The Supreme Court is due to rule on an appeal by 21 Israelis, Jews and non-Jews, who are demanding that the Interior Ministry register all of them as belonging to the Israeli nation.
Since the establishment of the state in 1948, the nationality of Jewish citizens of Israel has been registered as “Jewish,” that of Muslim and Christian-Arab citizens as “Arab,” and those of non-Jews who immigrated to Israel and received citizenship as their country of origin.
The Interior Ministry has compiled a list of more than 130 possible nationalities for Israeli citizens including Jewish, Arab, Druse, Circassian, Samarian, Hong Konger, German, Albanian and Lichtensteinian. “Israeli” is not on the list.
Fifteen years ago, Uzi Ornan, now 87 and a former leader of the Canaanite movement, established an organization called “I Am Israeli” that demanded that any Israeli citizen who so desires should be entitled to register his nationality in the Population Registry as “Israeli.”
Several members of the organization turned to the court, starting in 2003, asking it to order the Interior Ministry to change their nationality status after the ministry refused to do so.
The 21 appellants in the current case include Ornan, former MK and activist Uri Avnery, former Meretz party leader Shulamit Aloni, singer Alon Olearchik, playwright Yehoshua Sobol and Israeli-Arab Adel Kaadan, who in 2000 won a High Court petition to build a home in the overwhelmingly Jewish community of Katzir.
“Each person has many identities, including an ethnic identity,” Ornan told The Jerusalem Post
. “But it is not appropriate that his ethnic identity should be first and foremost.”
In 2006, 21 members of the I Am Israeli movement filed a petition with the Jerusalem District Court for a declaratory order affirming that their nationality was Israeli. The order would have forced the Interior Ministry to register their nationality as such in the Population Registry.
Jerusalem District Court Judge Noam Sohlberg rejected the petition, accepting the state’s argument that it was not justiciable. At the same time he added that “There is no such thing, from the point of view of the law, as an ‘Israeli nation,’ and the court must not create something out of nothing. It must not legislate rather than adjudicate.”
But Sohlberg made it clear that it mattered to him that not only Jews, but Arabs, Druse and others were included in the appeal. This, he explained, was the reason for his ruling that the petition was unjusticiable, whereas the High Court had agreed to hear a similar petition filed in 1970 by a Jewish Israeli citizen.
“I don’t think we can treat the two cases similarly,” Sohlberg wrote. “In the present case, people of many different religions, cultures and nationalities, Jews, Arabs, Druse and others, have joined together. This was not true in the previous case, which involved only a Jew. It is not at all the same to recognize Israeli nationality for a Jew as it is for members of other nations.”
The appellants maintained that the Israeli nation was established simultaneously with the establishment of the State of Israel.
“The right of every person to bear the nationality of their state is unchallengeable, since nationality expresses the legal relationship of that person to his state,” wrote attorneys Yoella Har-Shefi and Yosef Ben-Moshe, who represented the appellants.
They also maintained that the Declaration of Independence distinguished between the “Jewish nation” in Israel and the “Jewish nation” in the Diaspora. The first was called upon to “establish the state and become like all other nations standing in its own right in its sovereign state.” Diaspora Jews were called upon to emigrate to Israel and only then to participate in building the state. The implication was that it was incorrect to classify the nationality of Jewish Israeli citizens as “Jews.”
In his decision, Sohlberg questioned the true motives of the appellants. Although they claimed to be asking for a technical and administrative change, he wrote, “one is led to believe that what they are really interested in is not population registry, which is hidden from the public eye, but a public declaration by the court and the recognition of the general public that an “Israeli nationality” has been created.
During the hearing of the appeal, the Supreme Court sharply rejected Sohlberg’s ruling that the petition was unjusticiable. However, it also strongly indicated that it would reject the appeal.
“The nationality entry does not appear in Israeli identity cards,”
Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch pointed out. “The question is
how important the Population Registry is. You are granting it
Justice Uzi Fogelman added: “The question is whether or not the court is the right place to solve this problem.”