A proposal that new arrivals take an oath of allegiance to a “Jewish and democratic state” has renewed debate among Israelis about who they are and what they want.
Across an untidy courtyard where weeds are winning their own battle with cracked concrete and cats pick their way through uncollected bags of rubbish, a narrow passage leads to the houses of Jerusalem's Beit Wittenberg neighbourhood. These are modest, single-storey homes that date from the 1870s. Each features arches in the Arab style, forming a central, covered dome, and - in line with Old Testament tradition - no two "look upon each other".
I am on my way to meet Jakob and Homi Meshi-Zahav. Jakob is 27, his wife 26; they have four children aged seven, five, three and one. Homi was born into the Toldos Aharon, an ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) movement, which Jakob - born into another Haredi family - agreed to join when they married. Toldos Aharon is strongly anti-Zionist, believing that Jews should not take over the Holy Land before the coming of the Messiah.
The ultra-Orthodox community is one of the poorest in Israel, largely because many of its adult men engage in unpaid rabbinical study. Dressed in traditional clothes - she in a modest black dress, both husband and wife wearing head coverings - Jakob and Homi perch on a sofa in an airless front room and answer questions about their lives and interaction with the rest of Jewish and Israeli society. No, they don't vote. Yes, they pay taxes ("we have no choice"), but no, they don't claim government benefits. Yes, it "would be very uncomfortable" to be openly gay in their community. No, they don't serve in the military but, Jakob points out, there are Haredi pilots in the Israel Defence Forces.
Asked what they think about the proposed citizenship oath that would require newcomers to swear allegiance to Israel "as a Jewish and democratic state", Jakob and Homi look blank. "It's not even on their radar," the translator confirms, and Jakob adds: "The internal politics of my community is enough to be getting on with."
While the pledge may have passed these Haredim by, the rest of Israel is engaged in a fraught conversation about it. At its core, the conversation reflects the neurosis of a nation where one in five is an Israeli Arab (most of them Muslim, though there are sizeable pockets of Christians and Druze); and where the majority Jewish population is 43 per cent secular, 11 per cent ultra-Orthodox, and many strata of belief in between. Ostensibly about securing Jewish identity, the proposed amendment to the Citizenship Act goes to the heart of Israeli-Arab identity, too.
This most recent episode of national introspection dates back to the last Israeli election in early 2009. Against the backdrop of Operation Cast Lead, Israel's military offensive in the Gaza Strip that left at least 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead, the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu ("Israel is our home") party electioneered under the slogan "No loyalty, no citizenship". The party and its leader, Avigdor Lieberman, tapped in to populist anti-Arab sentiment, secured 15 seats in the Knesset, and gave themselves a pivotal role in the newly formed coalition government under the Likud Party leader, Binyamin Netanyahu.
As part of the coalition negotiations, Netanyahu promised Lieberman that he would bring the proposal for the citizenship oath before cabinet, which he did in May 2009. The bill was rejected - yet it was presented to cabinet again last month. This has been seen as a sop to Lieberman who, despite being foreign minister, has been sidelined from the current, stalled peace process. (Lieberman's only notable contribution so far has been to embarrass his prime minister by suggesting, in a speech to the UN General Assembly, that it could take decades to reach a Palestinian-Israeli peace deal, and pressing for a transfer of Israeli Arabs out of Israel.)
The draft oath was approved by the cabinet on 10 October, but not without dissent. All five Labour Party members, including the defence and former prime minister, Ehud Barak, voted against it. Isaac Herzog, minister for social affairs and the man most likely to replace Barak as leader of the Labour Party, was quoted as saying that the proposal had the "whiff of fascism".
The Israeli press devoted much time to dissecting its meaning and impact. The Jerusalem Post welcomed it as a "declaration of purpose", while a writer in Maariv dismissed it as "stupid and needless" and another in Yediot Aharonot wrote: "The proposed loyalty law does not seem racist; it really is racist." In its original form, which exempted those granted citizenship by the Law of Return of 1950, the oath in effect targeted incoming Palestinians and foreign Arabs.
The wording of the pledge is also troubling. "Jewish" and "democratic" have many meanings; they are also, to some, inherently contradictory, making it an oath built on an oxymoron. "Language and psychology are everything," notes Colin Shindler, professor of Israeli studies at Soas, University of London.
Those defending it point to Israel's declaration of independence of May 1948 and UN General Assembly Resolution 181, passed the previous November, both of which refer to a "Jewish state". Alexander Yakobson, co-author of Israel and the Family of Nations and no fan of what he describes as a "controversial ideological formula", acknowledges that "nothing in this provision is illegitimate".
In a rather cack-handed attempt to address accusations of discrimination, Netanyahu agreed that the oath should apply to Jewish newcomers, too. The prime minister was branded a "flip-flopper" by Yediot Aharonot, and succeeded only in enraging the Jewish right while doing nothing to mollify the Arab constituency.
