w w w . h a a r e t z . c o m
So this Jew, Arab, Georgian and Samaritan go to court…
The state denies there is any such nationality as `Israeli’
By Moshe Gorali <mailto:email@example.com>
A group of Israeli public figures last week petitioned the High Court of
Justice to order the Interior Ministry to register them as Israelis.
"We’re Israeli, and wish to be registered as such," said the petition,
presented by Attorney Yoela Har-Shefi.
The Interior Ministry has a list of 137 nationalities, including
Abkhazi, Assyrian and Samaritan – but you won’t find "Israeli" among
them. The State of Israel doesn’t recognize the existence of "Israeli"
as a nationality.
The petitioning group is headed by Professor Uzi Ornan of the Hebrew
University and the Technion and the 38 intellectuals, academics and
scientists include Shulamit Aloni, Uri and Rahel Avneri, Yehoshua Sobol,
Gavriel Solomon, Yigal Eilam, Meron Benvenisti, Yehoshua Porat and Oren
Also in the group is singer Alon Olearchik, formerly of the army Nahal
entertainment group and the Israeli rock band Caveret – his mother is
Christian and father Jewish, so he is not Jewish. Adal Ka’adan, the
Israeli Arab who tried in vain to buy a house in the Katzir community,
also wants to be registered as Israeli.
Among the petitioners are those categorized on the identity cards as
"Jew," "Druze," "Georgian," "Russian," and even one "Hebrew." Not one of
them is "Israeli," and the reason is simple – the Israeli state does not
recognize any Israeli nationality that isn’t Jewish. Even the Supreme
Court ruled in 1970 that there was no such thing as Israeli nationality.
Georg Rafael Tamrin returned from a visit overseas to find a new law –
an amendment to the law following the "who is a Jew" affair – ruling
that to be an Israeli one must be a member of "the Jewish nation."
Tamrin asked the population registrar to change the nationality clause
in his identity card from "Jewish" to "Israeli." He maintained that
"there is already a definite Israeli nationality today, to which I
belong according to all subjective criteria – identification, feeling of
belonging, loyalty and declaring it."
Tel Aviv District Court Judge Yitzhak Shilo rejected Tamrin’s suit
stating "a person cannot create a new nationality just by saying it
exists, and then say he belongs to it." Shilo then added the real
reason: "I can fully declare that there is no Israeli nation that exists
separately from a Jewish nation."
Tamrin appealed to the High Court of Justice, which adopted the District
Court’s position. Justice Shimon Agranat denounced the petitioner: "If a
handful of people or more wish to separate themselves from the Jewish
people – only 23 years after the establishment of the state – and
acquire the status of a separate Israeli nation, this separatist trend
should not be regarded as legitimate and should not be recognized."
*Who is a Druze?*
The new petition challenges these conclusions. Professor Ornan, formerly
the chairman of the League Against Religious Coercion and the Israeli
secular movement, is the chairman of the "I am Israeli" organization,
which has collected more than 2,000 signatures of Israelis. One
petitioner, former Air Force commander General Benny Peled, died, but
signed a power of attorney for the group.
Another petitioner is Druze businessman Carmel Wahaba. In 1990 he and
his French partners wished to set up an import-export company in France.
The company’s registration required a notarized translation of his birth
When the French clerk saw the translated documents, he scolded Wahaba:
"What’s a Druze nationality? I know of no Druze state. Do you want to
tell me that there is a Druze state within the State of Israel?"
Wahaba, who was suspected of trying to trick the French authorities,
tried to explain but the clerk would have none of it, demanding
authorization from the embassy that the translation was accurate and
that Wahaba was indeed an Israeli whose nationality was Druze.
Petitioner David Yanukshvili, a pensioner, is registered as "Georgian."
The petition says: "He abandoned Georgia and wishes to conduct his whole
life in the State of Israel, not merely as a citizen but as a member of
the Israeli nation. Why is the Georgian nationality being foisted on him?"
