As the Second World War reached its height in the early 1940s, the largest Zionist paramilitary group in Palestine, known simply as the Irgun (the Organisation), sent a young emissary to the United States. His assignment was to raise money to save the Jews of Europe but the task quickly transformed into raising funds and diplomatic cover for the Irgun’s campaign of terror against the British in Palestine.
While in Washington, Hillel Kook, the Irgun’s emissary and the nephew of the Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Israel, Avraham Kook, changed his name to Peter Bergson. By most accounts, Bergson was successful at his task but during the operation in the United States his ideology transformed from traditional proto-Likud thinking into something more akin to the debate about a one-state solution in contemporary Israel/Palestine.
Peter Bergson was one of the first to argue for a “Hebrew” republic that would grant full rights to Jew and non-Jew alike. His essential argument was that the people of the land of Israel had an equal stake in the reformation of an ancient Hebrew republic while those outside could elect to join but should not apply external influence.
In the short term, both Palestinian and Jew had a shared interest in fighting together against the British mandate and, for Bergson, this partnership could materialise into something deeper after the goal of independence was achieved. He wanted a democratic Israel, which didn’t use Jewish ethnicity as a pretext for rights and was thus a state of all of its citizens. As history would have it, Bergson’s concept of a Hebrew republic never materialised.
While in Washington, Bergson distributed a number of pamphlets outlining his radical new approach to the conflict in the Middle East including a slim volume titled Manifesto of the Hebrew Nation which announced, in no uncertain terms, that “the Jews in the United States do not belong to the Hebrew nation. These Jews are Americans of Hebrew descent”.
After the war in 1948, Bergson joined the Knesset on the Herut (precursor to the Likud party) ticket. Later in life he retracted many of the explosive statements of his youth and underlined that he had also supported a Jewish state with a Jewish majority.
Israeli national identification cards include information about nationality. One can be listed as a Jew, Arab, Druze, etc but there is no category for Israeli. Last week, the Israeli supreme court ruled against including Israeli as a nationality in a case brought by 21 mostly Israeli Jews. The message was a clear one.Israel is defined along ethnic and religious lines, not national ones.
In Israel, the definition of who is a Jewish person is fluid. To acquire Israeli citizenship, one must have at least one Jewish grandparent and have never sworn off the Jewish faith. This classification enabled millions of Soviet Jews to emmigrate to Israel after the fall of the Soviet Union. But this is not the entire story in Israel because the country has a tiered citizenship structure. To be recognised as a “full” Jewish citizen of Israel, one must be Jewish according to religious law. This states that a Jew is one who has been born to a Jewish mother or has converted.
Therefore, a Russian Jew with one Jewish grandfather can apply for, and receive, Israeli citizenship under the controversial Law of Return. However, once in Israel, this person would not have full access to various civil society benefits that are controlled by Israel’s religious establishment such as marriage and divorce.
It is quite understandable, therefore, that those living in a liberal western country take issue with such strict religious control in state affairs. Not only does the lack of an “Israeli” nationality leave out the prospect of forging something that can be both Arab and Jewish but religious control has led to a schizophrenic society.
This is exactly the root of the internal debate raging in Israel about its self-definition. For some, like the liberal Zionist writer Bernard Avishai, Israel should strive to be a Hebrew republic, in an almost Bergsonian sense. The state must strive to be a state for all its citizens, which is glued together through the Hebrew language.
For Avishai, the debate about who is and who is not a Jew in Israel is less important than the fact that Israel should be the home for Jewish national culture, which he refers to as Hebrew culture. In his view of the Hebrew republic, something similar to the current religious separation between Arab and Jew should remain in place. Namely, Palestinian schools should be granted the freedom to teach in Arabic.
However, like Bergson, who wanted Israel’s immigration laws to be based on the individual instead of the collective, Avishai argues that the Law of Return, which grants automatic citizenship to Jews worldwide, should be replaced by a proper immigration law. While the Law of Return was necessary for the nascent state of Israel because it allowed Jews to move to Israel quickly and safely at a time of great peril, it serves no positive role in Israeli society in the present.
Of course, Avishai is correct that the Law of Return has run its course but that is to say nothing of its essentially exclusive and discriminatory character. His explanation deftly ignores how the Law of Return has become a foundational legal pillar in Israel’s explicitly exclusive and racist legal framework.
Avishai’s argument for a Hebrew republic, which was delivered at a conference organised by the liberal Jewish-American group J-Street in Washington last week, is a compelling reframing of the cultural Zionist system. Israel would have a Hebrew national atmosphere where Hebrew culture would thrive in ways previously unimaginable. The Israeli state would be a central vehicle in driving a revival and fostering Jewish national culture. But this is not exactly how history has unfolded.
For hundreds of years, Yiddish, a dialect of Middle High German, was the most widely spoken Jewish language in the world. For the Zionist movement, the language represented the bookish and weak lifestyles of European Jewry and was to be replaced with brutish Hebrew that connected Jews with their past in the land of Israel. In order for Hebrew to become the dominant lingua franca, Yiddish had to wither away, which it did thanks to the Holocaust and the near complete refusal to engage with the language in the state of Israel. Currently, one of the largest repositories of Yiddish language books is located in a humid, poorly-lit library on the sixth floor of Tel Aviv’s central bus station.
While the idea of a Hebrew republic might be a tempting fix, its implementation is the tricky part. Even the so-called guardians of the Hebrew language at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem display reactionary Zionist reflexes to influential Hebrew writers who question the ideology. David Vogel, the Viennese writer who was killed in the Holocaust, is perhaps the most influential Hebrew writer of the 20th century, but his work is barely taught in Israeli schools due to his supposed anti-Zionist leanings.
To put it simply, the creation, or insistence, on a Hebrew republic where the problems between Israelis and Palestinians dissolve because of the cultural foundation that Hebrew can provide does not rectify the central tension in the conflict, namely, the nationalist ideology at its core. That is to say nothing of the fact that Hebrew is widely understood as an alien and oppressive language by Palestinians.
Beyond two-state/one-state solution arguments, there is a debate about what kind of state Israel should be and how this change would facilitate movement away from the country’s extreme nationalist roots. From a democratic Israel that is a state of all of its citizens where Hebrew culture serves as a foundation in society to an Israeli state that downplays its Jewish roots in favour of Israeli ones, these debates are even reaching the Israeli supreme court.
Each of these scenarios presents new openings for Palestinians that currently don’t exist in the rigid present reality in Israel. In other words, the status quo as it exists remains the most negative solution for all parties involved. The sad reality is that these debates are as old as the country itself and their continued relevance demonstrates exactly how far Israel has to go to solving the problem of its own self-definition.
Joseph Dana is a journalist based in Ramallah
On Twitter: @ibnezra