Jewish Tribalism Comes Clean
by Jonathan Cook
www.dissidentvoice.org, July 1,
In a recent skirmish with leading members
of the American Jewish activist community, the prize-winning Israeli
novelist A B Yehoshua claimed that secular Jewish identity was
meaningless outside Israel. Upsetting his audience in Washington,
he argued that Jewishness in the Diaspora was impermanent: if
China ever became the world's foremost superpower, he warned,
American Jews would migrate there to assimilate rather than in
"For me there is no alternative I cannot keep my identity
outside Israel. Israeli is my skin, not my jacket. You [Jews in
the Diaspora] are changing jackets you are changing countries
like changing jackets," he told the leaders of the American
Jewish Committee. Delegates called his comments "impertinent,"
"foolish," "tasteless," and "impolite."
However, this brief row had far more significance than perhaps
either side cared to admit.
Although rooted in an interpretation of Jewish identity that has
prevailed for less than a century, Yehoshua's conviction is today
the dominant one: it is the view of Jewish identity that underpins
Zionism and the only one that makes sense of Jewish nationalism.
It is a view shared by almost all Israelis and tacitly accepted
by a majority of Diaspora Jews, even if they recoil from Yehoshua's
The discomfort shown by Diaspora Jewry over the Israeli vision
of Jewish identity derives in part from the fact Yehoshua happily
exposes the double standard at the heart of Zionism. The Zionist
demand a right for Jews to reinvent their identity in the age
of the nation state while denying that same right to his Palestinian
neighbors. Zionists like Yehoshua are having their cake and eating
Until the advent of Zionism at the turn of the twentieth century,
Jews for whom their Jewishness mattered believed either that their
identity was of a strictly religious nature or, if they were secular,
that it was a meaningful marker of their ethnicity. In other words,
Jews who wanted to identify themselves as Jews were either Jews
in that they practiced a religion called Judaism or they were
Jews in that they believed they belonged to a distinct ethnic
But Zionism added a third possible category of Jewish identity.
A Jew no longer had to regard the choice simply in terms of either-or:
the Jew either as a believer in a Jewish God or as a member of
a group that shared a biological inheritance.
Instead a Jew could identify himself as belonging to a "nation",
whose rights derived from but could never be entirely satisfied
at either the biological or metaphysical level. For the Zionist
(or at least almost all those who identify themselves today as
such), Jewishness as a national identity needed also to be realized
at the territorial level. At the minimum the Jews required a state
where their sovereignty could be exercised.
Of course today not all Zionists believe that they personally
have to live in such a state for the Jewish nation to exist. A
large number choose to live in Europe and America, and support
the Jewish state from afar.
In their eyes the Jewish nation can exist independently of the
state but, for most, it is only a theoretical nation -- a folk
-- unless there is a concrete homeland in which Jewish national
rights are embodied, Jewish interests can be asserted on the global
stage, and to which Jews can turn in times of trouble.
This in essence is the view expounded by Yehoshua.
The new kind of Jewish identity was a strange hybrid from the
outset. Zionists believed a Jewish state must exist for the Jews
to be able to identify themselves as a nation but at the same
time the only criteria by which to judge membership of this state
were religious or ethnic, or both. In fusing the religious and
ethnic identities, the Jewish nation became greater than the sum
of its two parts.
So for a Jew to claim citizenship of the Jewish state -- to become
an Israeli -- he needs to prove either that he is a practicing
Jew or that he has inherited Jewish genes. This is the legal basis,
the 1950 Law of Return, for determining who is admitted to the
No one should deny Jews the right to reinvent their identity and
strive in so far as it is legal and moral to realize such an identity.
Identity, by its nature, is fluid. For each of us it changes over
time at the personal, political, social and cultural levels. But
at the same time, for the sake of consistency and justice, Jews
should not deny others the same rights they claim for themselves.
So in practice what has been the view of Zionists -- advocates
of a Jewish state for a Jewish nation -- in relation to other
distinct ethnic and religious groups who advocate a state for
themselves? And more importantly what has been their attitude
towards the national claims of the native inhabitants of Palestine,
most of whom were displaced -- either through fear or force --
during the war of 1948 that established the Jewish state?
Today, these refugees and their descendants -- as well as those
who remained on their land and now fall under Israeli rule either
inside Israel or in the occupied West Bank and Gaza -- number
more than eight million people. The overwhelming majority identify
themselves as Palestinians, a nation whose homeland was once known
Throughout Israel's history, Zionists have been willing to ascribe
ethnic and religious identities to the Palestinians but not a
This is why Israelis usually refer to Palestinians are "Arabs"
rather than as members of a nation. One of the most commonly heard
retorts from Israelis to Palestinians who assert their national
rights is: "Why do you need another state? You already have
22 Arab states. Go live in one of them."
This is especially true in relation to Israel's minority of one
million Palestinian citizens. They are not allowed to identify
themselves as Palestinians in the way that an Italian American
can, and in fact is encouraged to, identify himself as a member
of an Italian community living in the United States. Rather they
are "Israeli Arabs," whether they like it or not.