Ornan once classified himself as Canaanite, a member of an ideological
group whose founders included the late poet Yonatan Ratosh. When
Ratosh’s ID was lost, the Interior Ministry issued him a new one, citing
his nationality as "Jewish." Ratosh hastened to appeal to the High Court
of Justice to be registered as "Hebrew" again – a term which appears on
the Interior Ministry’s list of nationalities.
"What is the Hebrew nationality?" asks the petition. "Just because two
or three obstinate people insisted on their right to be registered as
such, and the High Court consented, a Hebrew nationality was created,
while the firm reality of an Israeli nationality is not recognized as
such? It seems to us that the right of tens of thousands, who declared
their nationality to be Israeli, is no less than the right of the
Hebrews, whose right was recognized."
The petitioners believe every man has a right to belong to the
nationality of his choice. It is not right to force a person to be
classified according to his religion in an essential official document,
since this leads to discrimination against members of various religions.
It is even less proper to force an atheist or someone openly hostile to
religion to be identified with his "religion," since this is a kind of
The petition further says that "Israel and any representative Jewish
organization are always fighting tooth and nail against mentioning that
a person is `Jewish’ in official documents of other states. How come
something that is an abomination when done by others, becomes worthy and
kosher when we do it?"
In democratic Western states citizenship is usually identical in meaning
to nationality. In Israel the clause "citizenship" in the population
registration office is accompanied by another clause called
"nationality." Hence "nationality" and "citizenship" in Israel are two
About three years ago, when the High Court instructed then Interior
Minister Eli Yishai to register Reform converts as "Jews" in the
nationality clause, the minister ordered the clause to be canceled in
IDs. Instead of "Jew" a row of stars appears now. A lady who applied for
a new ID when her old one wore out was amazed to find stars instead of
her Jewish identity. She appealed to the High Court of Justice to
reinstate the "Jew" classification.
Attorney Har-Shefi expects both petitions to be debated together so that
the court can examine the affiliation between Judaism and being Israeli.
There is no contradiction between the two, she says. Just like there is
an American Jew, there can be an Israeli Jew.
"The American Jew is both American by nationality and Jewish, and so is
the French Jew or the Norwegian Jew. We believe that an Israeli Jew is
also eligible to be called Israeli, while being a member of the Israeli
nationality, like his brother who belongs to the American nationality,"
the petition says.
The arguments go into values, interests and comparative law, the right
of man for self definition, equality, realizing his rights from the
Declaration of Independence and even strengthening the harmony in
The petition also cites the Or Commission’s ruling that "a central goal
of the state’s activity must be obtaining real equality for the state’s
Arab citizens. Recognizing the right of all those who feel that way –
both Jews and Arabs – and want to define themselves as Israelis, would
open the way to minimizing discrimination, helping reconciliation, and
establishing all Israelis identification with their state."
According to surveys, Har-Shefi says 60 percent of Israeli Arabs would
jump at the chance of being registered as Israelis. Today only about 25
percent of them are registered as Israelis.
As for Jews, the recognition of the Israeli nationality would remove a
source of dispute and division both among Israeli Jews and between
Israel’s Jews and the diaspora Jews, the petition says.
The petition’s main object is separating state from religion, or at
least separating religion from nationality. Petitioner Nili Kook is the
widow of Professor Hillel Kook, who died two years ago.
"He told me that his great uncle, Rabbi Kook, would have supported the
petition. Like the late Professor Yeshayahu Leibovitz, he wished to
separate religion from nationality and the state. They believed only
such separation would increase respect for religion in Israel,"
The appointment of Avraham Poraz as Interior Minister raised hopes among
the petitioners but their requests to him, like their letters to Haim
Ramon when he was Interior Minister, went unheeded. The loaded issue was
shelved. A petition to the High Court is a good way to raise an issue
for the agenda, but it is doubtful whether the High Court is the right
As Judge Shilo said, a nationality is not created by saying it exists.
It is hard to assume that the judges say so would create the Israeli
nationality. On the other hand, Supreme Court President Justice Aharon
Barak is retiring in about three years and perhaps history, in the form
of 38 "Israelis," has provided him with the last big case to create