Citizenship, Nationalism and How to Solve Part of the Israel-Palestinian Problem

There are essentially three impediments to a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians: final borders, Jerusalem and the right of return.  The first two are of course related, and in my view, will never be amicably resolved because no Palestinian political leader will ever be able to agree to allow Jerusalem to belong to Israel, despite the fact that there has been a Jewish majority in that city for well over 100 years.  (Anti-Semitism is really the sole justification for the division of Jerusalem, and explains the views of the rest of the world which have been essentially unchanged since the terrible 1940s.) But I believe the right of return is a solvable problem, and should be tackled separately.

Palestinians are of course not the only people who fled their homes around 1948.  At the same time, millions of ethnic Germans were pushed out of Poland and Czechoslovakia, and many millions fled to either side of the still contested India-Pakistan border (the likely starting point for World War III).  And of course, many Jews had fled from Europe during  the previous decade.

When my maternal grandparents escaped from Nazi Germany after the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria in 1938, they were stripped of their citizenship and were stateless until they became U.S. citizens in 1946.  It might surprise people to learn that they, and others in their situation, were never offered back their Austrian citizenship after the war.  Jews who had fled could only recover their citizenship if they moved back to Austria, which my grandparents and most others did not want to do.

But many years later, in 1993, Austria amended its citizenship laws to permit its former Jewish citizens to recover Austrian citizenship from abroad.  At that time, my grandparents were already deceased but my mother, born in New York in 1940 shortly after her parents reached the United States (what we would call today an “anchor baby“), was able to persuade the Austrian authorities to permit her to recover the citizenship she should have had at birth, were it not for the Nazis.  As the son of a mother (rather than father) who had “recovered” her Austrian citizenship, I still could not obtain Austrian citizenship at that time.  But in 2013 Austria corrected that sexist rule and opened a brief window that allowed me to become an Austrian citizen in 2014.  I was then also allowed to obtain citizenship for my three minor children.

Last December I was in Vienna and met Wolfgang Sobotka, the president of the Austrian Parliament, at the Centropa Hannukah Party.  I took the opportunity to thank him for Austria’s laws that allowed me and my family to obtain Austrian citizenship.  I am not sure what exactly motivated the various laws that helped me, but the net result was very positive.  I felt good about recovering a piece of my family history, since my ancestors had lived in Austria for more than three hundred years before the Nazis arrived.  I noticed also that my children became suddenly more aware of their Austrian-Jewish heritage, wanting to visit the country and even learn German.  The law had cost Austria very little (we weren’t going to move there or take advantage of any social programs) and had garnered the country some good will from a family that had every reason to hold a grudge.  (Among others, my great-grandfather Siegmund Zeisl had been removed from Vienna in 1942 and murdered in Treblinka.)

Since recovering Austrian citizenship, I have wondered if Israel could also adopt the Austrian model with Palestinians who had fled the country in 1948 and were later denied citizenship under the Israeli citizenship law.  I’ve broached this idea with a number of people and have been met with puzzling reactions that I think demonstrate a misunderstanding of what could actually be accomplished.

The first misconception is that Israel would be flooded with returning Palestinians.  I am certain this isn’t true.  Most people like to stay put where they are, even when their lives might be better somewhere else.  (In German and Yiddish they call this Sitzfleisch, the ability to stay put and just persevere.) This explains why there are still Americans living in Mississippi and Louisiana (the two lowest-ranked states in the country by most measures), rather than moving to California.  More seriously, though, there would be lots of impediments to Palestinians moving to Israel.  The main one is that they don’t want to be Israelis.  Imagine if the citizenship process required a simple oath of allegiance to the State of Israel.  How many Palestinians outside Israel would sign that?  Even if economic opportunities are a draw, language and culture are huge impediments.

