas. A gifted bilingual intellectual and the author of the novel Arabesques, which deals with his divided national identity, he issued a challenge to Israeli society: let us all be multicultural Israelis, and create a common national identity that will not erase our identities of origin but aim for an Israeli symbiosis between the Jewish and Arab citizens of the state.67 A. B. Yehoshua, one of Israel’s leading writers and a typical representative of the Zionist left, rejected the proposal with characteristic self-assurance: Israel must remain the state of the dispersed Jewish people, and must not become the state of all its citizens. “The Law of Return is the moral basis of Zionism,” he argued, and the dangerous proposal to create a dual identity in the Jewish state should be rejected. The established author was horrified by the very idea of becoming a Jewish-Israeli (analogous to the

  • See the article of Amos Ben Vered in Haaretz, August 2, 1985.
  • See his articles, “The New Year for the Jews,” Ha’hir, September 13, 1985; “The Blame of the Babushka,” Ha’hir, January 24, 1986; and “We (Who Is That?),” Politika, October 17, 1987, 26-7.


defective Jewish-Americans). He wanted to be a “nonhyphenated” whole Jew, and if this displeased a “new Israeli” like Anton Shammas, he should pack his belongings and move to the future national Palestinian state.68

This was perhaps the last time that a well-known Palestino-Israeli intellectual proposed a joint cultural life in a pluralistic but egalitarian liberal democracy. The negative response of the Israeli Zionist left, as well as the intifada that erupted at the end of 1987, made such proposals even rarer. While Israeli Palestinians expressed solidarity with the national liberation struggle of the Palestinians in the occupied territories, they were so far not calling for national territorial separation. But pride in the oppressed Palestinian culture and the desire to preserve it at all costs led many to call for Israel to become a consociational, or multicultural, democracy. The single unifying demand was for Israel to become theirs, so that they could belong to it.

The debate concerning “the state of the Jewish people” was heating up. In the 1990s, with the subject of post-Zionism engaging various intellectual circles, the definition of the State of Israel became one of the key issues. In the past, anti-Zionism had been equated with the denial of Israel’s right to exist, and the one principle that all Zionists agreed on was that Israel must remain the exclusive state of all the Jews in the world. Now, post-Zionism supported full recognition of the State of Israel within the 1967 borders, but combined it with the uncompromising demand that it become the state of all Israeli citizens.

Following the Oslo Accords in 1993, and especially the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000, the territorial myth of the “entire Land of Israel” as the patrimony of the Jewish people began to dissipate. But the process was accompanied by the insistence on the Jewish people’s exclusive claim to the State of Israel. A large portion of the former territory-minded right wing grew into a rigid and racist right wing, while the center-liberal camp entrenched itself in its Zionist positions and sought to legitimize them juridically and philosophically.

In 1988 Justice Meir Shamgar, president of the Supreme Court and an Israel Prize laureate, declared that “the existence of the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish people does not conflict with its democratic character, just as the Frenchness of France does not conflict with its democratic character.”69 This absurd comparison—all the citizens of France, old or new, are identified

  • Abraham B. Yehoshua, “Reply to Anton,” in The Wall and the Mountain, Tel Aviv: Zmora, Bitan, 1989 (in Hebrew), 197-205.
  • Moshe Neuman versus the president of the central electoral commission, decision (4) 177, 189.


as French, and no non-French citizens qualify as hidden partners in its sovereignty—marked the start of a juridical process embellished with a colorful range of ideas.

In 1992 two of the Basic Laws—Human Dignity and Liberty, and Freedom of Occupation—already contained the categorical statement that Israel is a “Jewish and democratic state.” The Basic Law concerning political parties, passed that same year, also decreed that a party that denied the existence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state would be barred from taking part in the elections.70 Paradoxically, this meant that henceforth it would not be possible to transform the Jewish state into an Israeli democracy by a liberal-democratic process. The dangerous aspect of this legislation was that it did not make clear exactly what made a state—a sovereign political body that is supposed to serve its citizens—a Jewish one, and what might threaten or undo it as such.

It was Professor Sammy Smooha, a sociologist at Haifa University, who meticulously exposed the problematics and anomalies of a democracy that called itself Jewish. In 1990 he borrowed from Juan José Linz, a political sociologist at Yale University, the term “ethnic democracy” and applied it to Israel71 Over the years, he developed and perfected a groundbreaking analysis that placed Israel very low in the hierarchy of democratic regimes. Methodically comparing it with liberal, republican, consociational and multicultural democracies, he concluded that Israel did not fit into any of these categories. Instead, it could be classified, along with states like Estonia, Latvia and Slovakia, as an “incomplete democracy” or a “low-grade democracy”

Liberal democracy represents the whole society that exists within its boundaries, with complete equality between all the citizens, irrespective of their origins or cultural affiliations. It functions primarily as a night watchman, guarding rights and laws, and its involvement in the cultural formation of its citizens is scanty and minimal. Most of the Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian states exemplify this model to a greater or lesser extent. Republican democracy resembles this model in the complete equality of its citizens, but it is much more involved in the cultural formation of its national collective. Such a state is less tolerant of secondary cultural identities and seeks to assimilate them into one overarching culture—France is the most prominent example of this category. The consociational, or associative, democracy formally recognizes cultural-linguistic groups, institutionally ensures their equal standing


in government, with the right of veto in joint decisions, while fostering the full autonomy of each and every group—Switzerland, Belgium and contemporary Canada best exemplify this model. The multicultural democracy, on the other hand, plays a less formal role in sustaining the different cultural groups in its system. But it respects them, avoids harming them, and grants communal rights to minorities, making no attempt to impose one particular culture. Great Britain and the Netherlands are the leading examples in this category. The most important quality in this catalogue, shared by all these regimes, is that they see themselves as representing all the citizens in their states—including societies with a hegemonic cultural-linguistic group as well as minorities.

