Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu listens to his advisers during the vote to dissolve the Knesset on Dec. 3, 2014, in Jerusalem.(Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images)

Israel’s greatest natural resource, an old friend of mine is fond of saying, is irony, and so it’s funny, given the latest bellowing about the country’s proposed nationality law, how many critics missed the controversy’s main point: The pending legislation is offensive not because it’s undemocratic but because it’s profoundly un-Jewish.

No matter what you think of the proposed law, there’s no arguing that what it’s about, ultimately, is certainty: Israel, it declares, is the nation-state of the Jewish people, and theirs alone. Caveats about protecting the rights of minorities, built into every proposed version of the legislation, are meaningful, but they do not dull the statement’s glaring simplicity.

It’s true, of course, that laws are at their best when they’re straightforward and easy to follow, but that logic applies primarily when a piece of legislation is designed to help the state go about its business: collect taxes, establish traffic rules, set up campaign finance regulations. Such laws can be complex and open to debate, but all complications and interpretations are always in the service of clear and actionable goals.

And there’s nothing clear and very little that’s actionable about nationality. As many in Israel and the United States, nations thick with immigrants in search of rebirth, know intimately well, national identity is constructed by more than the set of obligations and privileges conferred upon you when you become the citizen of a nation. Citizenship is a much more fraught—and deeply emotional—construct, one that is constantly evolving and often best understood not by the stark answers it provides but by the questions it raises. The abolitionists who came out in full force against slavery, for example, were asking themselves not only what kind of moral human beings they wanted to be but also what kind of Americans they were, what being an American meant to them, and what the best way forward would be in continuing to shape their nation.

These are the struggles that make nationality a particularly volatile idea. It’s even more volatile for the Jewish state. Any attempt at constructing a Jewish sense of nationality is a particularly intricate business, as Moses himself had learned the hard way. After the spies he sent to peek at Canaan returned and reported, almost uniformly, that the land is crawling with hostile tribes and is far from the promised den of milk and honey, Moses had the spies slaughtered. The Jewish national project, he understood, is predicated not on what is, but on what might one day be. Rather than disperse his chosen sons and daughters to all corners of the globe, the Lord, Moses realized, bequeathed to them one small and concrete nation state, so that they may do more than just preach pretty words in the all the world’s capitals. The point of the covenant is the establishment of a concrete, just, and luminous nation here on earth, a real country that would serve as a real example, which can only happen if the Jewish national project is in turn understood as a messianic pursuit, a never-ending quest for peace and compassion. Without these yearnings, and without the hard work required to make them a reality, the Promised Land, as one of our wiser thinkers once put it, is just another Egypt.

Anyone who truly wishes to engage in a serious debate about Jewish nationality should begin there, and anyone who begins there will soon find only complications that lead to further complications. Which is not a bad working definition of Judaism itself: Ours is a tradition that sanctifies doubt, a theology crafted in the service of ambiguity. We’re the ones who are never quite sure. Even Abraham, our ancient ancestor and the first to be chosen by God, requires five separate conversations with his Creator before he can begin to fathom the obligations of divine election. To reduce all this incredibly intricate history, all those spiritual and ethical and emotional nuances, into one chest-thumping statement may be an act that signifies many things, but it isn’t Jewish in the least.

As they were debating the merits of the nationality law, a number of the Jewish state’s leading legislators presented competing versions. One proposal insisted that while the regime is democratic, the values that inspire and inform it are Jewish. Another countered that democracy and Judaism are both virtues, and that the law’s wording must give both equal footing. Words were parsed, meanings were debated, texts were pored over and interpreted with Talmudic intensity. Even when passing the least Jewish of laws, the Knesset went about it in the most Jewish of ways, proving, perhaps, that not all hope is lost in Jerusalem.


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