Israel is a Jewish state, as everyone keeps reminding us. Lots of things Israel would prefer you never hear about flow from that strange characterisation, including a two-tier system of rights conferred by two different citizenship laws, one for Jews and one for non-Jews (that is, mostly Palestinians living inside Israel). Much of my journalism has sought to document the very ugly racism inherent in the Jewish state’s self-definition.
But here’s a revealing little story about how the idea of a Jewish state touches on the most intimate areas of Israelis’ lives, areas that should be inconsequential to a normal kind of state.
A few days ago, Israel’s interior ministry published a list of the most popular boys and girls’ names in time for the Jewish new year. It was publicised as the list of the most popular Israeli names. I was surprised that not one Arab name made it into the top 10, even though a fifth of Israel’s population are Palestinians. I should not have been. In fact, as Haaretz now reports, several Arab names were in the top 10 – including Mohammed, which was actually at number one. Israeli officials simply dropped it and any other Arab-sounding names from the list.
The deep chauvinism at work here is illustrated by the fact that the most popular name listed, Yosef, only came first because the Arabic version (Yusuf), which is spelt the same in Hebrew, was included. So the issue for the interior ministry was simply to prevent Israeli Jews and Jews overseas from seeing any Arab-looking names on the list.
The names of newborns are a contested issue in Israel only because of the deep-seated ethnic insecurities of the Jewish majority. That insecurity looks here to be simply petty. But that very same pettiness also lies behind Israel’s security and demographic obsessions, its profound militarisation, and the systematic oppression of Palestinians.