In Smooha’s opinion, Israel cannot be included in any of the above categories, if only because it does not see itself as the political embodiment of the civil society within its boundaries. Not only was Zionism the official ideology that dominated the Jewish state at its birth, but its citizens are expected to continue to fulfill its particularist aims till the end of time. While a kind of democracy does exist within the pre-1967 boundaries of Israel—with civil rights, freedom of expression and political association, and periodic free elections—the absence of basic civil and political equality sets its apart from the flourishing democracies of the West.

Despite Smooha’s efforts to avoid an overly normative judgment, his analysis implied a radical criticism of the State of Israel, though his political conclusions were far more moderate than might have been expected. As he saw it, there was little real likelihood that Israel would become a state of all its citizens. Therefore, the most reasonable prospect was an improved ethnic democracy, in which discrimination was minimized but the exclusionary core was preserved: “The best solution for the Arabs of Israel would, of course, be a consociational,’ namely, a binational, state; but the opposition of the Jews to such an option, which would eliminate the Jewish state, would be total, so that its implementation would be a terrible injustice to most of the population”72

We may or may not accept Smooha’s conceptual scheme—a consociational democracy like Switzerland, for example, is not exactly a multinational state— or his idea that ending discrimination against a subordinate minority would be “a terrible injustice” to the dominant majority. But there is no denying that the Haifa scholar was the first Israeli academic to pry open the Pandora’s box that is Israel’s politics of identity There had been a significant lack of theoretical

  • See also Sammy Smooha, “The Regime of the State of Israel: Civic Democracy, Non-Democracy or an Ethnic Democracy?,” Israeli Sociology 2: 2 (2000, in Hebrew), 620. See also “The Model of Ethnic Democracy: Israel as a Jewish and Democratic State,” Nation and Nationalism 8: 4 (2002), 475-503.


analysis in this field, and Smooha’s essays displayed exceptional critical insight. It goes without saying that this breakthrough attracted a good many responses from Zionist intellectuals as well as from post-Zionists and Palestino-Israelis.73 Responding to Smooha’s critique, and even more so to the “Jewish” legisla•

tion of the early 1990s, some of Israel’s leading scholars, traditional and liberal alike, tried to prove that Israel was a normative democracy. The following spectrum of opinions represents some of the most prominent, all of them, not accidentally, laureates of the Israel Prize—this being the highest honor paid by the state to its outstanding figures in the humanities and sciences, and thereby to its own position. As the Israel Prize laureates form a major hub in the world of Israeli culture, their views reflect the essence of the national ideology and reveal its character.

For example, Eliezer Schweid, professor of Jewish philosophy at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, could see no contradiction in the phrase “a Jewish and democratic state.” Israel had been established “in order to restore to the Jewish people the basic democratic rights it had been denied through many generations in exile… There is no moral reason why the Jewish people should forgo mis right in the state it has built for itself with its own hands, invested tremendous creative energy in it, spilt its blood for it, developed its economy, society and culture.”74 As Schweid saw it, talking about a contradiction between Judaism and democracy was senseless, because “the Jewish religion and Jewish nationalism contain the ethical sources which defined human rights and the idea of the social pact that forms constitutional democracy.” Moreover, if Israel did not exist as the state of the Jewish people, there was no point in maintaining its existence.

Professor Shlomo Avineri of the Hebrew University, a former director- general of the foreign ministry, thought that Israel as a “Jewish state” was immeasurably superior to the French republic, which assimilates and erases identities. Israel’s tolerance resembles that of Britain, he said, and is even superior to it in many ways. For example, the absence of civil marriage and the preservation of communal-confessional marriage, which had existed under Ottoman rule, together with the separation practiced in education, indicated that there was in fact in Israel a broad cultural autonomy for its non-Jewish citizens: “Without ever having decided this, the State of Israel recognizes the

  • On Smooha and the reactions to his analyses, see Eyal Gross, “Democracy, Ethnicity and Legislation in Israel: Between the ‘Jewish State’ and the ‘Democratic State,’ ” Israeli Sociology 2: 2 (2000), 647-73.
  • Eliezer Schweid, “Israel: ‘a Jewish State’ or ‘a State of the Jewish people?” in Zionism in a Post-Modernist Era, Jerusalem: The Zionist Library, 1996 (2000, in Hebrew), 116.


right of the Arab citizens to equality not only as individuals, but as a group.”75 Therefore, the Jerusalem professor opined, the Jewish state ought to keep its emblems, national flag, anthem and Jewish laws—especially the Law of Return, which does not differ from any other immigration laws—so as to create a legal separation between the Jewish majority and the minorities that live in its midst and alongside it, and still be a worthwhile multicultural democracy After all, a similar situation is found in the world’s most liberal states.

Surely the professor of political science—even though his area of expertise was German philosophy—must have known the famous 1954 decision of the US Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which determined that “separate but equal” cannot be “equal,” and is therefore a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which states that all US citizens are equal. This historical decision fueled the civil rights struggles and eventually led to a thorough change in identity politics in the United States, yet evidently it did not get through to the Zionist mind of the senior scholar in Jerusalem—the city, not incidentally, that was supposed to be Israel’s “unified” capital, where tens of thousands of Palestinians, annexed in 1967, live as permanent residents but not citizens, and thus have no share in the sovereign power over them.

