Monday, September 8, 2008

Questions of Nationality

On Friday my purse was stolen from my bag. This is annoying enough in itself, but it is made even worse by the fact that the purse contained my Israeli ID card, which has to be replaced (along with the credit card I had to cancel, and my driving licence and various other cards that have to be replaced).

Filling in the online form for a new ID card, I encountered once again an aspect of life in Israel that has always bothered me. There is a section for "Nationality" - not citizenship, which is Israeli, but nationality, which is a completely different concept. The options in the drop-down menu (in a compulsory field) included a long list of countries of the world, plus the most common "nationalities" in Israel: Jewish, Arab and Druze. Note that there is no "Palestinian" nationality, even though that is how the majority of Arabs who are Israeli citizens would probably self-define themselves. This system does not differentiate between Muslim and Christian Arabs, although these are distinct social groups. Nor was there a Bedouin option (I guess they have to be Arabs too). More significantly, at least for me, there was also no "Israeli" nationality, as they seem to want all Israeli citizens to declare whether they are Jewish, Arab or Druze...

I have always had a problem with this concept of nationality. They cannot ask about citizens' religious beliefs, as we have freedom of worship here, but they force citizens to declare their nationality in very specific categories.

I see myself as belonging to the Jewish Hebrew-speaking majority of Israeli citizens, though according to the Halakhah (Jewish religious law) I am technically not Jewish at all. My father is a Jewish Israeli, but my mother is English and not Jewish. Judaism is matrilinial, meaning that one can only be considered Jewish if one's mother is Jewish. I did not choose to convert, for various reasons, and so the Jewish Orthodox establishment would not consider me Jewish. I know that there are thousands of other Israeli citizens with the same problem, especially among new immigrants. This situation, where Judaism is both a religion and a "nationality", creates problems for people wanting to join the "nationality" without adopting the religious practices associated with it.

On the other hand, I can't honestly say I have any other "nationality". I was born in England, but only lived there for seven out of the first nine years of my life before immigrating to Israel and getting Israeli citizenship. I have kept my British citizenship, and anyone hearing me speak would immediately identify my accent as British, but I don't feel that this is my "nationality", especially as I have never worked there, owned property there, voted there, and in fact, I only had 4 years of junior school there.

So, on the form I selected "Jewish", and when I went to the Population Registry to get my new card, I asked them not to fill in the Nationality field on my card, so they put in ****** instead. I feel better for not having to lie (technically) about this, but would prefer the whole Nationality question to be dropped. What matters from a legal point of view is citizenship, and that should be all they need to know about a person, especially if their options don't allow full freedom of self-definition.

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