Speaking to this week’s grandiosely named “Conference on the Future of the Jewish People,” convened by the equally grandiosely (and tongue-twistingly) named Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declared that he identifies as a Jew first, and an Israeli second.
“If I was asked today, which I am sometimes, how do I most accurately define myself, as a person? What is that defines me most accurately? I probably will say, certainly will say, first of all I’m Jewish. Had I been asked this question when I was much younger, say at the age of 14, 15, I would have said right away, I am an Israeli. Something in me changed,” Olmert said. “It’s not something that just happened. It happened through a very long and sometimes painful process of soul searching of who I am and where I come from,” Olmert said.
What’s noteworthy about Olmert’s remarks is that these two terms — “Israeli” and “Jewish” — have come, in certain respects, to represent competing identities. (After being defeated in the 1996 Israeli elections by Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu, Shimon Peres famously explained that the election’s losers were “the Israelis,” while the winners were those “who do not have an Israeli mentality,” namely, he explained, “the Jews.”)
In hindsight, one could make the case that the decision to name the newborn Jewish state “Israel” was itself a grave error. This act of naming helped open the door to the possibility of an Israeli identity that is divorced from Jewish identity (as some post-Zionists would like to see happen) and thus exacerbated the potential for a fissure within the Jewish people.
The choice of the name “Israel,” though, was no foregone conclusion. As historian Michael Beschloss reminded us recently in Newsweek, in 1948, on the eve of the declaration of a Jewish state in Palestine, President Truman was under the impression that the new state’s name would be “Judea.” Had that been the case, perhaps today’s “Israelis” would simply be called “Jews.” And why not? Don’t Chinese and Armenians and Lebanese use the same terms for self-identification irrespective of whether they live in their historic homelands or in their diasporas? And even in Israel Jewish citizens are already officially considered to be “Jewish,” not “Israeli,” by nationality.
Of course, when it comes to matters of identity, nothing is simple. One might object, for instance, that had Israel been named “Judea,” then that would make the state’s Arab citizens “Jewish Arabs.” Then again, Israel’s Arab citizens increasingly identify themselves as “Palestinian citizens of Israel,” and so, in our hypothetical, would probably call themselves “Palestinian citizens of Judea,” which is no better or worse than the terminology used today.