It was the same for Asa Kasher, a professor of philosophy at Tel Aviv University and, like the others, a laureate of the Israel Prize—in this case, for his writings on morality. He argued that Israel did not differ from the best democracies in the world and that there was no inherent contradiction in the phrase “Jewish and democratic.” As he saw it, the problems of a democratic national state were not unique to Israel: “In Spain there are the Basques, in the Netherlands the Frisians, in France the Corsicans. In this respect, the State of Israel, where 20 percent of the population belong to a different nation, is not exceptional.”76 Hence, the State of Israel is democratic in its “practical ideal” and should not be called upon to become expressly a state of all its citizens. Naturally the sense of belonging felt by the majority differs from that of the minority, but that is the way of the modern nation-states.

Apparently Asa Kasher, for all his wide scholarship, did not know that while the Castilian language and culture predominate in Spain, the state belongs to all Spaniards, be they Castilian, Catalan, Basque or something else.

  • Shlomo Avineri, “National Minorities in the National Democratic State,” in The Arabs in Israeli Politics: Dilemmas of Identity, Eli Rekhes (ed.), Tel Aviv: Moshe Dayan Center, 1998 (in Hebrew), 24.
  • Asa Kasher, “The Democratic State of the Jews,” in The State of Israel: Between Judaism and Democracy, Yossi David (ed.), Jerusalem: Israeli Democracy Institute, 2000 (in Hebrew), 116.


No Spanish government would survive long if it announced that it was the state of the Castilians rather than of all Spaniards. The French republic does not belong solely to the mainland Catholic citizens but also to the people of Corsica, just as it belongs to French Jews, Protestants and even Muslims. Yet for a Jewish philosopher living in Israel, this difference in national definitions was too trivial to consider, since the “Jewish people’s democracy” is equal in its fine moral stature to any Western society.

Prominent among those who offered a theoretical underpinning to the definition of Israel as a democratic state of the Jewish people were a number of jurists. Since the Basic Laws had begun to insert the term “Jewish” into their wording, various judges and professors of law felt it their duty to provide a well-grounded defense of the new legislation. Papers piled up in the effort to convince the skeptics that it was possible for a state to adhere to the Jewish tradition yet treat its non-Jews as completely equal. The impression gained from their writings was that their concept of equality was another way of saying “indifference.”

For retired Justice Haim Hermann Cohen, former deputy president of the Supreme Court and minister of justice, as well as an Israel Prize laureate, the issue was straightforward: “The genes of our forefathers are in us, whether we like it or not. A man who respects himself strives to discover not only where he stands and where he is heading, but also where he came from. The heritage of Israel, in the broadest sense of the word, is the legacy that the state has inherited by its very nature, and it makes it a Jewish state by its very nature.”77

This statement does not mean that Haim Cohen was a racist. He had always been a liberal judge—in the Rufeisen case, his was the voluntarist dissenting opinion—and he also knew that the “biological-genetic continuity was very questionable.” But making a considerable effort to define the non- religious Jewishness of his state, he asserted: “A Jewish identity does not mean a biological-genetic continuity—more important is the spiritual-cultural continuity. The former defines the state as the state of the Jews; the latter as a Jewish state. The two identities are not contradictory—they complement each other, and may also be mutually dependent and conditional.”78

It must have been this conditionality that led Cohen to include in the Jewish continuity and the heritage of Israel not only the Bible, the Talmud and its parables but also the work of Spinoza, the philosopher who had quit Judaism and was ostracized by its followers. Yet while struggling mightily to

  • Haim Cohen, “The Jewishness of the State of Israel,” Alpayim 16 (1998), 10 78 Ibid… 21.


characterize Jewish democracy, he made no reference to the 20 percent of its citizens who are Arab, nor to the 5 percent meticulously registered by the Ministry of the Interior as non-Jews, even though they speak Hebrew and pay their taxes.

Aharon Barak, a former president of the Supreme Court and yet another Israel Prize laureate, was also thought of as one of the most liberal and scholarly judges in the history of Israeli law. Addressing the Thirty-fourth Zionist Congress in 2002, he spoke about “the values of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.”79 What were the state’s Jewish norms? A combination of Halakhic and Zionist elements. The world of the Halakhah is “an endless ocean,” while the world of Zionism is the language, the national symbols, the flag, the anthem, the festivals and the Law of Return—yet Israel also “liberates state lands for Jewish settlement.” What were the state’s democratic values? The separation of powers, the rule of law, and the protection of human rights, including the rights of the minority. It was necessary to seek a synthesis and a balance between the two sets of values: “Giving Jews the right to immigrate does not discriminate against those who are not Jews. It recognizes a nondiscriminatory difference. But a person who lives in our national home is entitled to equality, irrespective of religion and nationality.”80 That was why the judge strove to do justice to the Arab minority, being much more aware than other jurists that equality is the heart of modern democracy.

Is there equality in the state when one of its values is “liberating state lands for Jewish settlement”? Supreme Court Justice Barak did not have to answer this question to the participants of the Zionist Congress in Jerusalem. Nor was his audience astonished, since on an earlier occasion the democratic judge defined the character of the State of Israel in similar terms: “A Jewish state is one for which Jewish settlement in its fields, cities and villages comes before anything else… A Jewish state is one in which Hebrew Law plays an important part, and in which the laws of marriage and divorce of Jews are based on the Torah.”81 In other words, for the secular liberal Aharon Barak, Israel is Jewish thanks to such projects as the famous “Judaization of the Galilee,” which rests on the long-standing judicial segregation of Jews and non-Jews.