Just a day after the cabinet gave its consent, he offered a 60-day extension to the settlement-building freeze if the Palestinian Authority would be willing to recognise Israel as a Jewish state. There was little surprise in the outside world when the Palestinians said no.
Fourteen miles north of Jerusalem, across the busy Qalandiya military checkpoint that separates the rump of Israel from the occupied West Bank, Sufian Abu Zaida is drinking tea in Ramallah's improbably named Café de la Paix. "Palestinians are wondering why Israel didn't ask the Jordanians
to recognise it as a Jewish state; why didn't Menachem Begin ask Egypt to recognise Israel as a Jewish state [in 1977]; why at Oslo [in 1993] they didn't demand that it was recognised as a Jewish state. We have a lot of suspicion: why ask now and not before?"
Abu Zaida, a former Palestinian minister and senior Fatah official who served in Gaza before Hamas's election victory in 2006, adds: "It's a stupid thing to ask Palestinians to recognise Israel as a Jewish state before the Palestinians have their own state or at least know where the borders are going to be."
Yet it is the internal demand for acceptance that is troubling Israeli Arabs most. When Israel was created in 1948, the response was instant. The newly formed Arab League, consisting of Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, invaded, sparking a war that lasted until the following January. In the months of turmoil that ensued, more than 700,000 Arab refugees fled Israel, many to camps in the surrounding countries. The exodus is remembered by Palestinians as al-Naqba - "the catastrophe".
Those Palestinian Arabs who stayed, and their descendants, believe they are treated as second-class citizens and argue that the proposed oath will merely entrench existing inequality. They point to disparities over land (it is estimated that Israeli Arabs live on 3 per cent of the land in Israel, despite making up 20 per cent of the population); over education (there are no state-funded Arabic-language universities, for example); and over employment (fewer than one in ten government employees is an Israeli Arab).
The Mossawa Centre, an organisation that lobbies for equal rights in Israel, maintains that there are at least 20 laws that discriminate against Israeli Arabs. The US state department accepts that "institutional, legal and societal discrimination" exists.
Haneen Zoabi, a Palestinian member of the Knesset, is in no doubt. "Israel did everything it could to make us forget our history: controlling education and the media, putting us in a ghetto, preventing us from having normal relations with the Arab world," she told the New Statesman this summer.
Others point to signs of a vibrant democracy. I meet Yael Wissner-Levy, a 26-year-old TV reporter, in a bohemian district of Tel Aviv. An impromptu rooftop apartment-cum-restaurant, converted from an industrial warehouse, feels further away than the 35 miles that separate Tel Aviv from Jerusalem. Wissner-Levy, who has just spent a year studying at the London School of Economics while also acting as UK correspondent for Channel 10 News, expresses frustration at how Israel is perceived in the west. "A huge misconception is this idea that Israelis are all a bunch of radical settlers or militants with one opinion on how to deal with the conflict, when in fact no consensus can be reached," she says.
Wissner-Levy concedes that she wasn't prepared for the anti-Israeli sentiment that greeted her in London ("I remember hearing the chant, 'From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free'") and is puzzled why there is no recognition for the "pluralism and debate that other western, not to mention non-west, democracies would not tolerate". She points to a prominent left-wing columnist who is a regular contributor to the newspaper Haaretz, and to the spectrum of parties accommodated in parliament. On this same visit, which is at the invitation of the Anglo-Israeli lobby group Bicom, I witness an Arab member of parliament gently rebuking Israel inside the Knesset. Frequently the rhetoric is far more robust. Masud Ganaim marked his anniversary as an Arab member in May by calling for an Islamic caliphate encompassing Israel. It "would be in the interest of the Jews themselves", he said, "since their golden era was under a caliphate".
Wissner-Levy accepts that there is inequality and believes progress must be made to close the gap, but says that "maintaining a democratic country with a minority which identifies with a nation that is at war with that country is bound to have problems".
“You have more democracy for an Israeli Arab in Israel than you do for an Arab in Egypt or Jordan," says Professor Emma Murphy, from the University of Durham's school of government and international affairs. "But you don't have qualitatively the same democracy you would have if you were Jewish."
One of her main concerns is that the oath will legitimise talk of population transfer as part of the peace process. "The discourse becomes, 'Well, why should we keep a fifth column in Israel? If [the Israeli Arabs] are not prepared to swear a loyalty to Israel - if their loyalty is to Palestine - let them go to Palestine.' It changes the nature of what is mainstream." While the term is not used, this could equate to a form of ethnic cleansing.
