Israel must be defined as the nation state of the Jewish people and all of its citizens. There is no other possible definition if Israel is to continue to call itself a democracy.
I made aliya in 1978 after years in leadership positions in the Zionist Youth Movement Young Judaea. From my first visit in Israel in 1969 at the age of 13 for my bar mitzvah I felt at home in Israel. There is no other place in the world that I want to live in. I grew up in a home where being Jewish was very important. Being Jewish has always been an essential part of my identity. I have always felt proud to be Jewish.
My Jewish identity did not emerge from encountering anti-Semitism; in fact, I have never personally experienced anti-Semitism. My parent’s home was basically a secular one. When we were growing up we always belonged to a synagogue, it was something that everyone did. We lived in a very Jewish neighborhood and the synagogue was part of the social fabric of where we lived and who we were. For a very short period of time, when I was 14 years old after returning home for the first time from Young Judaea summer camp, Tel Yehuda, I was wearing a kippa, influenced by attending morning prayers in camp every morning for one month. I said to myself, I will try to continue this at home and try to be religious. After less than three weeks, I removed the kippa and understood that I simply was lacking the faith.
My parents provided me with a Jewish education, although they themselves were not religious. When Rabbi Levi Weiman Kelman approached me to help to establish the Kol Haneshema synagogue in Jerusalem, I joined up with full force (no one can say no to Rabbi Levi!) and I was chairman of the synagogue for its first three years. It was not a lot of work, but it did involve going to shul every Shabbat and holiday for those three years. This perhaps does not sound like a big deal, but if you are secular and even define yourself as an atheist like me, it is quite a big deal.
As my own three children grew up, I too decided it was important to provide them with a Jewish education.
They were born in Jerusalem and as Israeli children they absorbed a lot of their Jewish education from society and in school. At the age of bar mitzvah, we made sure that all three of the kids would have their bar mitzvah learning, including of course reading from the Torah and preparing their sermon. Kol Haneshema in Jerusalem was naturally our choice to celebrate their coming of age as Jews. Nonetheless, we remain a secular family.
My relationship to my Jewishness is a matter of identity, pride, belonging, culture, language and peoplehood.
When I try to explain to non-Jewish friends, particularly Palestinians or other Arabs, what it means for me to be Jewish, I completely confuse them (which is what I want to do). I tell them that I do not believe in God and I do not practice Judaism religiously, but am very Jewish. I am a son of the Jewish people, a product of Jewish history, a part of Jewish presence in the land of the Jewish people.
My language is Hebrew and my culture is Israeli. I live in Israel because Israel is my home – my home by choice.
Israel is the home of the Jewish people. Israel is the nationstate of the Jewish people. I identify with our flag. I sing our national anthem with emotion – chills up my spine. I get excited flying home from abroad when I see the Israeli coast line. I am very glad that Israel exists and that I am an Israeli.
I don’t need a new law to tell me what Israel is. Our birth certificate, our Declaration of Independence, tells us very well who we are. It is a brilliant document which tells us and the world what we stand for. I am delighted to have that document as our definition of our birthright and our statement of purpose. I cannot say the same for the new proposed “Jewish state laws.”
Yes it is true, our statement of identity is not complete – it is missing elements. But the missing parts are not to be found in any of the draft laws that are floating around – and most certainly not in the draft that the Israeli government just voted on, sponsored by MKs Ze’ev Elkin, Yariv Levin and Ayelet Shaked. That version of the law should be burned and never see the light of day. Here is what is missing from all of the drafts: more than 20% of Israelis are not Jewish, and the proposed laws deny that the State of Israel is also their state. It is not simply a statement that Israel is a democracy which is missing, or even a guarantee of equal rights – in a democracy that should be automatically understood and implemented.
Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people. I know that this is not easy for the Palestinians to accept – especially for the Palestinian citizens of Israel. But Israel is also their state, not only the nation state of the Jewish people. How can Israel not be the state of more than 1.3 million people who were born here as citizens? How can the State of Israel continue to deny these citizens their birthright within their own state? Israel must be defined as the nation state of the Jewish people and all of its citizens. There is no other possible definition if Israel is to continue to call itself a democracy.
How could the State of Israel be less to Muhammad who was born in Kafr Kara, whose father, grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather were born in Kafr Kara, than it is to me, who was born in the United States and immigrated here 36 years ago? How could Israel belong more to Svetlana who arrived here a few years ago than to Samira whose family has been living in Haifa for 50 generations? Israel demands loyalty from its Palestinian citizens. Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman even wanted them to take a loyalty oath. What are they expected to be loyal to? Israel continues to discriminate against its Palestinian citizens. There is absolutely no excuse for discrimination on national or religious grounds in Israel after more than 65 years of statehood. The proposed law for the Jewish state would push us in the exact opposite direction. We need to confront the complexity of Israel’s identity. We should embrace the challenge of having a large minority within our borders. Guaranteeing full equity and ensuring partnership with the Palestinian minority of Israel would serve our interests in making us a better people and Israel a better state. It is not easy – particularly when Israel remains in conflict with the Palestinian people. When the Palestinian state will really exist next to Israel it will be easier for the Palestinian citizens of Israel to begin to feel more at home in Israel, if Israel will allow them that opportunity.
I hope and pray that the Palestinian state will have a Jewish minority and that it will decide to define itself as the nation state of the Palestinian people and all of its citizens.
I would even propose to the Palestinian leaders that they decide to treat their Jewish minority exactly as Israel treats its Palestinian minority.
Gershon is an advisor to Israeli, Palestinian and International Prime Ministers on the Middle East Peace Process and the founder and director of IPCRI, the Israeli-Palestinian Public Policy Institute. He was the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel between Israel and Hamas for the release of 1,027 prisoners – mainly Palestinians and Arab-Israelis of which 280 were sentenced to life in prison for planning and perpetrating various attacks against Jewish targets that resulted in the killing of 569 Israelis in exchange for one Israeli soldier, Gilad Schalit. Gershon is actively involved in research and advocacy concerning topics such as social policy, environmental security, political strategy, peace education, economics, culture and in the development of affordable solar projects with the goal of providing clean electricity for 50 million people by 2020.