Daniel Friedman was not a judge, but he was appointed minister of justice by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Prior to that, he had been a law professor at Tel Aviv University, and had of course received the Israel Prize. Responding to an article of mine in 2000, after thirteen Palestino-Israelis had been killed


by the police during unarmed protests, he expressed profound amazement at the argument that “the very definition of the state as a Jewish one implies a nonegalitarian element.”82 Most states are national states, he argued, so why can’t Israel be one? How is Israel different from England? “In England there is a Jewish minority and a Muslim minority who enjoy equal rights. Nevertheless, they cannot complain that England is the country of English people, associated with the Anglican Church, and that the dominant language, in which alone it is possible to act in the public sphere, is English. The minorities cannot demand the appointment of a Jewish or Muslim monarch, nor equal status for a different language.”83

Evidently we cannot expect an Israeli professor of law, eager to prove that his state is a perfect democracy, to employ more precise terminology. Although it is true that the word “England” is often used as synonymous with Britain, such carelessness is out of place in a complex discussion about nation and nationality. Since 1707 England has been part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain, with Scotland, Wales and (since 1801) Northern Ireland. The historical and cultural background of the joint realm is ecclesiastical, but Christian England does not intervene in the marital choice of a Jew who lives there, who may wish to marry a Christian Scot, or even a Muslim of Pakistani origin. Needless to say, England is not the state of the world Anglicans, as Professor Friedman’s Israel is the state of the Jews of the world—nor is it even the state of the English, even though English is the official language in the kingdom. A Jew cannot be the monarch of Great Britain, but neither can an Englishman who is not a member of the royal family. In any case, the hegemon in Britain is not the reigning monarch but parliament, and Michael Howard, the son of a Romanian Jewish immigrant and leader of the Conservative Party in the early twenty-first century, might have become British prime minister (instead of making aliyah to Israel).

Britain is the state of all its citizens—English, Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish, Muslims who immigrated and became citizens, even Orthodox Jews who acknowledge only the divine sovereign. In the eyes of the law, they are all Britons, and the kingdom belongs to all its citizens. Were England to declare that Britain is the state of the English, as Israel is of the Jews, then even before the children of Pakistani immigrants began to protest, the Scots and the Welsh would break up the United Kingdom. Furthermore, Britain is a multicultural country, and its principal minorities have long enjoyed considerable autonomy.

  • Shlomo Sand, “To Whom Does the State Belong?,” Haaretz, October 10, 2000.
  • Daniel Friedman, “Either Confrontation or Integration,” Haaretz, October 17, 2000.


For Daniel Friedman, however, the Arab citizens of Israel parallel newly naturalized immigrants, rather than the Scots and the Welsh in England.

Other jurists have written in defense of the “state of the Jewish people,” but let us examine only one other, who, together with a historian, wrote a whole book on the subject. In 2003 Amnon Rubinstein, professor of law, former minister of education and of course Israel Prize laureate, coauthored a book with Alexander Yakobson entitled Israel and the Nations, which may be the most serious critique so far of post-Zionism.84

Rubinstein and Yakobson were not satisfied with the functioning of the “Jewish democracy.” Not only did they expressly call for the enlargement of human rights and equality in Israel, but their argumentation tried very hard to rest on universal norms. At the same time, they both firmly asserted that there was no contradiction between the state being Jewish and democratic. The problems of Israel are normative in the free world, they said, and may be rationally solved by improving the methods of governance and the foundations of the law. The authors set out from the familiar assumption that, as every people has a right to self-determination, so does the “Jewish people.” Moreover, no state is wholly neutral culturally, and there is no reason to expect only Israel to be so.

Rubinstein and Yakobson argued that, since the UN recognized in 1947 the right of the Jews to self-determination, the Jewish state must be preserved until the last Jew “makes aliyah.” They did not claim this right for the Jewish Israeli people that had come into being in the Near East—they did not recognize any Israeli national entity. But reality can be problematic for Zionist legal theoreticians: in the early twenty-first century, Jews are nowhere barred from leaving their countries, and still they refuse to implement their right to national sovereignty. Migration to Israel has been reversed; as of the time of writing, more people are leaving Israel than are entering.85

Rubinstein’s advantage in the book he coauthored with Yakobson was that, unlike the other Zionist thinkers and jurists, he was aware that, as a nation- state, Israel could not be compared to liberal democracies in the West, and therefore he took most of his analogies from Eastern European countries. The authors happily drew on the concepts of nationality on the Hungarian political right, in Ireland and Greece before their constitutional reforms, in Germany before the 1990s, in Slovenia after the fall of Yugoslavia. The examples cited to

  • Alexander Yakobson and Amnon Rubinstein, Israel and the Family of Nations: The Jewish Nation-State and Human Rights, New York: Routledge, 2008.
  • See Gad Lior, “More Emigrants than Immigrants,” Yediot Ahronot, April 20, 2007 (in Hebrew).


justify Israel’s ethnocentric policy prompt one to ask if the two authors would be willing to live as Jews in one of the Eastern European states they praise, or would they rather settle in a more normative, liberal democracy?

Throughout the book, the genuine attachment that many Jews feel for Israel is presented as a national consciousness. This lack of discrimination between, on the one hand, an attachment based largely on painful memories and post-religious sensibility with a touch of tradition and, on the other hand, desire for national sovereignty diminishes the work. Unfortunately, the authors seem unaware that nationality is not merely a sense of belonging to some collective body; it is more than a feeling of solidarity and a common interest, for otherwise Protestants would be a nation, and so would cat lovers. A national consciousness is primarily the wish to live in an independent political entity. It wants its subjects to live and be educated by a homogeneous national culture. That was the essence of Zionism at its inception, and so it remained for most of its history until recent times. It sought independent sovereignty and achieved it. There have been other Jewish solidarities, but most of them were not national, and some were even expressly antinational.

