Nation-state bill strikes blow to minorities

Israel is the national home of the Jewish people, and should remain so. But is it necessary today to define the State of Israel as a Jewish nation-state? After all, exactly what sort of state was established in 1948? The Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel clearly states that Israel is the national home of the Jewish people.

Many laws, such as the Law of Return and the Flag, Emblem, and National Anthem Law, demonstrate this clearly. The phrase “Jewish and democratic state” appears in the Basic Laws: “Human Dignity and Liberty” and “Freedom of Occupation,” among other places. Therefore, there is absolutely no need to “anchor” or “strengthen” Israel’s status as a Jewish nation-state. Any researcher examining Israel’s laws from the outside with no prior knowledge would conclude that this was the case, and that this status is in no way in jeopardy.

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So the question arises as to whether the nation-state bill is essentially just a declaration, and what – if any – problems does it generate? 

The stated purpose of the bill, at least according to some of its supporters, is to override the “constitutional revolution” of 1992 and erode the legal interpretation of the Supreme Court that the right to equality applies to non-Jews as well. A law of this sort, which is not balanced by an acknowledgment of absolute equal rights for minorities (in contrast with the balance expressed in the Declaration of Independence), is a law that seeks to alter the status quo rather than safeguard it. The bill clearly has the potential to turn into a “deal-breaker,” jeopardizing the balance between Israel’s identity as the Jewish national home and its identity as a democracy. No other nation-state defines itself in such a way, with no mention of democracy or minority rights.

Clearly, the bill’s real goal is to sabotage the existing ruling of the Supreme Court, according to which Israel’s status as a nation-state does not imply that Jewish citizens have privileges which other citizens do not. There is no better proof for this than the explicit opposition to including the right to equality in the bill.

In addition, a particularly infuriating amendment was added just last week to a clause in the original bill saying, “The state will act to strengthen the connection between Israel and Diaspora Jewry (both in the Diaspora and in Israel).” In light of the fear of the ultra-Orthodox political parties that this clause would be “exploited” in order to grant recognition to non-Orthodox Jewish communities within Israel, the wording was changed to read, “The state will act in the Diaspora to strengthen the connection between Israel and Diaspora Jewry.” This is a clear reference to what goes on, for example, in the Western Wall plaza, and with regard to the conversion issue. Such an amendment in a bill that is supposed to anchor Israel’s status as the national home of all Jews is downright embarrassing, and indeed was met with harsh criticism from Jewish communities worldwide, and for good reason.

If the principle of Israel as a Jewish nation-state is to be fortified and safeguarded, this should be done in the preamble to a constitution (which as of yet, does not exist) or in a basic law that is just and reflects a clear balance between the Jewish and democratic components of Israel’s identity. It should follow the example of the Declaration of Independence, which recognized “complete equality of social and political rights for all non-Jews,” and explicitly called upon the Arab minority “to participate in the building of the state on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions.”

The fact that the bill equates a “Jewish nation-state” with a state that refuses to recognize the equality of members of minority groups who are its citizens also poses a threat to the internal Israeli discourse, already rife with exclusion and hatred of minorities.
Furthermore, it is detrimental to Israel’s fight against the international delegitimization campaign being waged against it. This bill is liable to add fuel to the fire of the accusations against Israel and take one more step toward the erosion of its status as a democracy.

The writer is a researcher and head of the Defending Democratic Values program at the Israel Democracy Institute.