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Does new law tilt Israel away from its democratic values?

Why We Wrote This

In the decades since Israel's creation, the nation's leaders have sought to preserve a balance between what one author calls its "two nonnegotiable identities," as a Jewish, but also democratic, state. A new law, say critics, has upset that balance.

Olivier Fitoussi/AP
Knesset member Oren Hazan takes a selfie with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, and other parliamentarians in Jerusalem, July 19, 2018, after passage of a contentious bill defining the country as the nation-state of the Jewish people.

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The narrow passage last week in Israel of a pseudoconstitutional amendment has brought the decades-long tension between the nation as a democracy and as a Jewish state to a full boil. The so-called Basic Law defines the country as the nation-state of the Jewish people. Its supporters on the Israeli right see it as a long overdue recognition of a Jewish right to self-determination. Its detractors, including Israeli Jews and Arabs and some mainstream US Jewish groups, see it as harmful for omitting any mention of democracy or minority rights. Mohammed Dawarshe is an Arab activist who works for coexistence with Israeli Jews. “This is a downgrading,” he says. “I considered myself as a citizen, and that Israel is my state. Today the state says to me, ‘I am not your state.’ ” Author Yossi Klein Halevi says the basic law is provocative and lacks sensitivity to Arab citizens. “Israel is based on two nonnegotiable identities,’’ he says. “The homeland of all Jews, whether or not they are citizens of Israel, and it’s the state of all its citizens, whether or not they are Jews.”

The reaction to Israel’s defining new law, akin to a constitutional amendment, could not have been more starkly divided.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who heads a coalition government considered to be the most right-wing in Israel’s history, called the newly minted law a “landmark,” and posed for a celebratory selfie in the parliamentary chamber. Elsewhere in the building, Israeli-Arab lawmakers tore copies of the legislation to shreds.

The split-screen reaction at the Knesset last Thursday followed immediately after the parliament narrowly passed legislation that enshrined the state of Israel as an exclusively Jewish national project.

Hailed by supporters as long overdue, and derided by detractors as harmful or unnecessary at best, the legislation brings the decades-long tension between Israel as a democracy and as a Jewish state to a full boil.

Dubbed, “Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People,” the legislation elevates the status of Hebrew over Arabic, encourages “Jewish settlement,” and omits any reference to democracy or equality for Israel’s Arab minority, who are 20 percent of the population.

 

Olivier Fitoussi/AP
A Knesset usher removes Jamal Zahalka, an Israeli Arab member of the Knesset representing the Balad party, who was protesting the passage of the nation-state bill, in Jerusalem July 19, 2018. Opponents and rights groups have criticized the legislation, warning that it will sideline minorities such as the country's Arabs.

“This is a stab in the back,’’ says Kamal Adwan, editor of “Hona,” a newspaper of the Druze community, which, unlike most Israeli Arab groups, sends its high school graduates to serve in the Israeli army.

“This law doesn’t give equality to citizens of the country, and classifies them according to different levels of citizenship,” he says. “The Druze community has always considered itself part of the state. Suddenly, it discovers it’s a second-class citizen.”

Mohammed Dawarshe, an Arab activist who works for co-existence with Israeli Jews, says he learned about democracy and equal rights in political science courses at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, adding that the nation-state bill upends those notions.

“This is a downgrading. I considered myself as a citizen, and that Israel is my state,’’ he said. “Today the state says to me, ‘I am not your state.’ I feel stateless, a political orphan who has buried his political father. It’s a sad development for me and my community.”

At first glance, the law seemingly states the obvious: It enshrines the country’s national anthem, establishes the Star of David banner with blue and white as Israel’s official flag, and reaffirms Israel’s Law of Return granting Jews outside of Israel automatic citizenship if they immigrate.

Dan Balilty/AP
Israeli soldiers stand during the 'Israeli Christians Recruitment Forum' in Nazareth, Dec. 22, 2013. Army service in Israel is mandatory for most Jews. Druze Arab leaders signed up their community for army service in the 1950s, and Druze men have been conscripted ever since, while Muslims and Christians are not required to serve.

But there are some new wrinkles that many say formalize a hierarchy between Jews and Arabs. The law declares that the “right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.” Hebrew is recognized as the language of the state while Arabic, which had been an official language alongside Hebrew since the years preceding Israel’s establishment, is designated as a language with a special status. Another clause embraces “Jewish settlement” as a “national value” – this was watered down from a previous version that endorsed segregated towns.