But since the Jewish masses are not keen to live under the Jewish sovereignty, the Zionist arguments have had to be stretched beyond all national reason. The weakness of today’s Zionist rationale lies in its failure to acknowledge this complex reality, in which Jews may be concerned about the fate of other Jews, yet have no wish to share a national life with them. Another serious flaw in Rubinstein and Yakobson’s book, which is common to all the advocates of the “Jewish democracy,” concerns their understanding of modern democracy, and this calls for a brief analysis of this controversial conceptual system. Today there are many definitions of democracy, some complementary, some conflicting. Between the end of the eighteenth century and the middle of the twentieth, it mainly denoted government by the people, as opposed to all the premodern regimes in which the sovereign ruled over his or her subjects by the grace of God. Since the Second World War, and especially since the Cold War, the term has been used in the West to denote liberal democracies, which of course did not stop the socialist states from seeing themselves as popular democracies of even higher quality than the Western parliamentary


This persistent ideological confusion calls for an analytical and historical separation between liberalism and democracy. Liberalism was born in the heart of the Western European monarchies, which it proceeded to curb by creating parliaments, political pluralism, separation of powers, and the rights of subjects vis-à-vis arbitrary power, as well as certain individual rights that


no society in history had ever known. Nineteenth-century Britain is a good example of a liberal regime that was not at all democratic. The franchise was still limited to a small elite, and the great majority of the people were not yet allowed into the sphere of modern politics.

By contrast, the modern idea of democracy—namely, the principle that the entire people must be its own sovereign—burst into the historical arena as an intolerant tempest with marked antiliberal qualities. Its early spokesmen were Maximilien Robespierre and Saint-Just and other Jacobins in the great French Revolution. They sought to advance the principle of universal franchise and political equality, but did so through extremely authoritarian, even totalitarian, means. Only toward the end of the nineteenth century, for reasons too complex to cover here, did there begin to spread a liberal democracy that recognized the principle of the people’s sovereignty while maintaining the rights and freedoms previously achieved by advancing liberalism. It expanded and consolidated them as the foundations of today’s political culture.

The liberal democracies that arose in North America and in Europe were all national ones, and far from perfect in their early phases. Some did not extend the vote to women; in others, the voting age was quite advanced. In some countries certain social sectors had double votes. Both the “ethnic” and the “non-ethnic” nation-states were slow to extend the vote to all their inhabitants equally. But unlike the handful of democracies that existed in the ancient Greek world, modern democracies were born with a distinctive birthmark: a universal tension dictated their progress and forced them to advance in the direction of ever-increasing civil equality, to be implemented within the boundaries of the national state. “Man”—a category never quite known in the ancient world- joined “citizen,” “nation” and “state” as a key term in the central discourse of modern politics. Thus for any state to be a democracy, sovereignty and equality for all human beings living together in civil society became the minimum requirement. At the same time, the extent of rights and freedoms guaranteed to individuals and minority groups, just like the separation of powers and an independent judiciary, testifies to the liberal qualities of the democracy.

Can Israel be defined as a democratic entity? It certainly bears many liberal features. Inside pre-1967 Israel the freedoms of expression and association are broad even in comparison with those in Western democracies, and the Supreme Court has repeatedly reined in governmental arbitrariness. Amazingly, even in times of intense military conflicts, pluralism has been maintained no less than in several liberal democracies in wartime.

But Israeli liberalism has its limitations, and civil rights violations are commonplace in the Jewish state. There is no civil marriage, no civil burial in


public cemeteries, no public transportation on Saturdays and Jewish festivals, not to mention the trampling of the land-ownership rights of the Arab citizens. These expose a very un-liberal aspect of Israeli legislation and its everyday culture. Moreover, the more than forty-year domination of a whole nation, depriving it of all rights, in the territories occupied since 1967 has prevented the consolidation and expansion of genuine liberalism within Israel’s jurisdiction. Nevertheless, despite the serious flaws in the area of individual rights, basic liberties are maintained, as well as the main democratic principle of periodic general elections, and the government is elected by all the citizens. May Israel not, therefore, qualify as a classic democracy, ruling—albeit belatedly—over a colonial region, as the European powers did in the past?

It should also be noted that the difficulty in characterizing Israel as a democracy does not lie in the fact that the Sabbath and the Jewish festivals are its main days of rest, nor even that the symbols of the state derive from Jewish tradition. For that matter, the historical and emotional attachment between Jewish Israeli society and Jewish communities in other countries does not preclude a democratic regime in Israel. If in the United States various cultural- linguistic communities maintain close contacts with their lands of origin, if Castilian is hegemonic in Spain, and if in secular France several of the holidays stem from the Catholic tradition, there is no reason why the cultural-symbolic setting in Israel cannot be Jewish. Of course, in a normative democracy where there are cultural and linguistic minority groups, it is advisable to include civil symbols and festivals shared by all the citizens. Not surprisingly, no such attempt has been made in the Jewish state. The peculiar character of Israel’s supra-identiry, whose primeval code was inherent in Zionism from the start, is what makes it doubtful that a “Jewish” state can also be democratic.

The Jewish nationalism that dominates Israeli society is not an open, inclusive identity that invites others to become part of it, or to coexist with it on a basis of equality and in symbiosis. On the contrary, it explicitly and culturally segregates the majority from the minority, and repeatedly asserts that the state belongs only to the majority; moreover, as noted earlier, it promises eternal proprietary rights to an even greater human mass that does not choose to live in it. In this way, it excludes the minority from active and harmonious participation in the sovereignty and practices of democracy, and prevents that minority from identifying with it politically.

