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Israeli Semantics

February 15, 2001

The other day an Israeli bus driver drove his empty vehicle into a bus stop, killing eight people and injuring nearly two dozen others. You no doubt heard about it, in which case the previous sentence probably sounds odd. The news accounts have all identified the driver as an “Arab” or “Palestinian,” not an “Israeli.” It was the victims who were described as “Israelis.”

A New York Times headline said: “Arab Drives Bus Into Crowd, Killing 8 Israelis.” Wasn’t the murderous driver, legally speaking, an Israeli too?

It’s no secret that an “Israeli” means a Jew. Non-Jewish citizens of Israel are not called Israelis, even if that term fits them legally. We automatically deny the word to non-Jews, because we all know that Israel is for Jews only.

And of course most Arabs in Israel don’t think of themselves as “Israelis” and prefer to be called “Palestinians.” The country was called Palestine for many centuries, until the Jewish state was established in 1948.

Israel was to be, and still insists it is, a “democracy,” but not necessarily the sort of democracy that is dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. If it were, it would soon cease to exist as a Jewish state.

Under the “law of return,” any Jew in the world has the right to come to Israel, even if none of his ancestors ever lived there, and claim Israeli citizenship. So if Seymour Steinberg of Los Angeles ever feels like “returning” to Israel, he can immigrate at any time, with rights denied to non-Jewish natives of the country whose ancestors have always lived there.

Not that most Israeli Jews now believe that God gave the Holy Land to the Jews; but since most Jews used to believe it, that somehow gives today’s Jews the right of exclusive possession of it. If you think religion is irrational, take a good look at irreligion.

[Breaker quote: Wasn't 
the killer an 'Israeli'?]Under Israeli law, non-Jews who left Israel in 1948 or later have no right of return. That they actually lived there once doesn’t help them; their homes have long since been seized for “Israelis.” Israel’s newly elected prime minister, Ariel Sharon, emphatically refuses to consider allowing native non-Jews to come home, because their numbers would swamp the Jews politically and the Jewish state would cease to be Jewish. The Jewish minority would go the way of white South Africans when apartheid was abolished.

When demography thus trumps democracy, it becomes hypocritical to call the system democratic. Why is democracy so holy, anyway? The late Meir Kahane, murdered in New York a decade ago, created a huge scandal by insisting bluntly that Israel could not remain both Jewish and democratic. His proposed solution was to expel all non-Jews from the country. He was only being logical, but — or therefore — he and his party were outlawed. Politics makes strange bedfellows, but logic is rarely one of them.

Kahane was denounced as a “racist,” but the label didn’t fit. He was a religious Jew who believed that an Arab convert to Judaism was as truly a Jew as he was. He retorted the charge by contending that the secular, nonreligious Jews were the real racists, because ethnicity rather than religion was their criterion for Jewishness. From a secularist and democratic standpoint, he said, the Arabs were correct to deny Israel’s right to exist — that is, to exist as a specifically Jewish state.

The charismatic Kahane — one of the most riveting speakers of his time — reduced the Israeli dilemma to its simplest terms and forced people to face the most basic questions. He didn’t drone about the “complex issues” beloved of politicians and pundits. He spurned hypocrisy and irrelevant side issues like “terrorism.” And he spoke with a withering sarcastic wit.

Israel has been an embarrassing stepchild of the Western world, which is committed to democracy and knows how shameful it would be for a modern democracy to treat Jews as non-Jews are treated by Israel. Even many Israelis — Israeli Jews — are troubled by their country’s double standards and yearn for a compromise solution acceptable to the Arabs.

But many Israeli Arabs remain intransigent, because they are as logical as Kahane. The real obstacle to peace in the Middle East may be people who can think straight.

Joseph Sobran

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Copyright © 2001 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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