By Sayed Kashua
July 30, 2018
We were driving our rental car out of Ben
Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv. “Dad,” my oldest daughter said as we listened to
the radio, “what’s the Nationality Law?”
“It’s a law that says Israel is a Jewish
state,” I replied.
“But wasn’t it always that way?” she
wondered, and rightly so.
“Yes. Bottom line, it’s always been that
“I don’t get it,” my middle son said. “I
thought you said we were citizens.”
“We are,” I answered.
“But we’re not Jewish, right?”
“No, we’re not.”
“Then I don’t get it,” my youngest son
“It’s a little complicated,” I tried to
explain. And it really was complicated to explain the law that Israel’s
Parliament passed earlier this month without using terms like “racial
segregation,” “discrimination” and “supremacy.” How was I going to explain to a
12-year-old that he is a citizen of a state that holds that he is inferior
because of his non-Jewish origins? “Not everyone in the country is Jewish,” I
said. “At least 20 percent of the citizens are not. But it’s a country where
Jews enjoy rights that others don’t have. Meaning, non-Jews are less equal than
“Can’t we be Jewish then?” my youngest son
asked, as if he’d instantly solved the inequality problem.
“Sorry,” I told him, “that’s not up to me.
According to Israeli law, in order to be Jewish you have to have a Jewish
mother. So it’s not my fault; it’s your mom’s.”
“Great,” my wife protested, “now you’re
shouldering me with your children’s inequality?”
When Israel was founded on the ruins of the
Palestinian people in 1948, it was defined as a Jewish state. The Israeli flag
was always a Jewish one, bearing a Star of David; the national anthem invokes
the “Jewish soul,” excluding anyone who is not Jewish from these national
symbols. The Palestinians who became Israeli citizens when the state was
founded — like my family — have always been viewed as an undesirable
demographic burden and subjected to discrimination.
So what does the issuance of the
Nationality Law change? In essence, perhaps not that much. It has turned de
facto racism into de jure racism.
The law asks progressive Israelis — both
Jewish and Palestinian — to suspend our fantasies of equal rights and a future
in which all the country’s citizens, regardless of religion, race or gender,
have a sense of belonging. It seeks to legislate what Israel has been
effectively telling non-Jewish minorities all along: You will never be a part
of this country, you will never be equal, you are doomed to be unwanted
citizens forever, to be inferior to the Jews to whom the state belongs and for
whom it was founded. A state in which Judaism is the only national expression
permissible by law will, by definition, reject any minority member who wishes
to be part of it, even if he is, like me, fluent in its culture or, as I do,
writes literature in its language, respects its laws, serves its society.
Israel’s message to its Arab citizens is
that it does not wish to be our state. Moreover, it prefers to be the state of
people who were born elsewhere, who do not speak its language, have never
visited it or paid it taxes or served it in any way. The State of Israel will
welcome these foreigners, wherever they are from, as long as they are
considered Jewish by Orthodox Jewish law. Individuals who are lucky enough to
have been born to Jewish mothers can — practically overnight — receive Israeli
citizenship, join the ruling race and become masters of the native population.
The Nationality Law prevents the
possibility of multiculturalism in Israel and rejects any collective history or
memory other than the Zionist one. By revoking Arabic’s status as an official
state language, the law delivers yet another blow to the culture that has been
vying for a position since Israel was founded. Article 7 of the Nationality
Law, whereby the state shall regard Jewish settlement as a national value and
work to advance it, has a distinctly colonialist tone, addressing Jewish
settlement without any mention of the 20 percent of the population who are
Arabs and who live in crowded conditions, under continuous threat of having their
While the message to Arab citizens within
the State of Israel is unequivocal, the Nationality Law is murky when it comes
to the Palestinians who reside in the West Bank and Gaza. What are the limits
of the law, and to whom does it apply, in a state that avoids declaring its
borders and refuses to accept those determined by international law? Doesn’t
the fact that Israel controls the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories
through military rule mean that it is now a state in which one population has
civil rights and a second population is under occupation and lacks civil
The powerful right wing in Israel wishes to
annex the West Bank, or large parts of it, and some voices have been saying
that Israeli law should be instated in the Occupied Territories, too. If this
were to occur, how would the Nationality Law apply to the millions of
Palestinians under occupation? Would there still be a prohibition against any
definition other than the national-Jewish one? Does this law not aim to prevent
any possibility of national Palestinian fulfilment in the State of Israel as
conceived by the right wing — namely, one Jewish state from the Mediterranean
Sea to the Jordan River, in which only Jews are permitted self-actualization
and granted a national identity?
It seems the only hope for the remaining
millions of Palestinians to avoid losing what is left of their home is to find
a Jewish mother who will agree to adopt them.
Sayed Kashua is the author, most recently, of “Native: Dispatches From an
This essay was translated by Jessica Cohen
from the Hebrew.