When a democratic government looks at the electorate, it is supposed to see in the first place nothing but citizens. It is elected by them, funded by them and in principle is expected to serve them. The general welfare must include, if only theoretically, all the citizens. Only in the second, or even third, place can


a democratic government, if it is also liberal, acknowledge the various cultural subgroups and act to restrain the strong ones and defend the weak ones, to moderate their relationships as much as possible, and to avoid harming their identities. Democracy need not be culturally neutral, but if there is a state supra-identity that directs the national culture, it must be open to all or at least seek to be so, even if the minority insists on staying out of the hegemonic national bear-hug. In all the existing kinds of democracy, it is the cultural minority that seeks to preserve its distinction and identity vis-à-vis the mighty majority. Its smaller size also entitles it to certain privileges.

In Israel the situation is reversed: the privileges are reserved for the Jewish majority and its “kinfolk who are still wandering in exile.” This occurs through numerous mechanisms: the law of absentee properties and the law of land purchase, passed in the early days of the state; the Law of Return, the law of marriage and divorce and the various statutes and orders that employ the concept of “ex-military” to discriminate—by means of privileges and allocation of funds excluding the Palestino-Israelis (who are not conscripted)—and that preserve the bulk of public resources for the Jewish population. By a series of measures ranging from the generous “absorption grants” given to “new immigrants” to the fat subsidies given to the settlers in the occupied territories (who vote in the general elections even though they reside outside the state’s borders), Israel openly favors the “biological descendants” of the ancient kingdom of Judea.

If the word “Jewish” were replaced by the word “Israeli,” and if the state thus became open and accessible to all the citizens, who would then be able to navigate its identity landscape at will, it might be possible to take a softer line and begin to treat Israel as a political entity heading toward an eventual status of democracy. But such freedom of movement has been permanently prohibited in Israel. The Ministry of the Interior determines the “nationality” of every citizen, who may neither choose it nor change it, except by converting to Judaism and becoming officially a Jewish believer. The Jewish state takes pains to register its authorized proprietors, the Jews, on their identity cards and/or in the population registry. It also meticulously defines the “nationality” of other, non-Jewish citizens, sometimes absurdly: an Israeli who was born before 1989 to a non-Jewish mother in, say, Leipzig may still be registered as having “East German” nationality.

Nevertheless, the concept of “Jewish democracy” might still be plausible if there were evidence of a historical trend toward the loosening of the ethnocentric fetters and a conscious effort to consolidate Israelization. Despite the exclusive starting points—imported into Mandatory Palestine by the Eastern European


Zionists and hardened in the course of the colonization—the concept of democracy could have been advanced by efforts to make the identity morphology increasingly civil. But the absence of such a trend in the general culture—as well as in the educational and legislative systems—and the determined opposition of the political, judicial and intellectual elites to any wider universalization of the dominant identity inside the “Jewish state” impedes any theoretical goodwill effort to classify Israel as a democracy. The essentialist outlook that depends on the definitions of Jew and non-Jew, and the definition of the state by way of this outlook, together with the stubborn public refusal to allow Israel to be a republic of all Israeli citizens, constitute a deep-rooted barrier to any kind of democracy.

Therefore, although we are not in the field of zoology, and the precise terminology is less demanding than it is in the life sciences, Israel must still be described as an “ethnocracy.”86 Better still, call it a Jewish ethnocracy with liberal features—that is, a state whose main purpose is to serve not a civil- egalitarian demos but a biological-religious ethnos that is wholly fictitious historically, but dynamic, exclusive and discriminatory in its political manifestation. Such a state, for all its liberalism and pluralism, is committed to isolating its chosen ethnos through ideological, pedagogical and legislative means, not only from those of its own citizens who are not classified as Jews, not only from the Israeli-born children of foreign workers, but from the rest of humanity.


Although it has experienced many upheavals, Israel has existed as a liberal ethnocracy for more than sixty years. The liberal features have grown stronger over the years, but the state’s ethnocentric foundation remains an obstacle to their development. Furthermore, the effective myths that guided the construction of the national state may give rise to a future challenge to its very existence.

The myth of the historical claim to Eretz Israel, which fortified the self- sacrificing endeavors of the first Zionist settlers and legitimized the acquisition of the territorial base for the future state, led it after nineteen years of independence to become immured in an oppressive colonialist situation from

86 It was Nadim Rouhana, As’ad Ghanem and Oren Yiftachel who began to apply the terms “ethnic state” and “ethnocracy” to Israel. See Nadim N. Rouhana, Palestinian Citizens in an Ethnic Jewish State: Identities in Conflict, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997; As’ad Ghanem, “State and Minority in Israel: The Case of Ethnic State and the Predicament of Its Minority,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 21: 3 (1998), 428-47; and Oren Yiftachel, Ethnocracy: Land and Identity Politics in Israel/Palestine,

which it is still unable to extricate itself. The occupation in 1967 led many Zionists, secular and religious alike, to view the new territories as the heart of the ancestral land. On the purely mythological level they were right—the imaginary spaces in which Abraham, David and Solomon lived were not Tel Aviv, the coast and the Galilee, but Hebron, Jerusalem and the mountains of Judea. For ethnic reasons, the supporters of the “whole Eretz Israel” rejected any idea of merging on an equal basis with the inhabitants of these territories. The partial but decisive removal of many of the local people, such as was carried out in 1948 on the coastal plain and in the Galilee, was not possible in 1967. Yet it remained an unspoken wish. A formal annexation of the new territories was avoided, as it would have led to a binational state and nullified the chances of maintaining a state with a Jewish majority.

