If one were to study the history of my blogging, it seems like the summers are always punctuated by events in Israel, and the events are usually of the crisis variety.
This time around my plan to take time off from blogging is interrupted not by the actions on the Gaza and Syrian borders but by Knesset passage on July 19th of Israel’s 13th Basic Law (there is no constitution so these are important), the so-called Nation State law. In brief, this law codifies Israel’s status as the “national home of the Jewish people,” declares Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, sets the Hebrew calendar as the state’s official calendar, defines Hebrew as the formal language of the state and Arabic as a language with special status, promotes Jewish settlement as a national value, and affirms the state’s commitment to connect with and preserve the heritage of the Jewish people among Jews in the Diaspora.
The sense is that the bill is meant to be a corrective to current laws and principles which emphasize the democratic nature of the state more than its Jewish character. It is not clear that anything significant will change because of it, but its emphasis and the absence of the phrase from the Declaration of Independence guaranteeing “full equality for all its citizens” has created enormous tension.
The bill has actually been lurking in the background for a long time. It has been revised numerous times, and only passed by a slim margin. It has provoked heated debate among political leadership, Israeli activists, civil society and the community at large, over whether Israel requires a Basic Law that affirms its character as a Jewish state, and what the consequences are for Israel’s democratic character and for its Arab citizens—who comprise the vast majority of Israel’s non- Jewish population (21% of the total.) Its passage has sent shockwaves through Israel’s Arab society, and has been met with polarized response from within Israel and abroad, including widespread condemnation from critics alongside expressions of praise and support.
My blog posts are too concise to present the merits and demerits of this law. Let me refer you to two pieces that go into the needed detail. First, on the more critical side, is a backgrounder from the Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues, the umbrella for groups like our local task force that I co-chair. http://iataskforce.org/sites/default/files/resource/resource-1624.pdf. The second is a more recent piece by Mitchell Bard of the American Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, famous for its Myths and Facts about the Israeli Arab conflict, which is about as good a defense of the law as seems possible. There is not exactly a link so it is pasted on below.
This, like almost everything about Israel, is complicated. You know I tend to err on the side of defending Israel and its decisions/actions. In this case, it is more difficult. It is hard to see the need for this law, which doesn’t really change anything but has terrible optics and has succeeded in angering so many people. Not just people who are angry at whatever Israel does, but people like Mohammad Darawshe of Givat Haviva, who works tirelessly to build a shared society among Israeli Jews and Arabs. On a recent conference call, he noted that Israeli Arabs have now been officially declared to be second class citizens, and personally feels that “Israel has disowned 21% of its population.” It was painful to hear that. Several Druze officers in the IDF have resigned from the army in response. Already one MK from the Arab list has left the Knesset. Israeli intellectuals like Yuval Noah Harari are refusing to speak in government sponsored forums in the States because of this law.
This is a tough time, tougher than it needs to be. Maybe all the Arab List MK’s should resign, which would collapse this government – which seems tone deaf to greater realities – and this Prime Minister whose core principle seems to be remaining in office – and maybe bring about change. This is radical thinking for me, but the current path is not a good one, for Israel and also for its supporters abroad who face an increasingly uphill battle.
Write back as you wish. Best, Bill Rudolph
From Mitchell Bard:
The Nation State Law proves Israel is undemocratic and discriminates against Arabs.
On July 19, 2018, Israel adopted a new Basic Law: Israel – The Nation State of the Jewish People. The law provoked controversy inside and outside of Israel. After the vote, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said:
This is a defining moment in the annals of Zionism and in the history of the State of Israel. Today, 122 years after [Theodor] Herzl shared his vision, we have established into law the basic principles of our existence. “Israel” is the nation-state of the Jewish people. A nation state that respects the individual rights of all its citizens and, in the Middle East, only Israel respects these rights. This is our state, the state of the Jews. In recent years there have been some who have attempted to cast doubt on this, and so to undercut the foundations of our existence and our rights. Today we etched in the stone of law: This is our state, this is our language, this is our anthem, and this is our flag (extracted from multiple news sources with slightly different translations).
As Netanyahu said, this law codifies Israel’s status as the “national home of the Jewish people.” The law also declares Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, sets the Hebrew calendar as the state’s official calendar and confirms Shabbat and Jewish holidays as official days of rest while allowing non-Jews to determine their own rest days and holidays. It recognizes the current national flag as the official one, the menorah as the state’s symbol and Hatikvah as the national anthem. It also states that Israel will endeavor to ensure the safety of all Jews and “preserve the cultural, historical and religious legacy of the Jewish people among the Jewish diaspora.”
