An Opposing View on Israel’s Nation-State Law
Last week, the Israeli Knesset passed a new Basic Law that proclaims Israel “the historical homeland of the Jewish people in which the State of Israel was established” and states that “the right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people,” as well as “Jerusalem, complete and united, is the capital of Israel.”
On the surface, there is not much new in this law. Israel has been practicing its provisions for many years. Nevertheless, the law betrays Israel’s foundational document — its Declaration of Independence. As a result, the law will severely cripple Israel’s democracy.
The argument that the new law does not tamper with Israel’s democracy and equality among all of its citizens regardless of their cultural, racial, or religious orientation is false, misleading, and ultimately self-defeating.
The new law further limits immigration to Israel to Jews only, indirectly relegating Israeli-Arabs to second class citizens. In my view, it also allows discrimination against non-Jews in allocating resources for housing and segregated communities.
The law will serve as a recipe for the continuing conflict with the Palestinians at large, while further diminishing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and will have an adverse effect on future relations between Israel and the Western democracies.
Furthermore, this law officially embraces revisionist Zionism that focuses exclusively on the right of the Jews to the land of Palestine as a Jewish state, and discards the mainstream of Israeli Jews who are appalled by the scene of Palestinian oppression in the territories.
Finally, the law will alarmingly increase the alienation of world Jewry (largely Reform Jews) from Israel, and could unravel the historic bond between all Jews around the world, regardless of their places of residence. To be sure, it was a sad day for Israel and will be remembered in infamy.
Although the intention of the law is to perpetuate the Jewish national identity of the state, such a law will bring Israel ever closer to becoming a pariah if not an apartheid state, even though the law itself does not separate legal norms applying to Jews and non-Jews.
The Netanyahu government’s concerns over the fast-growing population of Israeli-Arabs and the call for a one-state solution — which is gaining traction, especially because Israel does not want to relinquish the West Bank — precipitated the push for such a law, however incongruous and counterproductive it may be.
That said, Israel has every right to maintain the Jewish national identity of the state, as it was envisioned by its founders and recognized as such by the partition plan of the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181 in 1947. But then, the only way that Israel can legitimately maintain its Jewish identity is through a sustainable Jewish majority, not through discriminatory laws and racist policies.
To sustain such a majority, Israel relies on a growing birth rate and increasing immigration of Jews, especially from the US. The drawback, however, is that the Palestinians’ birth rate is equal to Israel and higher in the territories, and a substantial number of Israelis are emigrating from Israel — largely because of the continuing conflict with the Palestinians — which offsets the number of immigrants to Israel, just as the pool of potential new immigrants from the West is drying out.
The last category is of special concern. Young American Jews have already been disillusioned with Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians; this law adds another layer of disgust as they view it as even more discriminatory and racist. I was told by some young American Jews that they were seriously considering immigrating to Israel, but have decided not to because the appeal of relocating to a country that they once viewed as progressive, innovative, and challenging no longer resonates. They lament the immoral and continuing occupation, and do not want to be inducted into the army simply to be trained to kill and enforce an occupation.
Immigration to Israel is central to sustaining the Jewish majority and thereby the identity of the state. To encourage Jews to flock to Israel’s shores, the government must reach an agreement with the Palestinians and end the occupation. There is no law or program that will entice young Jews to immigrate to Israel and encourage Israelis who left the country to return, other than ending the bloodshed and normalizing relations with the Palestinians.
This repugnant new law will not only discriminate against non-Jews, but further deepen the divide between the liberally enlightened Jew who believes in equality and human rights to all citizens of the state, and those who want to preserve the Jewish exclusiveness of the country. They ignore the fact that such division will be at the expense of destroying the Jews’ bond with one another, both among Israelis and between Israelis and their counterparts in the Jewish diaspora.
Netanyahu, Lieberman, Bennett, Shaked, and many others should ask themselves the simple question: what kind of a nation should Israel be in 10, 15, or 20 years from now? Do they want to continue to build on Israel’s remarkable achievements in science, technology, medicine, and just about every field of human endeavor, and make Israel a formidable and respected power embraced by its friends and envied by its enemies?
Or do they want a state marred by ruthless occupation, hated and violently resisted by its nemeses, resented by its friends, and scorned by fellow Jews who no longer see it as representative of their values?
This deplorable new law forfeits the Jews’ dream of having a real democratic state in which they take pride; a just and benevolent state at peace with itself and its neighbors; a state the world would admire for its magnificent achievements and contribution to the betterment of humankind.
This is not a pipe dream; Israel could have become such a state. It has all the human and material resources and the power to travel the path of peace with confidence, had it not been for its corrupt leaders who have long since lost the vision of Israel’s founders, who dreamed about such a home with pride.
Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.