Yesterday the tangled issue of Israeli citizenship and what it means to be a Jew hit the news again. A district court in Haifa ruled that a petitioner, Uzzi Ornan, could not be considered a citizen of Israel based on his birth there (which he preferred, as he considers himself to not hold any religion), but rather that he was a citizen of Israel because he was Jewish.

The definition of Jewish-Israeli citizenship, the court continued, was first based on halacha (Jewish religious law)—born to a Jewish mother or converted through a recognized rabbinate—and therefore territorial birthright was irrelevant.

On the one hand, the court had little choice in the matter—it recognized precedent. Over at Ottomans and Zionists, Michael Koplow nicely summarizes the issue and its history. Certainly at first, the focus on religion as the determinant of citizenship is understandable from both a legal and a normative perspective.

Struggling to maintain itself as the realization of the Zionist—that is, Jewish nationalist—enterprise, Israel has also tried to provide its different populations with communal autonomy in personal status issues. This could not be done based on blood groups, since even members of the same group can have different legal rules and theological norms for, say, getting married or buried. Whose law would prevail, for instance, in a legal dispute between Christian Arabs and Muslim Arabs?  

On the other hand, what’s at stake here is nothing less than the identity and health of the Jewish people and, by extension, Israel. Jewishness is ethnicity not religion, and must be recognized as such, in both Israel and in the diaspora.

The court ruling hints at the new-old question whether Jews are a people or a religious community. A legal and normative structure that holds religion as the bedrock of citizenship makes Israel an abnormal country in the Western community. This is the opposite purpose of Zionism. When the early Zionists fought the Bundists, communists, socialists, assimilationists, and other rivals over the resolution of the Jewish question in 19th century Europe, they were distinguished by their insistence that the Jews were different from the national communities in which they lived.

Contemporary Israeli leaders share the same goal as the early Zionists: they struggle to argue that Israel as a Jewish state should be understood in national, not religious terms—for the very reason that if it’s a religious state, its basis for existing like all other national units is undermined.

If Jews are not a religious community, they are not a race either. Despite the evidence showing genetic similarities and ancestry among many Jews, this classification remains unhelpful. It ignores the proclaimed Jewishness of communities in Ethiopia and India, and the position of converts. And the concept loses contemporary cultural and political meaning given that there are genetic connections between Jews and Palestinians.

What, then, are the Jews? I’d argue they are an “ethnic community,” in the definition used by political scientists, sociologists, and anthropologists. Ethnicity is not about physical characteristics or genetic ancestry, though that can be part of it. Rather, it incorporates a shared history and experiences, common territorial affiliation, similar cultural traditions and practices, and so on—in short, a sense of belonging to one’s own group.

As social psychologists and William Connolly will tell you, humans group themselves into collectivities and develop a Self-Other distinction. Without the orientation point of the Other, groups (or individuals, for that matter) cannot know who they are. Without Otherness, we cannot know what makes us different and unique. But we are different and unique only in a social context—through our interactions with other groups.

That’s why Shlomo Sand’s book, while provocative and worthy of discussion, should not be taken as a treatise on the future of Israel as a Jewish state. Being Jewish, like being an Armenian, Kurd, or American, is about belonging to a larger social community—one that is not bound by genetic markers, geographic borders, or exclusive religious practices.

Understanding Jewishness as a religion is contrary to the interests of the Jewish people and to Israel itself. This is why the meaning of Zionism cannot be only about Israel, and why the definition of Jewishness is an urgent matter for Israeli parliamentarians in consultation with diasporic Jews.