If you think it’s easy to apply for and obtain citizenship, like I did with Austria, then maybe I didn’t explain the process thoroughly.  I had to fill out endless forms in German, had to obtain not only certified copies of vital records like birth and marriage records, but also an apostille, a court record affirming that the signature on a vital record is valid.  I had to submit to FBI fingerprinting to confirm that I didn’t have a criminal record.  (My sister couldn’t complete her application because, despite several attempts, the FBI couldn’t read her fingerprints.)  I had to submit a financial statement and confirming bank documents and bills to prove I wouldn’t be a burden on the state.  I had to go to the consular office, which happened to be nearby, several times to execute documents.  And I had to pay.  Yes, that’s right, it cost me money to submit the application and to obtain the citizenship certificate and passport.  It wasn’t cheap.

My application was submitted in a very friendly process and I was helped by the consular officials, but I think you can imagine how bureaucratic and difficult it might be for the average person.  The truth is that most Palestinians wouldn’t be able to obtain the required documentation (proving descent from Palestinians living in what is now Israel) and wouldn’t have the stamina to complete the process, even if they could locate everything they needed.  If you assume, generously, that one in ten eligible Palestinians would want to apply, and of those probably only ten or twenty percent could succeed, we’re now talking about 50,000-100,000 people, not the 5 million estimated by UNRWA.  By way of contrast, Israel absorbed about one million Russian immigrants after 1989.

Of course, the process could take into account the potential for a flood of returning Palestinians by first asking for preliminary applications (like a declaration of intention) during a limited time period to gauge the interest of Palestinians in obtaining Israeli citizenship.  But my guess is that the flood would turn out to be just a trickle.  I don’t see the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank, Gaza or Lebanon encouraging their populations to apply for Israeli citizenship.  They are still committed to eliminating Israel, not joining it.  When offered a path to citizenship, the vast majority of Palestinians in East Jerusalem (95%) chose not to become citizens, and only a third of those who applied were successful.  So in the end you’ll have only the most eager and able Palestinians applying for and obtaining Israeli citizenship, mostly the ones with close family in Israel whom they wish to join.  Admitting them would make little difference to Israel, but it would likely make a big difference to the rest of the world by demonstrating that Israel is ready to move beyond the hostilities of the 1940s and invite back the former residents who fled.  One of the three major impediments to peace would be off the table.

I have another proposal for Israel that it should consider at the same time.  Last year, Israel passed a somewhat controversial new law defining Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People.  To that end, Israel should allow all Jews to apply for Israeli citizenship, not only Jews who decide to move to Israel.  The current Law of Return allows Jews (or those with at least one Jewish grandparent) to become Israeli citizens by moving to Israel.  Originally, Israel was eager to have new Jewish immigrants and afforded citizenship only to those who decided to live there.  But after 70 years, Israel doesn’t necessarily need more Jewish immigrants.  Land and housing are more scarce than they used to be.  The State of Israel is starting to get too crowded.  Of course, you don’t have to live in Israel to be a citizen.  Many Israelis have moved out of Israel and live elsewhere, lots of them in America.  They all retain their Israeli citizenship.  Why not allow diaspora Jews who are eligible to become Israeli citizens to gain citizenship without moving there?  Certainly not all Jews would do so, but many of those who are most committed to Israel would certainly do it to show their support.  It would be good pr for Israel, and a good way to maintain ties with the diaspora.  It could also offset any increase in the Palestinian population in Israel, the so-called demographic problem.

When I have made this suggestion to Israelis they are aghast.  There’s a tendency of Israelis to think of citizenship as a reward that can only be given to those who have somehow suffered for it.  I think that misunderstands the function of citizenship in today’s world.  Israel doesn’t require all of its citizens to serve in the military.  The children of Israelis living abroad are not required to serve, nor are Arabs or Yeshiva students.  So that is no argument.

