Last week, in response to a long-running legal challenge, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled in favour of the status quo whereby the country’s population registry does not allow “Israeli” as a permitted nationality. What at first glance appears confusing sheds light on a little known aspect of Israel’s discriminatory ethnocracy.
In denying the existence of an Israeli nationality distinct from a Jewish one, court President Asher Grunis and Justices Uzi Vogelman and Hanan Melcer upheld a 2008 Jerusalem District Court verdict, and also echoed the outcome of a similar case brought before the Supreme Court in the 1970s.
Israeli ID cards and population registry feature an ‘ethnicity’ category, or ‘nationhood’/nationality (Hebrew: le’om), with the most common being ‘Jewish’ and ‘Arab’ (for Palestinian citizens of Israel). The defeated petitioners sought the right to replace ‘Jewish’ with ‘Israeli’, a campaign led for decades by Prof. Uzzi Ornan.
The Supreme Court’s ruling, excerpts of which have been translated for MEMO by Ofer Neiman (see here), is essential reading for those looking to understand the ways in which Israel seeks to maintain itself ostensibly as both a “Jewish and democratic” state.
Summarising the grounds on which the case had already been rejected, Judge Uzi Vogelman cited the Jerusalem District Court’s conclusion that “a ruling on the existence of an Israeli nationality would have far reaching and crucial implications for the identity of the state, its character and its future”.
Judge Meltzer, meanwhile, took the time while expounding his own opinion to lay out “three central elements” in which “the recognition of the legitimacy of Israel’s existence as a Jewish state is grounded”, citing the UN General Assembly resolution in 1947 on partition, the “moral recognition of the Jewish people’s right to self-determination within a national framework”, and thirdly, the claim that the “democratic system” does not require “a nationally ‘neutral state’.”
President Asher Grunis confirmed the court’s view of “the Tamarin ruling still applying to the subject of the appeal”, a reference to the decades-old precedent when the Court had ruled that “there is no Israeli nation separation from the Jewish nation”. At the time, the then-president of the High Court Shimon Agranat said that an Israeli nationality “would negate the very foundation upon which the State of Israel was formed” – i.e. as a Jewish state.
In response to the Supreme Court decision, Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, writing in its editorial on the problem with the lack of recognition of “an Israeli nationality independent of religious or ethnic affiliation”, pointed out how:
Jews in other countries would object to their Judaism being registered in their local population registries and ID cards, and this subject is not relevant in a democratic nation.
In another piece on the issue published by Ha’aretz, Aeyal Gross encapsulated how the citizenship/nationality distinction relates to the broader questions of ethnocratic, structural discrimination in the Jewish state:
In Israel the separation between the citizenship element and the nationality element, taken with the identification of the state with one specific national group, creates a hierarchy and exclusion, which is expressed not just on the level of symbols and declarations, but also in terms of allocating resources, governmental power, jobs, discrimination (formal or informal) and the need to indicate in the Population Registry who is a Jew and who isn’t…The distinction between citizenship and nationality ostensibly justifies and rationalizes discrimination and exclusion.
Gross’ conclusion is that “the distinction between citizenship and nationality, taken with the state’s being identified with only one of the national groups, will continue to obscure the possibility of having real democracy in Israel”. While true, this lack of genuine democracy does not primarily affect Jews who wish to change their ethnicity on an ID card, but rather millions of Palestinians who are second-class citizens – or, excluded altogether from their homeland.