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November 27, 2014 2:07 pm

The Truth About Israel’s Jewish State Law

avatar by Seth Frantzman

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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.

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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  • Mark Davis

    The Queen may be required to be an Anglican but she has absolutely no power over who marries whom, when shops should be open, transport on the Sabbath etc. Her status is purely symbolic as far as the religious administration of her country goes. The UK is purely secular and the religious trappings that one sees at royal weddings etc. have no relevance to the daily life of its inhabitants.

  • .
    Prime Minister Netanyahu is following the Word of God. One of the prophesies says that the whole world would turn against Israel. And God himself will destroy all who oppose Israel. I believe it was in the book of Ezekiel.

  • Alan Bly

    It seems to have been a bizarre omission that this law hasn’t been the law all along. But, it is also fairly obvious that in Israel’s formative years, just as it didn’t expel all Arabs from the land while Arab armies from all around sought to destroy the nascent State, Israel sought to mollify those very Arabs that sought to destroy her intentionally, by its omission to enact a law of the very kind that now seems more and more inevitable and even more and more appropriate.

    Of course there is opposition to Israel taking this measure, some borne of well-meaning if not at the same timem naive advice; some of it coming from opposition to anything that Israel does, which is de ri·gueur across the globe these days . But this law is something that completes Israel as a nation. It defines, finally, Israel’s reason to exist and for that reason it should…it must…be passed. Had the world, by now, become free of anti-Semitism…Had the Jewish People been willing to have melded into the rest of the world the way that the Assyrians and the Romans and the Greeks and so many other ancient Peoples had, then there would no purpose for Israel to exist as a Jewish State…written in stone. But, the Jewish People have survived every effort eradicate them. Anti-Semitism, both in its political sense and in its ethnic sense is today as rampant as ever, and there is an absolute need for Israel to exist both figuratively and literally as a Jewish Homeland…a place for Jews to be able to go while the world continues to see them as targets for every kind of calumny.

    There are plenty of “democracies.” Would they all accept all of Israel’s Jews were Israel to no longer exist? Hamas was, at very least, at some point democratically elected to rule in Gaza. In many of those “democracies,” Jews are afraid to walk in the streets wearing a “kipoh” and extraordinary measures must be taken (often begrudgingly) by the authorities to protect their children at Jewish schools. Every day there is an effort in European “democracies” to prohibit circumcision and Kosher slaughter.

    So, maybe people ought to be a little more reluctant to lecture Israel about how it goes about its business of securing its future and protecting its citizens and future citizens. Israel as a Jewish State will be better at also remaining a democracy than many of the countries that are so irrationally critical of this law.

  • Carmine R. Fragione

    It seems redundant to restate Israel as a Jewish State, since Israel is a Jewish name for a State. So it all seems to be drawing fire, and maybe that is the provocation intended. It would draw the fire of those who so hate the State of Israel, they are going to make war. So , that is the only possible outcome, starting a war of attrition, where politics is stymied. In Isaiah the Prophet it says Israel would have a new name. In Isaiah 62 it speaks about the Beulah Land, and the people called Hephzibah.
    In none of this scripture of the Bible, does it say “Jewish State” verbatim. But it does speak about Jerusalem. Perhaps what God means is to call all the land “Jerusalem” and it would be a city that is never deserted again. By the Prophet Ezekiel the city is called “The Lord is there” So the name of the city of Jerusalem , when the Messiah is finished with all the restoration of the “Holy Land” is going to rename the city of Jerusalem “AND THE NAME OF THE CITY FROM THAT TIME ON WILL BE THE LORD IS THERE ( in Hebrew YAHWEH SHAMMAH” means “THE LORD IS THERE” and it plays upon YERUSHALAYIM the Hebrew way to pronounce the modern name of Jerusalem)
    So, why call it a Jewish State, why not call the State, YAHWEH SHAMMAH , ???

  • יואל נצרים

    האם אנו לאום יהודי? האום ישנו מיעוט ערבים בארץ? האם ישנה דמוקרטיה בארץ? האם השיווין בין האזרחים לפי החוק ברור או הוא עדיין זקוק תיקון? אף על פי שהחוקים אינם פייר לגמרי לכל אחד בארץ, באופן כללי ואוניברסלי זוהי חברה פתוחה ודמוקרטית במדינת ישראל!