Expanding the idea of citizenship would also help counter a disturbing nationalist trend in Israel.  Yoram Hazony, whom I knew pretty well back when we were students at Princeton, has written a new book called The Virtues of NationalismYoram has always been exceedingly intelligent and a good debater, and the book is, as expected, extremely well-written.  Yoram, like his conservative counterparts in Trump’s Republican Party, is simply in love with the idea of nationalism, especially as a counterweight to the oppressively utopian uniformity of “globalist” imperialistic international legal structures.  The flaw in his argument (there is always a flaw) is one of perspective.  Hazony sees great benefit in the idea of a nation-state as a way to avoid the anarchic competition of smaller clans and tribes.  Yet he has no real answer for when the benefits of combination into larger structures end and the dangers of imperial structures begin.  If it is good for families to form clans, and clans to form tribes, and tribes to form states, and states to form nations, then why is it not good for nations to form multi-national  entities?  Why is it good for Italian states to become a nation, but not good for Italy to join the European Union?  Hazony really cannot answer that question, and he doesn’t want to.  His main goal is to support a theory that a certain form of ethnic nationalism is superior.

It is too bad Hazony isn’t more familiar with European history.  His main focus is on Anglo-American philosophy and history.  But it turns out that the island of Great Britain isn’t really a great model for understanding the difficulties of nation-states.  Because it is an island.  As Brexiters are learning this month as their plans stumble over the problem of the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, things get more complicated with a land border.  National borders don’t change human nature and geography.  People who live in close proximity with each other are going to interact and form ties that cross the border, weakening the exclusive national characteristics the political border attempts to separate.  This is why divided cities, like Berlin, Nicosia and Jerusalem, simply don’t work.  Eventually, the borders have to fall.  And the same is true for larger national borders.  Ultimately, the states need to work together to avoid conflict.  They need to accept a dilution of their national sovereignty and ethnic purity.  National cooperation agreements, such as the European Union or NAFTA, allowing for free movement of people, labor, goods and capital, are more efficient, more productive and therefore superior.  Just as clans are superior to families, and tribes superior to clans, and states superior to tribes, and nations superior to states, so too are international organizations superior to nations.  As our legal and material technology improves, humans can organize in larger and larger structures for the benefit of all.

The irony of Hazony’s argument is that for Jews living as minorities in host countries, larger organizations have traditionally offered greater protection.  In Austria-Hungary prior to World War I, Jews were a substantial minority protected by the Habsburg emperor.  This led to great prosperity and unparalleled intellectual achievement.  The rise of nationalism and the breakup of the empire into a dozen smaller states substantially decreased those protections, and left Jews open to slaughter by the Nazis.  Hazony may be correct that Israel is more secure in a world where there are lots of similarly-sized smaller, independent ethnic national states.  But his mistake is thinking that such a world is stable.  The truth is that in order to survive, small nations need allies; they need to combine with larger nations and multi-national entities (or be protected by them).  “No man is an island,” as John Donne wrote, and most nations aren’t either.

In the modern era, citizenship is a tool that nations can use for various purposes.  One is to define the nation by means of inclusion and exclusion.  But smaller countries are discovering that citizenship can also be used to obtain allies abroad.  My experience receiving Austrian citizenship I think provides a good model for what Israel could do for Palestinians, diaspora Jews, and the State of Israel.

The New Jewish Genealogy

I’ve loved genealogy since I was a little boy, and in the past ten years have become something of an addict and expert in the field.  It is no secret why so many people, especially Jews, love genealogy.  What often starts as a very narcissistic all-about-me exercise can quickly turn into an obsession.  The Freudian psychoanalyst Sallyann Amdur Sack-Pikus, editor of Avotaynu, The International Review of Jewish Genealogy, recently opined that “the basic human needs for belongingness and for some sort of immortality are what lie at the root of the compelling intensity of the genealogical pursuit that so many of us feel—simply because this activity guarantees the fulfillment of those needs.”  (Avotaynu, Vol. XXIV, Number 4, Winter 2018, p. 7.)  Of course, Jews have been doing genealogy a long time.  We may not pay such close attention in synagogue, but large portions of the Bible are devoted solely to genealogies describing the ancestors and descendants of various biblical figures.  Still, new technology has opened the door to genealogical treasures that our ancestors could only have dreamed of.  We have entered the golden age of Jewish genealogy.

