Two thousand years make about a hundred generations, and no one can accurately trace his or her family tree that far back, anywhere. Even if you were somehow magically able to identify a certain ancestor of the desired ethnic origin a hundred generations ago, there would be only the most infinitesimal trace left in the mix of your genes after centuries of marriages, migrations, wars, and plagues. To use the name of that nano-bit of hereditary identity to characterize the whole person and the country in which he or she lives does seem to beggar logic.
We know that most people have a quite mixed background if you go back just a few generations, and under the hypothesis of "out of Africa," if you could go far enough back, you would trace a common origin for all people on the planet (much, as it happens, in the Adam and Eve myth). So, how far back do you go in anyone's ethnic background in trying to label him or her? Going all the way back means there are no labels possible. So, just where do you stop to get the label you want? At which point in an inconceivably complex history of migrations and disasters and the rise and fall of states do we select just the "right" origin? Religion -- and any matter influenced by religion - does tend to be peculiarly selective in these things, as we see from the stuck-in-the nineteenth-century dress of Mennonite Christians or ult ra-Orthodox Jews (why not an earlier century, we might ask?) or the Middle Ages' dress-occasion costumes of Catholic Bishops.
It is a futile and foolish exercise to start, and that is true even if "out of Africa" eventually were proved inaccurate as we may discover several geographic sources of origin. It then would still come down to common ancestries for huge groups of people who do not now regard themselves as related.
Shifting the definition of Israel from the "home of Israelis" to the "home of Jews" has many serious implications the general public may not appreciate. Today in Israel, being a passport-carrying citizen does not mean that you are equal in treatment and privileges by your government to other citizens. Israeli citizens who are also identified as Jews -- and documents of every kind in Israel unpleasantly identify your "ethnic" identity over and above your citizenship - enjoy a special class of citizenship not attainable by others. Now, Israel is free to do this in its internal affairs, but it is not reasonable to expect others to formally ratify it, and it is not reasonable to expect that many of the world's people to approve such a prejudiced and divisive practice. It is pretty easy to guess the fate of more than one million non-Jewish Israeli citizens if the Palestinians were to accept Israel's definition.
The last way to categorize Jews, and one that plays a role in Israel, is by cultural identity. But what is a culture devoid of the context of religion and ethnicity and national origin, surely the richest ingredients in any cultural stew? Almost nothing, except possibly a language. Hebrew has been artificially imposed as the main language of Israel, despite the reality of Arabic's total dominance in the region, despite the fact that many immigrants and settlers in Israel can speak little Hebrew, despite the fact that this more-or-less dead language was only kept alive because of its role in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, and despite the fact that Hebrew is a useless language in the world's commerce and affairs, much as Welsh or Navajo would be. Are an almost-dead language and a couple of holiday celebrations to determine Jewishness and the entitlement to be an Israeli? If so, it is a pretty feeble thing over which to fight.
I think the truth is, and there is a good deal of evidence to support this, that Israeli leaders are motivated by an (unproved) sense of Jewish ethnicity, or perhaps more accurately, the wish to create an ethnicity that does not now exist. That too does seem a feeble thing to fight over, as well as being in the end a hopeless pursuit. Israel is a state formed by migration, recent migration, and migrants always and everywhere bring their former customs, language, and habits with them, and the larger each group is in relation to the country they join, the more it will deeply influence the place's future culture and identity. Parts of the United States are now more Spanish-speaking than English, and such changes are underway all over the world. Parts of Toronto or Vancouver have as a first language Cantonese. The relatively huge numbers of recent Russian migrants to Israel, for example, remain to a great extent Russians who happen to have moved to Israel. The many Americans who have served in prominent positions are clearly identifiable as Americans who happen to have moved to Israel.
The dilemma is unavoidable: either Israel is a state for Israelis, or it is a state for a self-defined group, the mysterious nature of the group's self-definition not subject to scientific scrutiny. If someone for any reason wants to call himself a Jew in many places, it makes no difference to anyone else, but in Israel to be a full citizen you cannot just choose to be a Jew. The fathers of the re-creating Israel movement were in many cases intellectually-gifted men, but they were, after all, intense ideologues, truly fanatical men in a number of cases, and they were seeking a solution for problems they experienced in European society, a solution, as it turns out, as unrealistic in nature as the religious fantasy of a better afterlife, which has comforted various unhappy groups through history. The solution they fixed upon also is one that comes loaded with intractable new problems. And those intractable problems, regrettably, are now becoming the entire world's problems.