  • so, when will israel de-occupy palestine [WB EJ gaza] ?

    if never thus annexing palestine then palestinians become israeli ! no 2d class citizens – no apartheid / no racism toward the other – get over being chosen –

    • Sharon E

      “get over being chosen”?? Why? Would you “get over” being heir to the Davidson world fortune and change who you are because you wouldn’t want to upset all those kidnappers after your kids? A person doesn’t get over their birth DNA, so to speak. They are who they are. And this article stating that many Israelis want to be more American or European…yea, it’s workin’ out so well for us. Who in their right mind wants to go where our democracy and moral values are taking us?

    • Retired

      You are just Jealous because you weren’t chosen,you were deemed a reject instead!Life just isn’t fair!

  • David Blacher

    No one is pointing out that there are four (4) nation states that have as part of their official name “Islamic” – check the roster of member countries of the UN.

    Also, if “Jewish” is attached to the name of e.Israel, it would give the BDS folk a harder time avoiding the antisemitic (which many of them truly are) label by claiming that they are only anti Israel.

    • Retired

      This is just sticking it to the left where it hurts,I love it!If we want to understand where we are at we must understand where we came from,what history tells us of the past.Shortly after the passing of Herzl the Zionist movement fell under the control of the Jewish left intelligentsia in Europe.The Labor Zionists were Jews who despised Judaism,They felt that they would be the New Jews,without Judaism.Actually they were very old,2000 years ago they were called Hellenized Jews.The true Jews who wanted to be proud Jews were pushed to the side & made into 2nd class citizens,the Labor Zionists just wanted to be Israelis minus Judaism.Before WW2 the Labor Zionists(Ben-Gurion & Weizmann)did what they could to get their followers into Palestine.They obstructed Aliyah to the rest of the European Jews who were desperate to leave.During the war they actually turned Irgun fighters over to the British.
      For the last 100 years the left in Israel have been running Israel as though it was their own private fiefdom.The traditional Jews were barely tolerated.What is driving them crazy is the fact that real Jews,who look to Jerusalem & not Brussels are coming into power & the left’s control of the nation is slipping away fast
      They are very angry because this law would shovel their anti-Jewish Ideology into the garbage pail,where it belongs

    • Clear&PresentDanger

      Only 4? That’s surprising.

  • One more million Jews makimg Aliyah would legitimate Israel´s position through legitimate possession.Diaspora Jews , be cognizant : It is our fault. if the dream fails.

  • It is amazing to see how people on earth became mind “split” , not only the Jews but the entire world is living in a reality who does not exist, because those who do attacks Jews do attack their own minds in the same time and are able to show their face talking nonsense, becoming stupid were terror became an entertaining subject in media TV and newspapers, I guess we all are responsible for our age of madness, because we believe in a reality which do not exist, why, the global world is changing under men’s own mind split, we accept maters which to change under staged fake events, and then everybody do find out that man was blind when accepting maters without been able to see their results, because is all about money which man do think is safe. Those who does attack Jews known that man is a natural born greedy; all is about oil, weapons, technology, and fake politics.

  • Julian Clovelley

    To me this article belongs to another universe – a Scheinwelt I would not enter even to criticise – except in one aspect that concerns a comparison with states outside of Israel

    If you ask most educated English people what the longest word in English is, they will probably say “Antidisestablishmentarianism” – a word that refers to opposition to the removal of the Church of England from being the established Church and State religion. The history of this connection between Church and State goes back to the time of Henry the Eighth who moved from being the Popes “Fides Defensor” to retaining that title as actual Head of the English Church – later to become Protestant. The title FD appeared on British coins thereafter, with the monarch retaining the titular position of Head of the Church.

    Parts of the British Isles have already abandoned the title, and there remains, low level, ongoing debate. This article seems to use a misconception of agreed stability to justify similar ossification of social structure within Israel. It is a poor justification. Britain is an area of intense social repression and class distinction. It was brought to the brink of revolution as recently as 1926. From time to time there are outbursts of rage and city burning. In the province of Northern Ireland an uneasy peace reigns – that is at least better than street warfare

    Israel needs to move forward socially and politically not backwards if it is to retain outside report. Just as the British had to reign in Church excesses so Israel needs to reign in Zionist excesses

    To those of us worldwide, who have little raspect for nationalisms, racisms and the ravings of religions based on mythology and conveniently concocted pseudo-history movements such as the one discussed are expressions of backwardness

    Just drop the whole subject and move on…

    • Sharon E

      So, you’re basically stating that you’re a “go-along to get-along” kind of person with no true character, belief or backbone to stand up, or fight for, what you believe in (like say; your family),that you have no life, but WOW! Aren’t you the eloquent one? That about right?