An Explosion of Resources

Whether you are just starting out, or still trying to break through a brick wall that has been blocking your path for decades, the absolute explosion of new resources available to you will make your life much easier.  The main internet hub for Jewish genealogy is JewishGen, which provides access to almost 30 million records ranging from vital records (births, deaths and marriages) to census, cemetery and Holocaust records.  Genealogy is all local, meaning that what is available for you depends on what geographic location you are searching.  Research in Alsace or Prussia is different from research in Rumania or Belarus.  And even within a particular region, the availability of records may vary widely.  But no matter where you are searching, JewishGen should be your first stop.  New records are being added all the time.  One of my favorites, the JewishGen Online Worldwide Burial Registry, has 3.3 million burial records from more than 7,700 cemeteries in 128 countries. JewishGen also has a searchable index for Aufbau 1944-1946 with 33,557 names of people being sought by loved ones at the end of World War II.  Readers of Aufbau should also be interested in JewishGen’s German Special Interest Group (GerSIG), which includes separate web pages for hundreds of towns with descriptions of available records and where to find them.  Beyond JewishGen there are at least three large data aggregators that provide access to databases and records, including vital records, census and immigration documents: Ancestry, MyHeritage and FamilySearch.  Each of these sources has its strengths and weaknesses.  FamilySearch is free, while Ancestry and MyHeritage are subscription based.  There are also specialized databases worth visiting.  GenTeam covers Austrian genealogy (but also Jewish records for Nürnberg, Prague, Budapest and some towns in Moravia). Akevoth has an excellent database for Jews from the Netherlands.  Of course, Yad Vashem has a searchable database for 4.7 million victims of the Holocaust.  BillionGraves just teamed up with MyHeritage to create a database of over 1.5 million graves in Israel.  The Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main also has an extensive collection of German Jewish periodicals including many on genealogy, a goldmine for researchers.


Although interviewing family members is one of the great joys of genealogy, most people don’t start working on the trees until everyone older is already gone.  As a result, genealogy can be a lonely exercise.  But not anymore.  The advent of the Internet has not only made records available, but has made it possible to collaborate with other genealogists from all over the world.  In short, it is no longer necessary to do everything by yourself.  Teamwork is now the name of the game.

You can build your tree using all sorts of computer programs, but in my view, the best place to build your tree is on Geni, a tree-building website owned by MyHeritage.  Geni’s World Family Tree is like a giant jigsaw puzzle where everyone works together on the same tree.  You start by building out your own tree until Geni’s matching algorithm tells you that you have duplicated a person who is already on the tree.  At that point you can merge the duplicates and then join the rest of the tree, taking advantage of all the work that has already been done and adding to it.  The World Family Tree currently has over 130 million connected profiles created by over 4 million connected genealogists.  For Jewish genealogy, this method has been a real bonanza.  Giving new life to the old Jewish geography game, it is now possible to find a relationship path between any two Jews merely by linking them up to the big tree.  If there is not yet a direct, blood relationship, Geni will find a different path, from cousin to cousin to cousin.  It turns out that there really aren’t so many Jews in the world and all of us are rather closely connected in this fashion.

One of Geni’s many advantages is a large contingent of volunteer curators (I am one of over forty Jewish genealogy curators).  The curators are there to assist people with problems in the tree, help correct errors, clean up messes and resolve disputes.  You no longer have to worry about not understanding how the program works, or how to find what you are looking for.  The curators, and many other users, are there to assist you.  Geni also provides for public discussions and projects that allow us to organize our genealogies in different ways.  For example, the Theresienstadt Ghetto project has over 27,000 profiles attached to it, meaning that we already have family trees for almost twenty percent of the inmates of that camp. The main directory for Jewish projects on Geni is the Jewish Genealogy Portal which will lead you to hundreds of projects that have been set up for German communities.

You can also seek help on Facebook where there are two large Jewish genealogy groups — Jewish Genealogy Portal and Tracing the Tribe — filled with tens of thousands of people who are happy to assist with translations or provide assistance.  Asking for help is easy, and it is the best way to learn.