Israeli leaders have long wanted to rid their country of its non-Jewish population. The late Ariel Sharon wanted to overthrow the government of Jordan and turn the place over to the Palestinians who would all migrate there with Yasser Arafat. It was just one of many hare-brained schemes proposed over modern Israel's brief history. A prominent Israeli military historian, Martin van Creveld, offered the notion of a massive moving artillery barrage to chase the Palestinians across the Jordan River. Moshe Dayan spoke of making the Palestinians miserable enough to want to leave. A number of prominent Jews have advocated killing the families of Palestinians found guilty of terrorism, and Israel has practiced destroying their family homes. Clearly, with such ideas, we see Israelis begin to slip into the mental framework of the very people who inflicted horror upon the Jews in the 1940s, and when you observe that kind of thing, it should be an early warning that what you are doing is dangerous and not well thought-out.
Why do people get such desperate ideas? Because the basic assumptions of their enterprise were faulty from the start and have driven them to pernicious and unwanted results with the apparent need for still more faulty corrective measures, an endless vicious cycle. The foundation of modern Israel involved a series of manipulations and back-door deals with European colonial powers entering their decline. They often involved favors exchanged, but in no case did they reflect law or sound logic. And in all cases, the foundational ideas had more of emotion in them than intellect. Then came the Holocaust, and a United States -- which hadn't lifted a finger to save Europe's Jews when Hitler made it possible to do so, the first German fascist policy having been mass emigration -- decided to play the good guy by fixing crushing penalties on still another group of people, one who had nothing to with the suffering of Jews.
This pose of America as big brother to Israel was certainly not just a reflection of guilt and regret, it reflected a new political reality that emerged about the time of Harry Truman's re-election campaign. A well-organized lobby for Israel in the United States began offering campaign financing and press support for friendly candidates as well as the opposite for those not so friendly. Truman was inundated by lobbyists for the quick recognition of Israel, and while his own first instincts were against doing so, he yielded to the lobbyists, facing, as he was, a tough, uncertain re-election campaign.
And the pattern of lobbying behavior has only grown in size and sophistication over time. At the same time, American national elections have become the most money-drenched political exercises on earth with the Supreme Court declaring money to be free speech and billions spent regularly just for a slate of candidates.
The idea of a pure state for just one people -- however defined, as by religion, ethnic background, or cultural identity -- is ultimately unworkable, however much you may be able to force it for a time, and Israel works immensely hard in trying to force it through countless unfair laws and the constant hot breath of secret police forces and the military. The concept, importantly, violates all of the progress in democratic and human values established since the Enlightenment, and, on a strictly pragmatic basis, it stands in defiance of the inexorable workings of a globalized world. Even the European nations once seemingly so well identified by populations with centuries of common history, as the English or the Germans, are now facing unavoidable changes in the structure of their populations. They are all in the process of becoming more like Canada or the United States, nations formed by many diverse streams of migrants. You cannot hold your finger in the dike or shout at the raging sea to stop, yet that kind of activity truly is implicit in Israel's concept of itself.
Insistence on a narrowly defined citizenship in a place shared with millions of others means of course Israel can never have a Bill or Charter of Rights, and the truth is that without a Bill of Rights no state can claim to be a true democracy. Just having periodic elections does not define a democratic state because a majority of any description may impose its prejudices and even tyranny on a minority at any time, as we have seen in South Africa or the American Confederacy or indeed in modern Israel. The very idea of a democracy for only one group of people -- again, however defined -- is a contradiction in terms. Bills and Charters of Rights are about protecting minorities, but Israel does not want the minorities it has, and it certainly has no will to protect them, seizing their property periodically and subjecting them to gross abuses.
Without some degree of true democracy, a society cannot have democratic values, that important sense of values that becomes part of the fabric of a society over time. Israel feels it cannot afford to embrace and respect democratic values owing to its security situation: it doesn't say this, but it is implicit in Israel's behavior. Thus we see contradictions like Israel happily doing business with governments along the lines of the Saudi royal family or Egypt's thirty-year president, Mubarak. Israel has expressed contempt for genuinely democratic movements, again like those in Egypt. It would rather deal with an unelected, accommodating hanger-on to power like Mahmoud Abbas rather than recognize the democratic aspirations of Palestinians so clearly demonstrated with Hamas.
Israel's habit of declaring every party or organization that represents some barrier or inconvenience to its long-term desire to ethnically-cleanse most of Palestine and annex the territory as "terrorist" is akin to Christians of long ago declaring certain different or odd people to be witches, worthy only of killing, as by burning at the stake (it is also akin to Israel's habitual name-calling of critics). Thus Hamas, which is by all available evidence more dedicated to democratic principles than the government of Israel, is a witch to be dealt with as witches should be. Thus Hezbollah, a freedom-fighting organization owing its very birth to Israel's long and bloody occupation of part of Lebanon and one that has never invaded Israel, is another witch.
But they are not witches: they are parties representing legitimate interests and aspirations in the region. People with democratic values would recognize this and treat them accordingly.