Being a Jew in Israel goes beyond a simple declaration of faith or a social reality. It carries and implies therein a certain political and legal standing, adding additional dimensions to individuals’ sense of self. So what is Jewish identity?
Israeli soldiers and relatives of new Jewish immigrants from the U.S. and Canada, wave Israeli flags to welcome them as they arrive at Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv, Israel. Photo: Ariel Schalit/AP
In 2013, Lia Tarachansky, an Israeli national and the Israel-Palestine correspondent for The Real News Network (TRNN), directed “On the Side of the Road,” a documentary that explores what she describes as one of Israel’s greatest taboos: the concept of Israeli and Jewish identity.
As she explains in a December interview with Paul Jay, founder and CEO of TRNN, the concept of Jewish identity is a complicated matter, one which stands at the intersection of religion, nationality, politics, loyalties and contradictions.
While being Jewish holds different meanings for different people, one’s perception of one’s own identity revolves essentially around religion, ethnicity, political affiliation and cultural ties. The New South Wales Board of Jewish Education, in Australia, for example, notes different forms of Jewish identity — religious, secular, Zionist and cultural — which may be either how someone sees himself or how others perceive him.
“The key dichotomy in the modern world is between those who see Judaism as a religion and themselves as somewhere between religious and secular, and those who view Judaism as an ethnic or national identity, like being Greek Australian or Chinese Australian,” the NSW Board of Jewish Education explains.
Yet being a Jew in Israel stands for more than a simple declaration of faith or a social reality. It carries and implies therein a certain political and legal standing, adding additional dimensions to individuals’ sense of self.
At the core of Israel’s legal system lies a distinction between nationality and citizenship which puts Israeli Jews at a natural legal and political advantage on the basis of their religious ethnicity. This was best highlighted in October 2013, when the Supreme Court of Israel strictly defined nationality as sine qua non to one’s Jewishness.
In his 1983 book “Fateful Triangle,” Noam Chomsky posits that, “The state of Israel, as the courts have determined, is not the state of the citizens. Rather, it is the sovereign state of the Jewish people, where the Jewish people consist not only of the people residing in Israel but also Jews in the Diaspora. Thus, there is no Israeli nation apart from the Jewish people.”
Born of war and into war, Israel as a nation was defined by en masse migration in waves known as aliyot, in which communities from across the Jewish diaspora suddenly came together under this one flag, hoping to find in their religious commonality a sense of social and national belonging.
Following centuries of religious persecution and ostracization, Israel, the biblical homeland, was sold as the answer to anti-semitism and intolerance, a safe haven for all Jews. And while such ideals may still ring true for many, Tarachansky argues that the racist nature of the state of Israel has only served to compartmentalize and insularize communities within communities, fuelling individuals’ inner struggles as they attempt to find their footing within society and vis a vis society.
“Israel … is a very segregated society. You have the Russians here, you have the Ashkenazis there, you have the Mizrahim here, and then you have the Orthodox there, and Ethiopians here… And inside the Mizrahim you have the Persians, and then you have the Iraqis, and you have the Moroccans. And there’s very little mixing,” she says, explaining the compartmentalization and insularization of Israeli society.
Speaking of her own experiences as a Russian Jew, who moved with her Zionist mother to an Israeli settlement in the heart of the West Bank when she was six years old, Tarachansky explains, “Israel is a bubble inside a bubble inside a bubble inside a bubble…”
While world leaders continue to fiercely debate the Palestinian dossier, looking to define new world dynamics within the parameters of arising political realities, Israel has struggled with its inner demons, its people caught in an identity crisis which Tarachansky believes not only stems from Israel’s ethnocratic project, but also feeds it.
“I was very much a Zionist and part of the project and Israel all the way, but I was a Russian in Israel. So I didn’t have any illusions about what Israeli democracy looks like,” she says in the interview. “If you don’t fit into this box of what it means to be an Israeli, you’re out.”
I am, we are
“From a socio-psychological standpoint identity is a particular form of social representation that mediates the relationship between the individual and the social world. In other words, identity makes the link between social regulations and psychological organizations and serves as a matrix for all symbolic relationships. How we perceive ourselves and define ourselves ultimately translate into how we see others,” Dr. Nathalie Le Brun, a clinical psychologist, who runs a private practice based in France, told MintPress News.
“Identity is based on three principles: self-knowledge, claims and recognition. Moreover, individuals’ identity will be shaped and defined by their interactions with the outside world — socialization, communication and social influence. One person’s perception of the world and how they fit within it constitutes a set of knowledge which we define as identity.”
Centuries of persecution left an indelible mark on the Jewish community, engraining the idea that being Jewish entails being an outsider whose place remains among Jewish kin.
In her December interview, Tarachansky notes: “As you grow up in the Soviet Union, this sense of they hate Jews, I’m one of them, people are out to get us, me, that’s kind of a core theme in Israel. And it’s not based on nothing. You know, there’s, what, a couple of thousand years of people hating Jews and trying to get them in one form or another.”
While speaking from personal experience, Tarachansky’s experiences with racism and sectarianism contain a universality which is difficult to ignore. However uncomfortable, anti-Semitism remains an ever-present political and social reality.
“The recipient of a hatred which has stretched across borders and endured throughout centuries, Jewish identity has been built and moulded around such principles of persecution and victimization,” Norman Pollack, an expert on social theory, who also writes about populism, fascism and capitalism, told MintPress.
These traits, Tarachansky asserts, have become not only inherent of Jewish identity but integral to Jewish identity, at least within the parameters of Israel.
Looking into what constitutes Israeli identity, Tarachansky speaks of the weight ethnocracy has carried, putting the finger on a phenomenon which is seldom discussed.
“A person’s identity will define the lens through which one sees the world. Our identity is our telescope,” Dr. Le Brun said.