It took the political elites in Israel forty years to diagnose the situation, and to comprehend that in an advanced technological world, control over bits of land is not always a source of power. Up to the time of writing, Israel has not yet produced a bold leadership capable of splitting up “Eretz Israel.” All the governments have supported and encouraged the settlements, and not one has so far tried to dismantle those that flourish in the heart of the “biblical homeland.”87 However, even if Israel abandoned the territories taken in 1967, the inherent contradiction in its very composition would still not be resolved, and another myth, even more firmly hard-wired than the territorial one, would continue to haunt it.

The myth of the Jewish ethnos as a self-isolating historical body that always barred, and must therefore go on barring, outsiders from joining it is harmful to the State of Israel, and may cause it to disintegrate from within. Maintaining an exclusionary “ethnic” entity, and discriminating against one-quarter of the citizens—Arabs and those who are not considered Jews in accordance with misguided history and the Halakhah—leads to recurring tensions that may at some point produce violent divisions that will be difficult to heal. For Palestino-Israelis, every stage in their interaction with everyday Israeli culture accelerates their political alienation, however paradoxical this may sound. Social encounters and a closer acquaintance with Israeli cultural and political values and opportunities that today are reserved only for those defined as Jews heighten the desire for greater equality and more active political participation. That is why the so-called Arabs of 1948 are increasingly opposed to the existence

87 The national attachment to Gaza never equaled the sense of proprietorship toward Hebron and Bethlehem. On the inability of Israel’s political elites to achieve a peace accord, see the valuable book by Lev Luis Grinberg, Politics and Violence in Israel/Palestine, New York, Routledge, 2009.


of Israel as an exclusively Jewish state, and there’s no telling how far this opposition may develop, or how it may be halted.

The complacent assumption that this growing and strengthening populace will always accept its exclusion from the political and cultural heart is a dangerous illusion, similar to the blindness of Israeli society to the colonialist domination in Gaza and the West Bank before the First Intifada. But whereas the two Palestinian uprisings that broke out in 1987 and 2000 exposed the weakness of Israel’s control over its apartheid territories, their threat to the existence of the state is negligible compared with the potential threat posed by the frustrated Palestinians living within its borders. The catastrophic scenario of an uprising in the Arab Galilee, followed by iron-fisted repression, may not be too far-fetched. Such a development could be a turning-point for the existence of Israel in the Near East.

No Jew who lives today in a liberal Western democracy would tolerate the discrimination and exclusion experienced by the Palestino-Israelis, who live in a state that proclaims it is not theirs. But Zionist supporters among the Jews around the world, like most Israelis, are quite unconcerned, or do not wish to know, that the “Jewish state,” because of its undemocratic laws, could never have been part of the European Union or one of Americas fifty states. This flawed reality does not stop them from expressing solidarity with Israel, and even regarding it as their reserve home. Not that this solidarity impels them to abandon their national homelands and emigrate to Israel. And why should they, seeing that they are not subjected to daily discrimination and alienation of the kind that Palestino-Israelis experience daily in their native country?

In recent years the Jewish state has become less interested in large-scale immigration. The old nationalist discourse that revolved around the idea of aliyah has lost much of its appeal. To understand current Zionist politics, replace the word “aliyah” with “diaspora.” Today Israel’s strength no longer depends on demographic increase, but rather on retaining the loyalty of overseas Jewish organizations and communities. It would be a serious setback for Israel if all the pro-Zionist lobbies were to immigrate en masse to the Holy Land. It is much more useful for them to remain close to the centers of power and communications in the Western world—and indeed they prefer to remain in the rich, liberal, comfortable “diaspora.”

At the end of the twentieth century, the weakening of the nation-state in the Western world indirectly presented contemporary Zionism with new advantages. Economic, political and cultural globalization has significantly eroded classical nationalism, but it has not done away with the basic need for identity and alternative collective associations. The post-industrial context


in the wealthy West, with its tremendous movement of material and cultural commerce, has not stopped people from seeking tangible social frameworks. And as the omnipotent state of the twentieth century gradually declines, the search for sub-identities—whether neoreligious, regional, ethnicist, communal or even sectist—has become prominent in the changing morphological fabric of the new world, and it’s not clear where this development is heading.

Amid all these developments, Jewish “ethnicity” has enjoyed a resurgence. In the United States this has been a noticeable fashion for some time. As a typical immigrant state, the liberal and pluralistic American superpower has always left a generous margin for legitimate sub-identities. Mass nationalization in the US never sought to erase previous cultural layers or remnants of old beliefs (other than those it had exterminated at the start). In the presence of the Anglo-American, Latin American or African American, a descendant of Eastern European Jewry had to identity himself or herself as Jewish American. The person may not have preserved elements of the great Yiddish culture, but the need to belong to a particular community meant finding a focus of identity amid the sweeping cultural vortex.

As the Yiddish culture lost its vitality, Israel increased in importance for many American Jews, and the number of Zionists increased. If, during the Second World War, American Jewry behaved rather apathetically toward the mass slaughter in Europe, it responded with sympathy and support for Israel, especially following Israel’s victory in the 1967 war. In Europe, with the rise of the European Union and the weakening of the nation-states within it, the Jewish institutions in London and Paris also experienced a transnational ethnicization, and the State of Israel learned to derive maximum political benefit from this worldwide network of Jewish power.

Since the late 1970s, the perpetuation of the Jewish ethnos state has paid handsome dividends, and the closer Brooklyn came to Jerusalem, the further was Arab Nazareth removed from the heartbeat of Jewish-Israeli politics. That is why any project that proposed turning Israel into a republic of its citizens has come to seem like a fantasy. Jewish-Israeli blindness regarding the democratic radicalization of the Palestino-Israeli community, especially its younger and educated elements, has always been based on plain material interest. It not only rested on the weighty mythological past and was sustained by simple ignorance—it has also been reinforced by the profit and power derived from the existence of the overseas ethnos, which is content to subsidize it.