Some critics have suggested, the law should have included the word “equality.” For example, Amir Fuchs, Head of the Defending Democratic Values Program at the Israel Democracy Institute, said “it is difficult to understand why the authors of this bill insist not to include this important value” (Amir Fuchs, “The Nation State Bill Bias,” Israel Democracy Institute, July 10, 2018). Supporters of the law counter the existing Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty defines Israel’s democratic character, but the new law was needed because Israel’s Jewish character was not embedded in constitutional law. Moreover, Professor Gerald Steinberg of Bar-Ilan University notes that this law is only one part of a broad and detailed democratic map. “Does every U.S. law or constitutional amendment include the word democratic? ”(personal communication).
The law also enshrines the Zionist idea upon which the nation was founded, namely that Israel is a country established to fulfill the Jewish people’s “right to national self-determination.” Legal scholar Eugene Kontorovich notes that seven European states have similar “nationhood” constitutional provisions (Eugene Kontorovich, “Get Over It—Israel Is the Jewish State,” Wall Street Journal, July 20, 2018). Furthermore, no nation grants a right to self-determination to a minority within its borders; otherwise the Basques in Spain and Kurds in Turkey or Iraq would have their own states. This clause is also a response to Israel’s detractors, such as advocates of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, who assert this right belongs to the Palestinians and not the Jewish people.
Much of the criticism of the law focused on the establishment of Hebrew as Israel’s sole official language. Formerly Arabic was also an official state language (as was English). Any alteration of a long-established status quo is jarring; however, the recognition of Hebrew is consistent with the policies of other countries which give official status only to the majority language. The previous recognition of Arabic was a remnant of the British Mandatory period and does not reflect today’s reality in which 80% of Israelis, including most Arabs, speak Hebrew. The law specifically states that it “does not change the status given to the Arabic language before the basic law was created” in any other way. Hence, Arabic speakers are no more discriminated against than minorities in more than 100 countries that have a single national language. Incidentally, the de facto official language of the Palestinian Authority is Arabic.
Another clause that sparked controversy states that Israel will “encourage and promote” Jewish settlement around the country. The language was deliberately altered so as not to suggest this would lead to the creation of Jewish-only towns, however, some critics, feared it would be interpreted as if that was the intention. Indeed, Israel’s enemies interpreted it that way, arguing the law promotes segregation.
David Hazony, executive director of the Israel Innovation Fund, noted that some critics have interpreted this clause as promoting Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria. While that may be the political goal of some of its supporters, Hazony said the “word being translated as ‘settlement’ is hityashvut, which to any Israeli ear refers more to the Galilee and the Negev and the history of building new Jewish communities a century ago across the country than it does to the West Bank” (David Hazony, “Everything You’ve Heard About Israel’s Nation State Bill Is Wrong,” Forward, July 23, 2018).
Kontorovich adds that this clause is consistent with the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine, which sought to “encourage . . . close settlement by Jews.” More important, he says it does not “prescribe or authorize any particular policies” unlike, for example, the state constitution of Hawaii, which Kontorovich notes “authorizes land policies to promote homesteading by ethnic Hawaiians, and provides preferential land policies for them.” Kontorovich adds that Israel’s Supreme Court has ruled that Arabs have a right to create residential communities in Israel that exclude Jews but Jews do not have the same right to exclude Arabs.
One indication of the double standard applied to Israel is that no international uproar followed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ declaration that not “a single Israeli” would be permitted to live in a Palestinian state (Noah Browning, “Abbas wants ‘not a single Israeli’ in future Palestinian state,” Reuters, July 29, 2013).).
The law did provoke negative reactions around the world and angered many non-Jews in Israel. This does not make it either undemocratic or discriminatory. Kontorovich explained:
In reality, Israel’s Basic Law would not be out of place among the liberal democratic constitutions of Europe — which include similar provisions that have not aroused controversy. The law does not infringe on the individual rights of any Israeli citizen, including Arabs; nor does it create individual privileges. The illiberalism here lies with the law’s critics, who would deny the Jewish state the freedom to legislate like a normal country.
In the case of the Nation State Law, members of Knesset voted by a 62-55 majority to approve the legislation. This is democracy in action. Still, like Americans, Israelis can challenge laws in court, and three Knesset members have already done so, one sign of the health of Israel’s democracy (Jonathan Lis and Noa Landau, “Israeli Minister Admits Nation-state Law Marginalizes ‘Druze Brothers,’” Haaretz, July 25, 2018). Another indication is the ability of Israelis to vote for new representatives who could revoke or alter the law if they can convince a majority of all Knesset members a change is warranted.
Even a critic of the law, IDI President Yohanan Plesner admitted the practical impact of the bill was currently merely “symbolic and educational.” He said it “won’t have immediate concrete implications.” IDI vice president Yuval Shani added, “It is not a game changer and has very little problematic implications….It won’t change how the country is run” (Gil Hoffman, “Israel Democracy Institute: Jewish Nation-State Law ‘not a game changer,’” Jerusalem Post, July 30, 2018).