  • Naomi Silver

    If people haven’t heard it yet, this is precisely what Hamas and PA object to, Israel to be called a Jewish State. They proclaim that they have recognised Israel a long time ago but will never recognise Israel as a Jewish State. This bill is the best thing Netanyahu has done and it must be supported by all who are not afraid to embrace their Jewishness and who value its tenets. No wonder Livni, Anshel Pfeffer and such like are opposed to it – they are Israeli, but not necessarily Jewish.

  • Lynne T

    Thanks for the sensible analysis, Dr. Franztman.

  • Jim42

    As these Humanitarianism leftists are dreaming about being finally Dhimmi of Arabs, Send all these leftists back to Europe and Arab states where they are coming from. They will be happily fulfilled in their Communist Internationalism they are dreaming about since the 19th century ….!
    Siberia old camps would be nice places to let them settle…..?
    Absurdistan can also be a new Name for Israel?

  • Arthur Cohn

    Abbas surprised Israel by claiming that Arafat’s recognition of Israel did not mean his recognition of it as the Jewish state. This law is intended to stop that type of two-faced behavior.

  • Rabbi Menashe Bovit

    I believe it important to make a statement to the Arab/Muslim world that there will be a JEWISH state in the midst of the “dar al Islam” and that the bullying of the Arab/Muslims will not result in another Muslim state of “Palestine” and a neutral state of Israel next door that will also eventually become Muslim. However there is one aspect of the bill being discussed that troubles me. Some wish to include that halacha, Jewish religious law will inform the state’s laws. This I emphatically and entirely oppose. The last thing Israel should do is lower the State of Israel to the level of Muslim countries that enforce religious observance through state coercion. Who would decide what halacha the State’s law would be based on? Would it be the Israeli Orthodox Rabbinate that is already oppressing the rest of the population through their monopoly on marriage, divorce and conversion? Will their be a “mitzvah police” to enforce Orthodox Judaism on unwilling Jews? Israel doesn’t need Jewish Ayatollahs interfering in other peoples personal lives.

    • Jim42

      Hi Rabbi Bovit, you are truly full right and am pleased to see that some of the Jews aren’t like Ovadia Yosef and other “pseudo-muslim Jews totally 2000 years late”…. and no rabbinic talmudic wisdom and diaspora experience. Rabbis already made Their “give to Caesar what belongs to him and to God what is His” but in a better way than Christians themselves did….! Don’t let Israel move from that good way.
      The actual “Haredim” are the most dangerous part of Israel and are like the Crazy Zealots of lowering adventure and who finally made a suicidal psychotic choice.

    • GeorgeK

      Very good, Rabbi Menashe Bovit.

  • steven L

    “Israel as the Nation State of the Jewish People.’ Since the West and the Muslims DO NOT want a Jewish state, it must therefore be “racist”. That is what they intent on claiming regardless of proof, regardless of what the bill will state and regardless of facts. This is a pure form of antisemitism. Israel must create her own essence regardless of the EU or US. Both have fail in many ways. Israel is: The Light unto the Nations”, and not the other way around.

  • yussi

    If Bibi wants it,I m all for it. He is the only one who stands strong against the savages and refuses to cave to pressure from the US.

  • art

    Well said. One does not here any criticism of the Islamic republic of Mauritania, iran iraq, or any of the 52 islamic states, even though in most of them non muslims live as second class citizens at the whim of the islamic rulers One does not hear opposition to irans persecution of the Farsi or chaldeans etc. Or islamic repression of Copts, Bahai, Christians, or other groups. One hears no criticism for crosses on Greek, swiss,norwegian, swedish flags or crescents,swords or islamic verses on flags from iran,iraq,mali,Eritrea, sudan etc.Only the Jews are still not allowed to have their symbol on their flag or even their own capital

  • Olga

    Isn’t it time to clarify the damages from absurd widely given by Mr .Noam Chomsky , his anti-Semitism , fatherly support to Hamas jihadis action and even ” Democracy Now! ” following him and giving him chance to talk to world wide auditorium !
    Mr.Chomsky went so far to denounce the Hamas a victim of Israel etc , same as continues victims – victims of Israeli state politic …
    It was shocking and disgusting to watch him speak in UN , perhaps he suffers with dementia … I truly believe that his listeners were in shock too , besides the host of Democracy Now seemed to be devoted to his activities !
    He is anti- Israel maniac and anti-Israel support maniac .
    He went so far to unified himself not only with Hamas but with it killers and justify them .