The genealogical buzzword of the past few years is DNA.  A number of companies provide tests that can be used for genealogical research.  Perhaps the largest Jewish database is held by FamilyTreeDNA.  Researchers can purchase kits or transfer tests obtained elsewhere.  There are three main ways to use your DNA results.  Y-DNA, which is passed down form father to son, can help find matches along the paternal line.  Mitochondrial or mtDNA, comes from the mother and helps find matches along the maternal line.  All of the rest, called Autosomal, is a mix of what you inherited from your father or mother, but can be analyzed to find large matching segments with a common source.  For Ashkenazi Jews, unfortunately the autosomal DNA is so uniform, that most of us look like we are very close cousins.  You’ll find thousands of matches that are suggested to be connected within a few generations, but more likely the connections are much farther back.  This is a result of a small founder population and centuries of endogamy (Jews marrying only other Jews who are also their cousins).  So, while you will get many suggested matches, you will likely have to sort through a lot of them to find someone you could connect with on your family tree.  Still, DNA research is still in its early stages, and it is smart to get tested now.  You may not find someone when you test, but years from now, someone may find you.

Why Genealogy?

For me, genealogy is an exciting and endless pursuit.  In no sense will I ever be finished, but along the way I have discovered and learned an enormous amount about not only my own family history, but the history of Jews and the world.  Just this past year, my friend Nancy High and I have been working through some old notebooks that catalogue the old cemetery in Prague.  I had long hoped that I would be able to use the cemetery and other genealogical resources to push back the family tree of my great-grandmother Pauline Schönberg geb. Nachod, who was born in Prague in 1848.  The old genealogy for my grandfather the composer Arnold Schönberg that was completed by Heinz Schöny for the Schönberg centennial in 1974 had taken her family as far back as the mid 18th century.

Using the cemetery records, I am now able to document her family all the way back to the 16th century and beyond.  As I had hoped, my great-grandmother is indeed a descendant (several different ways) of the famous Rabbi Yehuda ben Bezalel Loew (MaHaRaL) (d. 1609).  But that’s not all.  I’ve also found a direct connection to Rabbi Eliyahu Menachem Chalfan of Venice (d. 1560), an Italian physician and talmudic scholar known for providing an opinion (in 1544) that a Jew may instruct a Christian in Hebrew.  Rabbi Chalfan also provided an opinion (in 1530) regarding the divorce of King Henry VIII, which the King’s emissary Richard Croke used to try to persuade the Pope to annul the marriage.  Chalfan’s maternal grandfather, Rabbi Joseph ben Solomon Trabotto Colon (d. 1480 Pavia) (MaHaRIK), originally from Chambéry, Savoy, was the foremost Talmudist of Italy in the second half of the fifteenth century, whose opinions were enormously important for the development of Jewish law.  In one, he ordered the neighboring communities to contribute to a ransom for the release of Jews who had been falsely accused in Regensburg.  Rabbi Colon decided that the communities could not refuse to pay their share, because the same accusations might befall them, and if the accused in Regensburg were ransomed and proved innocent, this would also benefit the surrounding communities.

Another ancestor, Moshe ben Hanok Altschul, was the author of the “Brantspiegel” (1602), perhaps the first popular book written in Yiddish, directed at a female audience with instructions on the ethical manner of keeping house and raising a family.  His son Chanoch Sofer Altschul (1564-1632) is famous for the Purim of the Curtains, recounting his miraculous escape from death after stolen curtains were given to him, as the Shammesh (servant) of the community, to return to the authorities.  Although Chanoch had commanded his descendants to recount his story every year on the 22nd of Tevet, probably no one had done so for over a century before our family revived the tradition this past year.  These and other stories I most certainly never would have come across had it not been for my passion for genealogy.

If I could give one piece of advice, it is this.  Don’t wait.  Go to and start building your tree (for free).  As Rabbit Tarfon stated in Pirke Avot 2:21: “You are not obligated to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.”

E. Randol Schoenberg is an attorney known for the recovery of Nazi-looted Klimt paintings, as recounted in the film Woman in Gold (2015).  He is a board member of JewishGen, and the author of the Beginner’s Guide to Austrian-Jewish Genealogy and Getting Started with Czech-Jewish Genealogy. To contact him, find him on Geni at or on the Jewish Genealogy Portal on Facebook.