October 06, 2011

The ever meaningless victories of liberal Israel

Israeli liberals are in a celebratory mood for a day. The Supreme Court ordered the Minister of Interior to register an important secular israeli writer as "without religion" instead of "Jew." Itzhak Laor deflates this delusional celebration, pointing out that the state registers religious affiliation as a code, and showing how, underneath the code, the (colonial) definition of an Israeli Jew is "anyone who isn't Palestinian."

A big celebration. Even Yoram Kaniuk, not only his grandson, and not only masses of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, will from now on be defined negatively: "without religion" (afer a court last week sided with the Israeli writer, granting him the right to register his status that way ). That is how the whole is being redefined: We are all Jews by religion, except for Kaniuk, his grandson and the immigrants from the FSU, who acquired Jewish identity from the Jewish Agency envoys and lost it at the Chief Rabbinate, which is the department for identifying Jews.

And still, the festivities surrounding this quasi-constitutional event look somewhat like a high school drinking party: You get drunk after a few gulps, and vomit.

Why list religion at all? Where else is religion listed in the population registry? In which democracy does a person's religion appear on the lists? The secular celebrants are saying with anger full of satisfaction: "only in Iran," since by means of the comparison with Iran we immediately join the West, just as by mocking the ultra-Orthodox one becomes "modern" here; but Israel really isn't a religious state.

The truth is harder to digest. In the first place religion is listed for the purpose of national identification, unconnected to religion. Because the nationality clause created "constitutional problems," the state was afraid to leave its citizens without identifying them. And that's how they gave the Chief Rabbinate the job of being the identifier: Jews, and those who aren't Jews are Muslims, or Christians or Druze.

Not to worry: The Shin Bet security services and the police fill in the blanks, and if there's confusion between a Christian from Kiev who sells good pork in Netanya and a Christian from Yefia who works in the pig sty of one of the kibbutzim in the Jezreel Valley, the concerned citizen needn't worry. Everything is properly registered, without any euphemisms. Not only in the cellars of the Shin Bet and the codes of the police, even the Central Bureau of Statistics, which annually provides the public with demographic data about the number of Arab babies and Jewish babies that were born, has created a category of "Christians who are not Arabs."

That shows you that it's less important to the state if you're a Catholic from Mi'ilia, or a Greek Orthodox Christian from Lod, or a Protestant from Reneh, or a Pravoslav from Ashdod; what's most important is whether we're talking about an Arab, or about someone who can join the ruling majority, in other words the Christian from Kiev, regardless of his language and his culture. A negative definition: He's not an Arab.

The formal religious institutions were invented by Zionism during the period of the state in the making, when it imported Rabbi Kook to compete with Rabbi Sonnenfeld from Mea She'arim. But the rabbinate has no connection to halakha (religious law ) because the Jews never had central institutions for halakha. That's why the rabbinate does not decide on halakha. Since the establishment of the state it has been engaged only in identifying nationality.

Now we should ask those who are celebrating with Kaniuk: Can a Jewish state be "Jewish" - forget its partner, "democratic," for a moment - without the identifying institutions: the rabbinate, the police, the Shin Bet?

Isn't the reason for the tremendous importance of the "religion clause" the anti-democratic need to distinguish between Jews and Arabs, in order to discriminate simply by defining the difference? Of course.

It seems that the vast majority of those celebrating Kaniuk's success are willing to be satisfied with little, a kind of trampling on the hat of the religious. We screwed them again. But the main thing is that we are left with the glory of chauvinism itself: A country that is defined according to the nationality of the majority is informing the minority every morning: We are, and you are not.(Haaretz, October 6)

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