For the third time since its establishment in 1948 Israel became deeply involved in a debate over the legal definition of Jewish nationality. As in the previous cases this one too started as an appeal to the Supreme Court of Justice to register as ‘Jewish by Nationality’ – rather than by religion – individuals whom the religious authorities consider as definitely non-Jewish.

The Supreme Court ruled by a majority of five to four that the applicants be registered as requested, that is as Jewish by nationality though not by religion. This shocked the entire Zionist establishment in Israel. The Cabinet, in which the Zionist Labour parties are in majority, met and proposed to the Knesset (Israeli parliament) to modify the definition of Jewish nationality so as to conform with the religious laws and their interpretation by the religious authorities. The Knesset passed this by an overwhelming majority of 70 to 14 with 23 abstentions amidst stormy scenes and a most vitriolic debate (parts had to be erased from the minutes).

This ruling in favour of a strictly religious definition of nationality in a country where the majority of the population consists of non-believers requires some explanation because it illuminates the unique nature of the Zionist regime in Israel. This regime is based on legal discrimination in such matters as immigration and citizenship laws, which grant special rights to world Jewry while denying elementary rights to the indigenous Palestinian Arab population.

The abolition of these discriminations, or even their partial erosion, would lead to the abolition of the Zionist regime in Israel. Those who opposed the ruling of the majority in the Supreme Court revealed in their argumentation far more than the official Israeli propaganda apparatus abroad would like to disclose. It is for this reason that we publish the following article by Shabtai Tevet. The main reason for the insistence on non-separation of Jewish nationality from Jewish religion is that the Zionist claim to the territory of Palestine is ultimately religious in nature – the Divine Promise. It is by this religious argument that Zionism rationalises and justifies the colonization of a territory inhabited by another people, the expulsion, discrimination and oppression to which that indigenous population is subjected.

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The following article from the Israeli daily Haaretz (February 3, 1970) discusses the issue with unusual frankness; the author is known for his liberal views; he is an atheist; he is also a Zionist. It is illuminating to see the outcome of the clash between a person’s liberal and his Zionist convictions.


The Divided Soul of an Israeli 
by Shabtai Tevet

The division in the Supreme Court of Justice, in its ruling on the case of Major [Binyamin] Shalit, of five against four, expressed properly my own feelings on this case. If I could I too would have divided myself into five-ninths for the ruling and four-ninths against it.

I would have fully agreed with the majority of five had I thought that the construction of the Jewish State has already come to an end, that its sovereignty and security have been ensured. In that case I would have demanded freedom for definition of nationality in Israel. As this is not the case, the building of the State has not come to an end yet, its sovereignty and security are under permanent threat, I am unable to feel wholesome, my soul is divided.

I support the four judges in minority, and those who support them, because I approach the fundamental issues from a political aspect, from the aspect of political utility. More and more I believe that in Israel issues of individual morality are confused with those of the morality of the many. Whereas an individual can rise above considerations of utility and purpose and accept a decision that is totally moral and in fact, only in rising above considerations of utility is a purely moral consideration possible, that is not the case with society. In social issues the utilitarian morality is binding. The question what is good for a society is necessarily a political one.

For this reason I believe that the religious law is still the only definition for Jewishness. Not because I accept it, not because I have no criticism of it, not because I want this to be so forever, but because it has no substitute today. Not one of those who criticize the religious ruling has a better definition of Jewishness.

Those who say that this is a matter of personal, subjective, feeling, admit in their very saying that they have no other definition. Had they proposed another definition which stands the test of social utility I would have considered whether I personally accept it. But at present there is no other definition except the religious one.

I understand that definition thus: according to the religious law he who wishes to become a Jew must convert. There can be a debate on the process of conversion, how prolonged, clumsy and unpleasant it is. This discussion is irrelevant for those who consider Jewishness to be a subjective feeling. Suppose we shorten the conversion into a single act of signing a form, where the applicant for conversion states his will to belong to the Jewish religion. Even then will those who reject religion and its values say that this is an act of coercion, and they will be right.

Thus it is not the process of conversion that matters but the act of coercion. That is so not only for the orthodox. Even the most liberal reform Rabbi demands from the converted an explicit statement stating that he recognizes the values of Jewish religion, thus the coercion amongst the liberals is not lesser.

This coercion, which unfortunately I see no way to avoid, is not to my taste. Not only because of the conscientious coercion but also because I justify it for unjustifiable reasons. The national utility for the sake of which I justify the coercion of conversion stems from my belief that the construction of the Jewish State has not been completed yet. Until this has been completed I see no other way for us other than racialism.

He who recognizes the national justice of Israel knows that this justice was done by means of racial injustice. The Jews took the lands of another people, later the Jewish National Fund acquired most of these lands from the government and Development Authority and turned it into the property of the Jewish People. Most of the land in Israel is the property of the Jewish Nation. The Law of the Return is a law which gives preferences to Jews over other people. In short, the building of the State of Israel was done on the basis of the religious ruling on Jewishness. If I undermine this foundation I might crack the entire structure.

By what right do I accept that a Jew from Boston will be allowed to settle in Jaffa while refusing to allow a resident of Jaffa, whose family lived there for many generations, to return to it from the refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, or in Judea and Samaria (ie, the West Bank) where he now lives?

By what justice, and according to what right, do I agree that lands in the Bsor area be given to new immigrants from France rather than to the sons of the peasants who cultivated them, or the neighbouring lands, for many generations?

Do I agree to this only because those Jews who settled in Jaffa, in abandoned cities, and those Jews who settled on lands belonging to Arabs felt subjectively that they are Jewish? Or according to what was valid when Zionism started, and the building of Israel commenced and what seemed to me then justified from a National-Jewish aspect?

If I do not accept nowadays that it is the religious law that defines who is the Jew to whom justice was done, then I recognize myself suddenly as someone who was a criminal all his life, who exiled innocent peasants and city dwellers only because a few tens of thousands at first, and later some hundreds of thousands who suddenly felt some inner attachment and identification with Jews, came here to expel (those peasants).

Subjective feeling is too weak and transient a standard to serve as a justified guide for history and contemporary Israeli society.

I reject racialism, I detest it, yet I see no other way to complete the Zionist enterprise whose main aim was to do justice to the Jewish People.

I find it possible to suffer this divided soul because I know that we are not a nation like all others and our State is not a State like all others.


[Next Item: Sch’mah Israel (a poem by Erich Fried]