“Identity constitutes the social psychological context within which worldviews are constructed, through which these worldviews are communicated and for which battles are fought. Therefore, to some great degrees one’s identity will determine how one reacts to and sees the world.”
Ethnocracy and globalization
In his book “The Political Sociology of Security, Politics, Economics and Diplomacy,” Dr. Badal W. Kariye defines ethnocracy as a “form of government where representatives of a particular ethnic group hold a number of government posts disproportionately large to the percentage of the total… and use them to advance the position of their particular ethnic group(s) to the detriment of others.”
In 2002, Dr. Alexander Kedar, a law professor at the University of Haifa, in Israel, introduced the idea that Israel was displaying ethnocratic tendency. In his paper, “The Rise of a New Land Regime: Changes in Israeli Legal Geography 1992-2002,” Kedar argues that Israel’s land grabbing policy is symptomatic of Israel’s ethnocratic traits.
While looking at ethnocracy from a different perspective, Tarachansky suggests that Israel’s national identity lens, the manner in which Israeli Jews perceive themselves and categorize themselves, has fueled Israel’s inner struggle and torn at society.
“What’s more important to me is not the colonialism that Israel perpetrates in the West Bank and in Gaza; what’s more important to me is the ethnocratic regime inside of Israel,” Tarachansky says.
“Ethnocracies such as Israel are the frontier of the global laboratory of how to deal with globalization. And this is why there is a rise of fascistic and extreme-right movements in the United States and in Europe and a lot of these Western places where they want globalized capital without globalized migration.”
Articulating what she understands as the markers of Israeli identity, Tarachansky stresses:
“Israeli identity is a mixture of the strong, the invincible, the strongest among the nations, we are the strongest army in the region and one of the strongest armies in the world, coupled with we are persecuted, we are hated, we are victims. Now, both of those things are true, and both of them work off of each other, and both of them are absolutely necessary for the ethnocratic project.”
Caught between victimization and heroism, Israeli identity has been shaped around contradictions, making for an explosive social compound, wherein groups within groups learn to express themselves through the negation of others.
Speaking to MintPress, Pollack stressed that Israel’s ethnocentrism has essentially contributed to the establishment of a social-ethnic caste system within Israel.
Writing for the Middle East Quarterly last summer, Steven Plaut, a professor at the Graduate School of Management at the University of Haifa, explained: “Ethnicity in Israel is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon. Both Jews and Arabs are subdivided into ethnic sub-groups, making exploration and analysis of ethnic disparities a complex challenge.”
Israeli policies and laws are organized around this principle of ethnic compartmentalization, whereby certain groups take precedence over others on the basis of their ethnic denomination.
“Systematic policies adopted by Israeli governments for over 60 years have been shaped by the priorities of colonialism and ethno-religious exclusivity,” Ben White wrote for the Huffington Post in October 2012, noting land expropriations, exclusion and discrimination affecting non-Jews living in Israel and Palestine.
“What one does to others, comes home to roost — you then start persecuting those within the in-group who do not seem to measure up — a sliding scale of ethnocentrism, never satisfied with itself,” Pollack warned.
This concept was further highlighted by White in a report for the New Statesman in 2012:
“Foundational to Israel’s legal framework as a Jewish state is legislation passed in the first few years, specifically the Law of Return, the Absentee Property Law, and the Citizenship Law. These laws shaped an institutionalised regime of ethno-religious discrimination by extending Israel’s ‘frontiers’ to include every Jew in the world (as a potential citizen), at the same time as explicitly excluding expelled Palestinians.”
Because Israel understands and defines Judaism as the cornerstone of its national identity, and because Israel has lived through the narrative of victimization, the state of Israel has apparently learned to associate others as a permanent threat.
This notion of eternal danger, of being perpetually under threat of attack, can be seen in the fact that Israel operates under constant a state of emergency. Since the founding of the state in 1948, Israel has been governed by the Emergency Defense Regulations, a set of laws carried over from the British Mandate. In May 2014, the Knesset, Israel’s national legislature, passed a motion to further extend the 65-year-long national state of emergency. It was the 66th consecutive time that Israel has done so since its establishment.
Evoking Israel’s need to assert, justify and rationalize its identity through the rejection of the rights of Palestinians, Tarachansky evokes collective denial as a perverse social phenomenon which has contributed to dissociation, whereby Palestinians are no more than a vague concept instead of people.
Toward the denunciation of that very trend, Arjan El Fassed wrote in 2007 in the Electronic Intifada, “The current challenge to Palestinians today is not to sit down at fancy conferences to discuss parameters for negotiations but to object to and end this collective denial.”
Tarachansky describes Israel’s collective denial toward Palestinians as two people looking at the same object but seeing different things — a concept she didn’t understand until she was an adult.
“What do two people looking at the same object, how can it be that they see two different things? And what do they do to that knowledge? And what does that knowledge do to them?” she says.
Israel has built so many walls within walls that its society stands in constant contradiction with itself, simultaneously claiming one thing and its opposite.
In reaction to Tarachansky’s interview, Pollack noted that Israel’s contradictions have become “[t]he justification for endless war: a narrative of successes, heroism, military conquest. But most importantly has become a nation of walls which demonize the Outsider, deny the brutality and punishment one inflicts on them.
“To me, this seems close to becoming a collective psychopathological sadism — if [it’s] not there already.”
Going back to this sense of collective mal de vivre within Israel, Amos Oz, a prominent Israeli writer, historian and intellectual, told The New York Times in December, “There is a growing uneasiness, social, political, economic.”
“There is a growing sense that Israel is becoming an isolated ghetto, which is exactly what the founding fathers and mothers hoped to leave behind them forever when they created the state of Israel.”