As far as Israeli Jews are concerned, a Palestinian citizen of
Israel who demands that his Palestinian identity be recognized
automatically raises doubts about where his loyalties lie, the
assumption being that he cannot be at once a Palestinian and loyal
to Israel. Of course, no Jew would accept such an attribution
of double loyalties in his own case. An American Jew, however
Zionist, would denounce as anti-Semitic any suggestion that he
is not always a loyal American citizen.
Zionists are also more than happy to concede to the Palestinians
religious identities. This is evident again inside Israel, where
the authorities prefer to treat the Palestinian minority not as
a national minority, or even a single ethnic group, but as a series
of discrete communities: religious ones such as the Muslims and
Christians, as well as what Israel considers to be separate ethno-religious
groups such as the Druze and Bedouin.
This Israeli counter-approach to the Palestinians' assertion of
a national identity is a useful -- and well-developed -- colonial
strategy: simple "divide and rule".
In the occupied territories too Israel has worked to accentuate
the religious identity of Palestinians -- and particularly the
large Muslim majority. It encouraged and funded the network of
Islamic organizations that later congealed into Hamas as a way
to undermine allegiance to the secular nationalism of Yasser Arafat's
Fatah movement. For obvious reasons, Israel has preferred to contend
with a Muslim resistance fighting for the return of the caliphate
than to face the opposition of a national liberation movement.
So whereas the Zionist demands that the profound differences contained
within the Jewish people -- the ethnic cleavages separating Ashkenazi,
Mizrahi, Ethiopian and Russian Jews, and the religious cleavages
between the Orthodox, the Haredim, the Conservative and Reform
streams, and the secular -- be ignored, he insists that the Palestinian
cleavages not only be emphasized but used to preclude any Palestinian
right to nationhood and a homeland.
Why are the Zionists so determined to refuse the Palestinians
a right they demand for themselves?
Because the territorial homeland to which Palestinians lay claim
has been under Israeli dominion for only a few decades. The Palestinians,
like many other national groups in the colonial era, may not have
had sovereignty in their homeland after centuries of occupation
(in their case, by the Ottomans, Britain, Jordan, Egypt, and Israel)
but it was nonetheless their homeland. After all, they could not
have been occupied had they not been living there for generations.
By contrast, the Jews' claim to nationhood in Palestine (rather
than somewhere else) cannot be derived from either national or
ethnic claims. Until the dispossession of the Palestinians began
a century ago, the number of Jews living in Palestine had been
minuscule for nearly 2,000 years. Their numbers were far higher
almost everywhere else: in America, Europe and the rest of the
Instead, Zionists seek legitimacy for their claim to Palestine
from a religious claim: that the Jews were promised the land by
God. This mostly unspoken assumption among Zionists has two problematic
It raises to the point of irrational dogma the belief that Israelis
should never make concessions either on sovereignty or on the
territory they now possess. It means that there can be no discussion
of a right of return for dispossessed Palestinians, of power sharing,
of a binational state, of democratizing Israel (changing it from
a Jewish state into a state of all its citizens).
It also continues to obstruct the emergence of a separate Palestinian
state, and certainly a viable one. Because, according to the Bible,
God did not promise Tel Aviv or Haifa, he promised the West Bank
cities of Nablus, Hebron, Bethlehem and Jerusalem -- parts of
the Holy Land which under international law still belong to the
So although the settlers have come to personify the aggressive
craving for places holy to the Jewish people, they are only mirroring
the irrational assumptions at the heart of Zionism's reshaping
of Jewish identity, of the kind expressed by secular intellectuals
Given this context, the international debate on the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict applies a terrible double standard. While the West accepts
the conflict as one between two rival nationalisms fighting for
the same territory, it places the onus on the Palestinians (a
dispersed non-people) to recognize Israel (a nation state), to
such a degree that the international community is currently starving
the Palestinians and their Hamas leadership into submission through
But in truth, the conflict endures because Israel and its Zionist
supporters refuse to recognize the Palestinians, and because they
continue to act in bad faith in peace negotiations. Israeli Prime
Minister Ehud Olmert's convergence plan, like the Oslo process
before it, is a way of dressing up an illusory territorial separation
that ensures continuing recognition of a Jewish national identity
in Israel while denying a meaningful Palestinian national identity
Olmert wants to preserve and strengthen the Jewish state, including
by expanding its borders, at the terminal expense of Palestinian
national goals. The Palestinians will be caged into a series of
ghettos that may eventually be labeled a Palestinian state but
in which they will not be able to exercise sovereignty.
Yehoshua may be right that his Jewish national identity can only
survive in Israel, where regional integration and compromise appear,
as ever, not to be on the agenda. In Israel it easier than in
the Diaspora to avoid admitting that Jewish nationalism is driven
by outdated, exclusivist ethnic and religious impulses. Only in
Israel can Jewish tribalism hope to triumph. For in Israel Yehoshua's
kind of Jew need not share anything.
Jonathan Cook, a British journalist living in Nazareth, is the
author of Blood and Religion: The Unmasking of the Jewish and
Democratic State, to be published next month by Pluto Press. His
website is: www.jkcook.net.