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November 27, 2014 2:07 pm

The Truth About Israel’s Jewish State Law

avatar by Seth Frantzman


The Knesset building in Jerusalem. PHOTO: James Emery.

In a 2007 interview, former Knesset Speaker and Jewish Agency Chairman Avram Burg claimed “to define the State of Israel as a Jewish state is the key to its end. A Jewish state is explosive. It’s dynamite.” Burg’s outburst is emblematic of a strange controversy that has overtaken Israel in recent weeks and threatened to bring down the government – all over a law that enshrines what already exists. It is a proposed law, passed by the Cabinet but not yet voted on in the Knesset, called ‘Basic Law: Israel as the Nation State of the Jewish People.’

On November 24, the New York Times claimed Israel was “narrowing its democracy,” decrying the law as “a contentious bill that would officially define Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.” The Times compared the law to American discrimination against African-Americans and claimed it runs counter to the “inclusive vision of a state” among liberal democracies.

The reaction in Israel and abroad has been apoplectic. One article claimed Israelis would now have to choose between Judaism and democracy. The Israel Democracy Institute’s Mordechai Kremnitzer and Amir Fuchs asserted it was a “danger to the Zionist enterprise.” The U.S. State Department warned “We expect Israel to stick to its democratic principles.” Haaretz toed this line, saying the bill “weakens democratic institutions.” Former Defense Minister Moshe Arens said it was “useless and harmful” and Tel Aviv University academic Aeyal Gross thought it would lead to “no equality at all.” Even Ruth Gavison, a law professor who is generally sympathetic to a more Zionist view of the state, felt the law would upset the “delicate balance” between Judaism and democratic and human rights.

What about the reasons for the law? Originally brought up by Likud politician Ze’ev Elkin, the bill was proposed in 2011, and has now been approved by the Cabinet- and in a watered-down form it may be presented by the Prime Minister for a full vote. The law was originally supported by a broad spectrum of center and center-right politicians, including members of Kadima in 2011 and  former Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter.

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Everyone that discusses the bill seems to admit that it merely enshrines in law what already exists. Kremnitzer and Fuchs noted that Israel’s Jewish characteristics were “reflected in the Declaration of Independence, the Law of Return, legislation that pertains to the flag, anthem and symbols.” Many Arab Israelis protested the law by posting pictures of themselves stamped “class B citizen” but admitted it was simply enshrining in law the “existing de-facto discrimination.”

The law is often bashed from an American standpoint as being out of tune with Western values. Former Israeli Education Minister Yuli Tamir claimed it was the opposite of the U.S. Constitution, while Avital Burg at The Forward mocked the bill by noting that if it existed in the U.S. it would read “Protestant values will serve as inspiration to lawmakers and judges.”

But what these voices miss is that many states in the world enshrine in law various aspects of their national and religious identity. Michael Freund writes at The Jerusalem Post, that “in Great Britain the Queen is required to be a member of the Anglican Church” and in Denmark the Lutheran Church is guaranteed state support. Israel’s nation state law, and Israel’s existing character as an overwhelmingly Jewish state with Jewish symbols, are similar to most other countries, such as Greece, Bulgaria, Ireland, Croatia, Iran, Japan, or Malaysia. Israel may be out of step with American conceptions of liberal democracy but not necessarily with the rest of the world.

There is a cartoon going around the web showing David Ben-Gurion reading the Declaration of Independence and someone shouting “fascist” at him, mocking how people are calling the nation state bill “fascist.” Israel’s Declaration of Independence, that critics of the law claim strikes a “balance” between Jewish and democratic, actually uses the word “Jew” twenty-four times. It never uses the word democratic. It does speak of the “natural right of the Jews to be masters of their own fate” and”right of the Jewish people to a national rebirth” and “right of the Jewish people to rebuild its national home.” The declaration’s has one paragraph devoted to the “complete equality of all its inhabitants” and says that the state will provide those inhabitants freedom “as envisioned by the prophets of Israel.” Those criticizing the Jewish nation state bill as out of step with Israel’s declaration of independence or original view of Zionism evidently didn’t read the declaration.

Whether the law is necessary is another question. It was created because of fears that the creation of a Palestinian state would lead to increasing demands for national minority rights of Arab citizens in Israel and a demand for a “state of all its citizens” that Arab NGOs have been advocating recently. Thus Palestine would become a Palestinian nation state for Palestinians, while Israel would eventually be asked to downgrade it’s Jewish national aspects, a fact Benjamin Netanyahu articulated when he demanded the Palestinian Authority recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

However, there is nothing in the present law that either changes the rights and status of Arab citizens in Israel or is out of step with the existing Zionist paradigm. The fact is some Israelis are uncomfortable with declaring loudly that Israel is a Jewish nation state; they feel nation-state is too nationalist as a concept and they want Israel to be more European. Whether Israel should go the way of European states that deracinated their national status and embraced a more American-style multiculturalism is a debate Israelis should have honestly, without demagoguing what this law actually is.

The author is the Oped Editor of The Jerusalem Post; follow him on Twitter @Sfrantzman.

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