It was May 7, 2004, when Salim Joubran was given a position on Israel’s Supreme Court. The day that he became the first permanent member of the Court from the Israeli Arab community should have been the day the world realized that Israel was in fact a democracy like none other in its region. Justice Joubran knew that as well, and he also knew what Israel was why it was formed and how he managed to rise through its ranks as a Christian and not a Jew.
It would seem odd, or possibly some act of defiance, when the New York Times carried a story about Justice Joubran earlier this week, presumably refusing to sing the Israel national anthem because the words “Nefesh Yehudi homiyah,” which means “A Jewish soul still yearns,” do not apply to him.
The anthem was not new to him when he became a lawyer, nor when he became a Supreme Court judge. It may indeed be an uncomfortable concept to sing, let alone believe by one who is not Jewish. It highlights the delicate tightrope Israel walks in its pursuit of peace and prosperity through the promotion of democratic statehood.
For Jews, living in Israel ironically removes Jewish identity from the everyday life of the average Jew. Unlike most places, where for many, Jewish identity is worn on our sleeves so to speak; on our heads actually for some, but also with the often uncomfortable vacation requests at work, among the other unique aspects of Jewish life. In Israel, Jewish holidays are the State holidays and no one really feels out of place donning a skullcap. With Judaism all around, maybe the overtly Jewish words should, or maybe other ubiquitous Jewish symbolisms should be removed to make those not of one of the 12 Tribes feel as comfortable.
There is a movement among a growing group of secular Israelis, Jewish ones mostly, to eliminate the Jewishness from the State itself. The fights between the ultra orthodox and those less so have been growing to the point where they have made the front pages of some of the world’s most antagonistic-to-Israel media venues. These differences only enhance the calls by the secular Israelis, as they see the belligerence of the right toward Zionism, secularism and modernity growing, and an unyielding intransigence when it comes to economic or social contributions beyond their own communities.
In the efforts to highlight the extremist nature of Israel, as they print their political opposition to such issues as Judean and Samarian expansion and retaining defensible borders, leftist media take the truly offensive nature of the assaults on women and secular Jews by these pockets of Hareidim and promote them as the mainstream occurrences of the Jewish state.
That serves Israel’s detractors as it equates the Jewish state with the radicalized Islamic countries that purport to see her smothered. The fact is that when relatively small extremist activity perpetuated by Jews occurs it is often promoted to a grander degree and with more international disdain than the malignant fanaticism that everyday Arab men, women and children face each day in many of the countries that challenge Israel’s existence. Those nations often get a free pass from criticism, as Israel is held to a different standard. Yet, I digress into a whole other topic altogether.
Jewish identity is so prevalent in Israel through its population and character that the argument is made asserting Jewish identification markers built into its government and national themes, like the Hatikvah are not needed.
The debate rocks between Israel’s left and right. While some want to make it harder for non Jews and non-believing Jews to participate, some on the left urge making Israel more inclusive; essentially, making it nothing more than the United States on the Mediterranean.
Israel’s Declaration of Independence ensures “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.” The irony, however, is that this issue was sparked over an Arab judge from Haifa who has a permanent seat on The Jewish state’s highest court. Some would argue that he has been treated as Israel declared it would. The judge, for his part, just stood quietly while others made the issue of his choice.
These are difficult considerations and the resulting answers are not clear, nor do they follow conventional logic. To be a true democracy, Israel would needs to cede its Jewish identity, but to do so, would make it impossible for Israel to remain a Jewish homeland, safe from future persecution and expulsion. As history keeps repeating, majority populations will at some point turn on its Jewish citizens.
Jews have been pushed in every location on earth, and treated as pariahs throughout history. They have been jailed, tortured, forced to renounce their religion and beliefs or just killed for being Jews. Yet, they endured as a people and have outlived their ancient enemies, and are poised to face their new ones, whoever they are.
Born from the Levant where the G-d Abram had worshiped offered to make him a great nation if he left his home and family, the Jewish religion and the specific land are unequivocally tied to one another. This makes the Jewish yearning for Israel not just a slogan, but a compulsion as strong as the belief in G-d itself. It is the main reason why when Theodore Herzl were searching for a land the Jews could emigrate to, escaping the Russian pogroms in 1905, the Seventh Zionist Congress rejected the Uganda Program, believing that only in Israel could Jews truly be free.
Israel is, therefore an anomaly and needs to be treated as one. It is not as any other country, because it is not merely about acreage and capricious borders, but an ancient calling said to be made by the G-d of the oldest monotheistic religion in the world.
Fanatical Hareidim aside, for secular Jews to feel that the religious nature of the country is too cumbersome, for non Jews to feel that the Hatikvah is too Jewish, or for both to want to make Israel a secular sanctuary, the only answer has to be no.
One can be irreligious in Israel and still be its prime minister. One can be an Arab in Israel and be a Supreme Court judge, weighing in on the most important matters affecting the internal working of the country. Yet, if the Judaism is taken out of Israel, Jews may as well be in Florida and not suffer, struggle, fight, and not remember those who died creating, defending and living in the land where Jews are destined to call home.
Israel devoid of the Soul of the Jew is nothing more than soil and sand, and certainly not worth the blood, sweat and tears of the countless who have poured all three into its building; creating the hope for the Jews and an oasis in the gloom of the Middle East.
Juda Engelmayer is President and Partner with the NY PR agency, HeraldPR