[Note: The following is printed as an op-ed in this week’s edition of the Los Angeles Jewish Journal.]
The new “Nation-State” basic law is neither overtly racist nor suggesting of apartheid. Yet, it is a bad and unnecessary law and ought to be repealed. Israel already has the Declaration of Independence that sets the principles of the State of Israel as the Jewish and democratic nation-state of the Jewish people.
There is much in the bill that is operative making it redundant. The principal language of Israel is Hebrew. The Israeli flag and national anthem are Israel’s national symbols. Independence Day, Memorial Day, and Holocaust Remembrance Day are recognized holidays. Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the Jewish people.
The bill is worrisome for several reasons. It formally demotes the Arabic language from an official language to one with “special status,” a slap in the face to the 20% minority of Arab-Israeli citizens and the Israeli-Druze community. The message of the bill to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza is that the State of Israel is the exclusive homeland of the Jewish people despite Palestinian claims for a nation-state of their own alongside Israel. The message to Palestinian Israeli citizens is that they are second class citizens.
In 1992, a Basic Law was passed that emphasized fundamental human rights and equality under the law for all Israeli citizens. The nation-state law fails to mention equality thus posing a veiled assault on Israel’s democratic tradition and the 1992 law. Future courts and legislatures can use this new bill to deemphasize Israeli democratic traditions.
The bill originally sought to preserve the bond of unity between world Jewry and Israel, but at the last minute ultra-Orthodox parties rejected the unity principle as it applies in Israel. The Israeli Conservative and Reform movements objected strenuously because they regard the bill as an attempt by the ultra-Orthodox parties to solidify their hegemony over religious affairs in Israel rejecting religious pluralism.
One wonders why this bill was brought forward now. Is it a political attempt by PM Netanyahu, who advocated strongly for its adoption, to shore up his right-wing political base before the next election?
There is a bill currently making its way through the Knesset that would raise the number of orthodox yeshiva students required to serve in the army, a move bitterly opposed by the ultra-Orthodox parties that threatened to quit the coalition and force new elections should it become law. Netanyahu needs them in his coalition. Current polls show that Netanyahu’s Likud would gain no more seats should an election be held today.
The bill has driven a deeper wedge between Israel and Diaspora Jewry. Tensions exist between the Prime Minister and the Reform and Conservative movements in North America due to Netanyahu’s reneging on his own Kotel Agreement, allowing his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners to introduce a conversion law in the Knesset excluding non-Orthodox conversions, and his alliance with Trump and American Christian evangelical extremists.
Many from Netanyahu’s own party oppose this law including the President of the State, Reuven Rivlin, Benny Begin, Moshe Arens, and Dan Meridor.
The vast majority of Israelis don’t want a medieval model imposed on their modern country. The most pressing question for Israelis besides security is the relationship between democracy and Judaism. As long as Jews remain in the majority by significant percentages (i.e. 70-80%), the conflict between democracy and Judaism appears manageable.
Section #7 of the bill enshrines the settlements as an important goal of the country, at the top of the right-wing agenda for decades. To most objective observers, Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state will be assured only by containing settlements to the large settlement blocks that will remain in Israel in an eventual peace agreement and stopping the spread of settlements beyond the security fence that would make partition impossible. Only a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can preserve a strong Jewish majority thereby preserving democracy and the Jewish character of the state.
This bill serves a world view that’s damaging to Israel, a move towards ethnic religious nationalism dominating Israeli political affairs and the separation of Israel from millions of its supporters in the Diaspora. That is not what the nation’s founders envisioned for Israel.