In 2006, Israeli Arab academics and senior politicians joined forces to produce a paper that attempted to answer two questions: "Who are we? And what do we want for our society?" The report, pointedly titled The Future Vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel (note, not "Israeli Arabs"), explored a series of solutions that the authors believed would bridge the democracy gap. Among its conclusions, the report calls on the state of Israel to recognise Palestinian Arabs as indigenous people, the right of Muslims to run their own affairs, and that Israel is a homeland for Palestinians as it is for Jews.
All of this is to miss the point of what a "Jewish state" might mean, says Jeremy Leigh, lecturer in Israeli studies at the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem. Israel ought not to be seen as an ethno-democracy, much less a theocracy, because "Jewish" applies to nation and culture. "For me, Jewish is a nationality, it's about a community of people bound together by common identity, common language, common culture, common memory and common land," he says. He accepts that it is difficult to be absolute because all these ideas have "deconstructs within them". Nevertheless, "As a notion around which you build political statehood, I'm absolutely fine with it."
Leigh is originally from the London suburb of Stanmore. He moved to Israel in 1992, like hundreds of other British Jews each year (during the 1990s, 4,851 made the journey), taking up an invitation under the Law of Return, which allows Jews, those of Jewish ancestry and their spouses the rights to migrate and to settle in Israel and gain citizenship.
“Politically, I'm very much on the left, and it's a strange thing to be saying, but I appreciate that Netanyahu has an understanding that the Arab world in some way . . . hasn't internalised the concept of Jewish statehood," he says. "It may have done it from a political point of view, but it hasn't done in terms of legitimacy."
For Naomi Chazan, a former deputy speaker of the Knesset and now president of the New Israel Fund, a US-based advocacy group, it does not matter how you interpret Jewish: it is always problematic. "Define Jews as a people," she wrote in the Huffington Post on 14 October, "and you are immediately entangled in the extranational definition of people related by blood and heritage, across national boundaries.
“Define Jews as a religion - which we are - and you relinquish self-definition to theocracy and, in Israel's case, to the harshest and most exclusionary ultra-Orthodox strictures on who is a Jew. Define Jews as a nation and you have a tautology, whereby Israel is the national expression of a nation - explaining and defining nothing."
Chazan says that while self-determination is the raison d'être for Israel (as it would be for a future Palestinian homeland), any state must be the "neutral arbiter of its people's interests". That cannot be the case if it is defined as a Jewish state, and is why most progressive Israelis have stopped using "Jewish" as a qualifier.
It's like "trying to mix meat and milk", says Leigh, drawing on dietary laws which demand that the two be kept apart. "We have a conundrum: how do you manage to create a Jewish state when you don't want the Jewish to be religious, but religious is the way a lot of people perceive it?" The way "through this morass" is to formalise the division between faith and state: say, by stripping the rabbinate of its power.
The debate about what it means to be Jewish, with its echoes of the intellectualising of the emerging 19th-century Zionist movement, has exposed tensions among Israeli Jews, particularly between moderate and secular Jews and the ultra-Orthodox. The latter stand accused of failing to assimilate. The Haredim are excused from military service; the commitment to rabbinical study (enshrined in law) means that a rapidly growing section of the population makes little or no contribution to the economy.
Jakob Meshi-Zahav is an exception. Under a scheme run by a philanthropic organisation that aims to get thousands of members of the Haredim into the workforce, he is training to be a commercial pilot. He wants to fly El Al, Israel's state airline, he says. The Kemach Foundation project is ambitious, perhaps overly so: nearly two-thirds of the Haredim live in poverty and their economic inactivity costs the government $1.7bn a year. Given that 58 per cent are 18 or under, this disparity in lifestyle and well-being is likely to persist; it is estimated that the cost to the state will rise to $3.7bn by 2030. The Meshi-Zahavs may not claim state benefits, but others do.
Throw in the clash between vehemently religious Jews and socialist-influenced secular Zionists, and this, it seems, is where Israeli society fails to mix - melting pot or no melting pot. There are other divisions, too, between the Ashkenazi Jews, who have European roots, and the Sephardim or Mizrahi Jews, of Middle Eastern or North African origin. Like the Israeli Arabs, sections of the Mizrahi are trapped in economic inequality.
Social and cultural divisions are not unique to Israel - they are, in many ways, the sign of a functioning and aspiring democracy - but they underline the complexities in defining Israel as "Jewish". The problem is compounded because part of the population believe they are treated as second-class citizens or are seen as a proxy in an ongoing war - sometimes both.
There is no guarantee that the citizenship oath, which now goes before a ministerial committee, will become law; and even if it does, the fiercely independent Israeli Supreme Court may blunt its edges at the very least. But legislation or not, the oath matters because it nods to a demographic truth, says Professor Murphy.
If the number of Jews relative to that of non-Jews in the Israeli state is going to decline - as a result of differential birth rates, and land absorption that brings in more Palestinians - how do you preserve the Jewish character of the state? At that point, she says, "Democracy is no longer an option."
Jon Bernstein is deputy editor of the New Statesman