But there’s a fly in the ointment. Although the globalization of the late twentieth century was accompanied by increased pro-Zionist ethnicization among the established Jewish communities, the runaway assimilation at


ground level has continued to mix Jews with those who live beside them, who attend the same universities and who share the same workplace. The impact of everyday cultures, local and global, is stronger than the synagogue and the Zionist Sabbath folklore. Consequently the demographic power base of the Jewish establishment is steadily eroding. Comfortable Jewish life in the “diaspora,” the irresistible power of young love, and the welcome decline in anti-Semitism are all taking their toll. Surveys indicate that not only is mixed marriage on the rise, but support for Israel among Jewish families under thirty-five is declining. Only among the over-sixties is solidarity with Israel stable and popular. These data suggest that the inflow of power from Israel’s “transnational diaspora” may not last forever.88

Nor should Israel assume that the support of the mighty West will never falter. The neocolonialism of the early twenty-first century—exemplified in, for instance, the conquest of Iraq and Afghanistan—has intoxicated the power elites in Israel, but for all the rising globalization, the West is still far away while Israel is situated in the Near East. The violent reaction to the humiliation of the East will fall not on the remote metropolis but on its forward outpost. The fate of the self-segregating ethnos state in a corner of the Arab and Muslim world is uncertain. In the present historical stage, as is usually the case, we cannot see the future, but there are good reasons to fear it.

For example, the peace camp must consider that a compromise accord with a Palestinian state, if achieved, may not only end a long and painful process, but start a new one, no less complex, inside Israel itself. The morning after may be no less painful than the long nightmare preceding it. Should a Kosovo erupt in the Galilee, neither Israel’s conventional military might, nor its nuclear arsenal, nor even the great concrete wall with which it has girdled itself will be of much use. To save Israel from the black hole that is opening inside it, and to improve the fragile tolerance toward it in the surrounding Arab world, Jewish identity politics would have to change completely, as would the fabric of relations in the Palestino-Israeli sphere.

The ideal project for solving the century-long conflict and sustaining the closely woven existence of Jews and Arabs would be the creation of a democratic binational state between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. To ask the Jewish Israeli people, after such a long and bloody conflict, and in view of the tragedy experienced by many of its immigrant founders in the twentieth century, to become overnight a minority in its own state may not be the smartest

88 See the article by Shmuel Rozner, “Mixed Marriages Create Two Jewish Peoples,”

Haaretz, December 29, 2006; and also the reports in Yediot Ahronot, August 31, 2007.


thing to do. But if it is senseless to expect the Jewish Israelis to dismantle their own state, the least that can be demanded of them is to stop reserving it for themselves as a polity that segregates, excludes, and discriminates against a large number of its citizens, whom it views as undesirable aliens.

The Jewish supra-identity must be thoroughly transformed and must adapt to the lively cultural reality it dominates. It will have to undergo a process of Israelization, open to all citizens. It is too late to make Israel into a uniform, homogeneous nation-state. Therefore, in addition to an Israelization that welcomes the “other,” it must develop a policy of democratic multiculruralism—similar to that of the United Kingdom or the Netherlands—that grants the Palestino- Israelis not only complete equality but also a genuine and firm autonomy. Their culture and institutions must be preserved and nurtured at the same time as they are brought into the centers of power of the hegemonic Israeli culture. Palestino- Israeli children should have access, if they wish it, to the heart of Israeli social and productive centers. And Jewish-Israeli children must be made aware that they are living in a state in which there are many “others.”

Today this forecast seems fantastic and Utopian. How many Jews would be willing to forgo the privileges they enjoy in the Zionist state? Would the Israeli elites be capable, following this cultural globalization, of undergoing a mental reformation and adopting a more egalitarian temperament? Do any of them really want to institute civil marriage and to separate the state entirely from the rabbinate? Could the Jewish Agency cease to be a state institution and become a private association for the fostering of cultural ties between the Jews of Israel and Jewish communities around the world? And when will the Jewish National Fund stop being a discriminatory ethnocentric institution, and return the 130,000 hectares of “absentee” lands that were sold to it by the state for a symbolic amount—more specifically, return them to the seller at that same symbolic price so that they may serve as the primary capital from which to compensate the Palestinian refugees?

Furthermore, will anyone dare to repeal the Law of Return, and to offer Israeli citizenship only to those Jews who are fleeing persecution? Will it be possible to deny a New York rabbi on a brief visit to Israel his automatic right to become an Israeli citizen (usually done on the eve of general elections) before he returns to his native country? And what’s to stop such a Jew, assuming he is a fugitive (though not because of criminal acts), from living a contented Jewish religious life in an Israeli republic of all its citizens, just as he does in the United States?

And now the last, perhaps the hardest, question of them all: To what


extent is Jewish Israeli society willing to discard the deeply embedded image of the “chosen people,” and to cease isolating itself in the name of a fanciful history or dubious biology and excluding the “other” from its midst?

There are more questions than answers, and the mood at the end of this book, much as was the case in the personal stories at its start, is more pessimistic than hopeful. But it is appropriate for a work that has hung question marks over the Jewish past to conclude with a short, impertinent questionnaire about the uncertain future.

In the final account, if it was possible to have changed the historical imaginary so profoundly, why not put forth a similarly lavish effort of the imagination to create a different tomorrow? If the nation’s history was mainly a dream, why not begin to dream its future afresh, before it becomes a nightmare?