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The choice has been made

September 25, 2018

Why does a law passed across the world in the Israeli Knesset declaring Israel a state for “the Jewish people” feel like local news? This law implies that the concept of Jewish is definable. Who decides on the definition? The Nazis? Circumcision only applies to half the Jewish population. Is Judaism an ancient monotheistic religion, or are Jews people with distinct DNA? Who dares to tell me that my granddaughters, birthed by a non-Jewish mother, are not Jewish? Who decides if the rabbi who oversaw a Jewish conversion is kosher enough? Or if a rabbi had the right to perform a Jewish marriage ceremony?

In 1918, David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, investigated the question of Jewish identity in a richly documented book, Eretz Israel Past and Present, published by Poale Zion Palestine Committee. He concluded that “the Arabs of Palestine are none but those ancient Jews who were forced to convert to the religion of Arab Bedouin, who had conquered the land in the seventh century. The Arabs of Palestine, were hidden converts in whose veins ran Jewish blood.”

But the new law never mentions Palestinians — or other minorities. The state is only “interested in developing Jewish settlement as a national interest. …” They hope worldwide Jewry will see Israel as a donations destination or plan B — if Jewish life ever fell apart in the U.S., we could buy real estate and move there.

With the passage of this law Israel has chosen apartheid over democracy. This is unacceptable to most American Jews who have thrived in a pluralistic democracy known as the United States. This xenophobic legislation undermines Israel’s Declaration of Independence (May 14, 1948). “The state will insure for the complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants, irrespective of religion, race, or sex. …” The non-Jewish population of Israel have been waiting 70 years for this reality.

Zionism emerged in Europe at the end of the 19th century as a response to pogroms and anti-Semitisim. I choose to believe that the early Zionists were concerned with seeking a safe haven for Jews and did not intend to create a genocide for another people. Because of a historic connection, Palestine became the chosen destination. However, there was a problem; Palestine was already inhabited. If European Jews had moved to Palestine with the thought of settling the land alongside the indigenous population, Palestine could have become a multiethnic, multicultural pluralistic democracy.

Share the land — yes!

Take over the land and create a nation-state for one religion — no!

A nation is an imaginary construct based on a collective identity. Israel’s multiethnic population could be its strength. Diversity within the Jewish community includes Europeans, Americans, Russians, Africans, Arabs and more. Similar diversity exists within the Muslim and Christian community. The leader of the Syriac Christian community in Jerusalem, a tailor by trade, claims they are the original Christians. They speak a language similar to the Jewish-Palestinian-Aramaic spoken by Jesus.

The meaning of nationalism, statehood, Zionism and Judaism can be debated in perpetuity, but the highest moral code informs us that justice must be the law of the land. Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, as well as those living in Israel proper have the right to citizenship and to equality before the law. Let’s hope Israel can still live up to the promise of being a light in the world.

Iris Keltz has lived in the Rio Grande Valley since the late 1960s. She is the author of the award-winning book, Unexpected Bride in the Promised Land: Journeys in Palestine and Israel.

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