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Barack Mandela
Attorney, Veteran, and Philosopher

Israeli or Jewish: Is Being Israeli a Religion?

Barack Mandela, who served in the IDF, at Golani Bezeq base near Jenin (From Barack Mandela’s Personal Collection)

I recently had a dream that I was chatting with Benjamin Netanyahu in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. In the dream, Netanyahu asks me if I am Jewish. I reply that “my religion is Israeli, not Jewish”.

My visionary dream raises a serious question: Is being a citizen of Israel a ‘religion’?

In my case, it’s not clear that I’m part of the ‘Jewish’ people. I am an African American who converted to the Jewish faith in 1995. In addition, I underwent 4 DNA tests that reveal I have no Jewish ancestry. So, I am not ethnically Jewish.

I am neither ethnically Jewish nor culturally Jewish. In fact, my culture is urban African American culture. I was born and raised in one the cultural hotspots of rap music and hip hop—Long Beach, California. The famous rapper Snoop Dogg is from my neighborhood.

Culturally, I have no connection to the Jewish people. I was not born and raised around Jewish people. While growing up, I had no Jewish friends. I was raised eating African American soul food, not Jewish cuisine.

I was raised listening to Gospel music in a black Pentecostal church and listening to rap music with my non-Jewish friends. I was raised admiring black heroes such as Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks, and Malcolm X. As a child, I had no Jewish heroes.

Thus, culturally and historically, I have almost nothing in common with Jewish people, culture, tradition, or history. When I read books on Jewish history, I feel a major disconnect and confusion. In general, most Jewish people are ‘white people’, whereas I am a black person with a black mind.

However, although it’s difficult for me to connect with Jewish culture, I have a strong and powerful connection to the State of Israel based on concrete life experiences. I’ve been a citizen of Israel since 1996. I was a public affairs assistant for the mayor of Jerusalem. I served in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) during the Second Intifada. I lived at Kibbutz Chafetz Chayyim for one year. I’ve listened to plenty of Israeli music such as Aviv Geffen, Eyal Golan, and Omer Adam. I’ve seen Israeli theatrical plays and visited art galleries. So, I have powerful memories and experiences in Israel.

I know that my religion is “Israeli”, not “Jewish”. I feel a natural connection to all Israelis regardless of their religion or ethnicity. From my perspective, both an Israeli Arab and an Israeli Jew are equally part of my “Israeli” religion.

The Israeli religion has its own flag—the Israeli flag. It has its own government—the Knesset. The Israeli religion has its own military—the IDF. It has its own history, languages, courts, music, art, economy, and literature. The State of Israel embodies the Israeli religion.

According to a study by the Pew Research Center, 70% of Orthodox Jews in Israel said being Jewish is mainly a matter of religion. However, 83% of secular Jews in Israel said being Jewish is a matter of ancestry and culture. So, there are different perspectives on Jewish identity in Israel. For some people, being Jewish is about their ancestry, while for others being Jewish is about their religion and faith.

However, for me, being a citizen of Israel is my religion.

Walking down the streets in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Beersheva, or Eilat while listening to music by Aviv Geffen is my religious observance. Sitting at an Israeli coffee shop or beach is my spiritual worship. Serving in the Israeli army is my prayer and blessing. Voting in the Israeli elections is my faithful ritual.

When I became a citizen of Israel, I became part of something real and concrete—a country in the Eastern Mediterranean called the State of Israel. Whereas religious beliefs are merely ‘fantastic concepts’, Israel is a real country with a real existence.

So, if you ask me my religion: My religion is Israeli.

About the Author
Licensed Attorney. I earned a Doctor of Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law (1997). I earned a Bachelor of Arts from the University of California, Riverside (1994). I was an international student at the University of Costa Rica Faculty of Law (1991-1992) and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem Faculty of Law (Summer 1996). I am a military veteran of the United States Air Force, United States Army, and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). I am a laureate of the National Defense Service Medal from the Pentagon (2006). I am a financial donor to following: Harvard Law, Yale Law, Stanford Law, Berkeley Law, UC Hastings College of the Law, UC Davis Law, Columbine High School, Choate Rosemary Hall, Phillips Exeter Academy, Sidwell Friends School, Viewpoint School, Beverly Hills High School, Eton College in the United Kingdom, Special Olympics, Children's Defense Fund, Obama Foundation, Clinton Foundation, Barbra Streisand Foundation, Princeton University, Florida A&M, Howard University, Spelman College, Morehouse College, and the British Red Cross. I am former special assistant and staff attorney to Governor Pete Wilson of California. I was public affairs assistant to US Senator Barbara Boxer and Mayor Ehud Olmert of Jerusalem and Jerusalem spokesperson Haggai Elias. I am a member of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, and I am a member of the Republican Jewish Coalition.
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