  • Marshall E. Schwartz

    Not “towed this line” but “toed this line”. Need a quality copy editor?

  • NCS

    Israel was recognized as the Jewish State in 1948 per the United Nations. Arabs who have wanted to live in peace as Israeli citizens have not been denied. Why would Israelis care what the world thinks? They have stood alone before and continued to not only survive, but thrive. As for the left wing in Israel…I hope they will come together politically with the right wing and present one united front. The homeland for all Jews is and always will be Israel.

  • Elliott

    Fact: Israel exists in a sea of Islamic states, which for the most part actively support its destruction.

    Where’s the hue and cry over these Islamic states “being out of tune with Western values”??

    Talk about double standards!!

    As for Western values, surely we can learn the lesson of Iranian dissidents who, when shot in the street like dogs by the goons of one of the world’s worst serial violators of human rights, were abandoned by the the Obama administration in particular, and the West in general, whose nation states, by the way, are currently salivating at the chance of doing boffo business with the obscurantist Mullocracy in exchange for giving them access to the bomb, so they can REALLY fulfill their genocidal dream of annihilating said Jewish state.

    In other words, the West can take their values, and shove them up their collective appeasenik a**es. Then, when they grow a pair, they can come back and ask Israel how best it can go about defeating the radical Islamist forces bent on destroying not just Israel, but the West as well. PS, a lot more Christians and Muslims are being slaughtered right now in the Levant and Eastern Europe than Jews, in case anybody was watching…

    Oh, and Happy Thanksgiving 🙂

  • debra

    the law is that Israel is the nation state of the jewish people. the bible says Israel is the jewish nation.
    why do jews continuously try to walk on egg shells without breaking any. jews have always wanted to be, liked by everyone. no one is liked by everyone, but some say ‘this is the way it will be, and it is.’
    why does Israel always have to be the one to give ,give, give until there is hardly any left.
    we cannot let everyone who hates us lash us with some type of moral tripe, because ,,Israel is the most moral of nations, and just about every nation, even those who do business deals with us hold their noses as though they are better, yet they just got through murdering one hundred thousand people for that day….
    Why cant we jews get it through our heads, people, for what ever their reasons don’t particularly like us… so, yes lets give and give, but when it hurts us, our nation, our people…we must, if not for us but for the world, live…. we MUST survive…we must…
    a world without a jewish heart in it, will, make no mistake, die.

  • hillel

    I agree with what is said here. Israel is a Jewish state and Jews are a nation. The Nazis and the Arabs in particular aren’t killing Jews for their religion, it is for being a Jew just as they are Arab or others are Poles, Germans, English etc… The Palestinian state, if there ever will be one, won’t entertain Jews on their soil. They have said as much already. In Jordan Jews are not allowed to invest or buy property it is enshrined in their law. Why don’t all the hypocrites get off Israel’s back. When Solidarnosc brought down communism the first words scrolled on overpass heading into Warsaw was “Jews out” in red paint and that was when 1985 or so. This hypocrisy is being repeated in the US and worldwide. They dare to criticise Israeli democracy, they should have a closer look at theirs.

  • Israel was re-established as a Jewish State for the Jewish people. It was based on Jewish history and 4,000 years of Jewish connection and habitation of the land with 2 Jewish Temple on Temple Mount.
    Any terror, rioting and violence by the Arabs or anyone else should be punished with extreme prejudice, the perpetrators expelled and their homes destroyed, assets confiscated and put into a victims fund. Let them know, violence will not be tolerated under any circumstances. If the Police needs help, get the Army to help. If murder, mayhem and violence continues vacate the whole Arab neighborhood and don’t let them come back. anyone complicit in assisting the violence weather actual or passive must pay the price. You will see how this works. The whole world can scream and yell, they are not living in Israel.
    Tell the American leadership to mind its own business and take care of their problems at home.
    The Europeans should mind their own business too, they are the worst anti-Semites.
    They were complicit in the Holocaust and the death of over 6 million Jews.
    Israel’s citizens are entitled to live in peace and tranquility, without fear and intimidation. It is the duty and obligation of the government of Israel to quell all violence at all costs.

    YJ Draiman

  • Mickey Oberman

    Is the Catholic Vatican not a state?

    Is Saudi Arabia not a state?

    How about Qatar?

    Mickey Oberman

    • Naomi Silver

      you are missing the point, in spite of your good intention.

      • rachel robinson

        what point is he missing??