The omissions of the law are significant as well, say critics. The bill makes no mention of the rights of the country’s Arab minority, nor does it discuss the principle of equality, or refer to Israel’s democratic system of government. The influence of the legislation is all the more potent because of its status as one of 15 “basic laws” that establish constitutional government institutions and legal values.

Though the law has little immediate practical impact, Israeli critics say it will poison already-strained relations between Arabs and Jews, and potentially inspire undemocratic laws and exclusivist judicial rulings in the future.

'What do we need this for?'

“Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people without this law, and this is accepted by the countries of the world; so what do we need this for?” says Yedidia Stern, a law professor at Bar-Ilan University. “Supreme Court judges of the next generation will be able to say that equality isn’t secured [constitutionally] on the highest level, whereas the Jewish character is secured on the highest level.”

Tzipi Livni, a former Israeli foreign minister whose political career started in Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party, tweeted that passage of the law has effectively made the notion of “democracy” into a profanity.

The same concern underpinned pointed statements by some mainstream US Jewish groups that criticized the bill. The American Jewish Committee (AJC) said it was “deeply disappointed” by the parliament’s passage of the law and said it was “unnecessary.” The law “puts at risk” Israeli efforts to build a democracy, the AJC said.

“There is a prevailing sense that the bill short-changed democratic values, and there is a fear it will harm Jewish-Arab relations, which American Jewry is deeply invested in,’’ wrote Scott Lasensky, a former US diplomat during the Obama administration. “On top of that, and more tactically, there is a general sense that the bill will make it more challenging to defend Israel.”

US Jewish groups also believe the law could be interpreted to formalize discrimination by Israel’s Orthodox religious establishment against liberal Jewish streams.

Jewish self-determination

From the moment of the nation’s founding, Israelis have struggled to strike a balance between two seemingly contradictory values: the country’s raison d’être as a homeland for the Jews and an aspiration to a democracy that ensures equal rights to all its citizens. Those values are enumerated in Israel’s Declaration of Independence from 1948, but they were never codified in a formal constitution.

Avraham Diskin, a professor of political science at Hebrew University and a longtime proponent of the bill, says the legislation is necessary to establish a right to self-determination for Jews. While values of democracy, equality, and human rights are enshrined in other Israeli basic laws, like “Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty,” the Jewish character of the country had been ignored, he says.

“The only people in the world who are denied the right of self-determination are the Jewish people, even if the Jewish people are willing to recognize the rights of the Palestinian people to self-determination,’’ Professor Diskin says. The nation-state basic law was also necessary to serve as a judicial counterweight to basic laws that emphasize democracy and human rights.

During the debate before the bill’s passage, one of its main sponsors, Avi Dichter, a member of the Likud and chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, offered a more provocative defense, saying the legislation’s purpose is to snuff out the demands of Arab citizens to establish a “state of all its citizens.’’ That concept has become a bane of the Israeli right wing because it purportedly would denude Israel of a Jewish character.

“You weren’t here before us, and you won’t remain here after us. All you can do is to live as a national minority among us,’’ said Dichter in the plenum, addressing Arab colleagues. “We are passing this bill in order to avoid even a scrap of thought or effort, to turn Israel into a state of all its citizens.’’

Global trend

Observers said the law, which had passed through numerous iterations and versions over nearly a decade, reflects Netanyahu’s demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state in peace negotiations. Israeli right-wingers complain that if the international community supports a Palestinian state, then it should recognize Israel as a state of the Jewish people.

According to some critics, the new basic law is part of an international trend of ascendant nativist nationalist forces in both Europe and the US that seek to curtail some of the universalist political traditions in their respective countries. Moreover, with the solid backing of the Trump administration, Israel’s government has felt it had more latitude to enact such nationalist reforms.

“We are in a struggle like many other countries to preserve our democratic culture,’’ says Yossi Klein Halevi, author of the book “Letter to My Palestinian Neighbor” and a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Although Israel’s democracy hasn’t been dismantled, Mr. Halevi says, the basic law is provocative and lacks sensitivity to Arab citizens.

“Israel is based on two non-negotiable identities,’’ he says. “The homeland of all Jews, whether or not they are citizens of Israel, and it’s the state of all its citizens, whether or not they are Jews.

“Anything that upsets that balance, in either direction, is a threat to Israel.”

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