AUGUST 2, 2018, JERUSALEM – Early in the morning of July 19, Israel’s Knesset, following a session lasting late into the night, passed a piece of legislation that left the country’s right-wingers happy, left-wingers and Arabs unhappy, and the rest of the population scratching its head.
The Nation-State Law doesn’t change much other than the official status of the Arabic language. Aside from that, just about everything it mentions has long been grounded in law or at least the status quo, most importantly:
• Israel is the historical homeland of the Jews and their current national home, and only Jews have the right to self-determination there.
• The country is open for Jewish immigration.
• A united Jerusalem is Israel’s capital.
• The official language of the country is Hebrew.
• Jewish settlement is a “national value” and is to be encouraged.
The last bullet point reflects a clause modified at the last moment. The previous wording elicited major concern for Israel’s standing in the world, as it sought to anchor in law the right for communities to deny others the ability to move in. Most obviously, this was aimed at Arabs seeking to leave their crowded towns and villages for more pastoral – and better planned – communities (although it could just as well have applied to secular Jews versus religious Jews, and vice versa).
The rest of the law addresses the country’s name and symbols; its official calendar (Hebrew, but with the Gregorian calendar alongside); its national holidays and official day of rest (Shabbat, although non-Jews can have a day of rest according to their own beliefs); and its responsibilities toward Jews abroad.
Regarding that last point, there is wording that some Zionist Jews in the Diaspora might find troubling: When it comes to relations with their communities, the law calls on Israel to “act within the Diaspora” rather than allow the Diaspora to have a say in Israeli affairs.
This is a clear sop to the religious parties, especially those of the ultra-Orthodox, who have made it almost their raison d’être to fend off challenges from non-Orthodox Jews, especially those living abroad, when it comes to policies defining religious life in Israel. What’s more, critics complain that the law’s wording boosts Jewish values at the expense of democracy to the point where they share a roughly equal status.
Finally, the new law is a Basic Law.
Israel has no constitution or bill of rights, and its Basic Laws fill the gap. What sets them apart is that, unlike ordinary laws, which require only a simple majority of those present and voting to be amended, amending a Basic Law requires the votes of 61 Knesset members, a simple majority of the entire 120-seat legislature.
This might not sound like much, so it’s important to remember that often governing coalitions such as that of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu control only a scant majority of seats. The Nation-State Bill became law by a vote of just 62 to 55, with two abstentions.
The current coalition – arguably the farthest right in the country’s history – has been making a go at changing the very identity of Israel from a country of relative tolerance to one that tolerates little in the way of challenges to its authority and status as a state for the Jewish people. Some of these moves are amenable to most Jewish Israelis, even to many who identify politically as left of center. After all, what is Israel if not a state for the Jews?
Yet Netanyahu, usually through coalition surrogates, also has been seeking to chip away at the powers of the country’s top court, viewing it as too meddlesome. (These efforts have been getting mixed reviews from the citizenry.) Experts say that Basic Laws constrain the court and that the latest could affect judicial interpretations and even remove roadblocks from future legislation whose legality might be seen as questionable.
What bothers most of the law’s critics, though, is what does not appear in the Nation-State Law. For example, there is no mention of the word “democracy,” a term that figures prominently in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. Even more worrisome to many, there is no mention of “equality,” something that legal experts and human rights groups have seized upon as proof that the law is deeply problematic.
Dr. Amir Fuchs, who leads the Defending Democratic Values Program at the Israel Democracy Institute, says that “there is no country in the world that has not specifically enumerated the right of equality in its constitution – therefore, it is difficult to understand why the authors of this bill insist not to include this important value. The right to equality is embedded in the values mentioned in the Declaration of Independence, which has been the definitive document framing the character of the State of Israel for the past 70 years.”
Perhaps proving that critics of the Nation-State Law are right, one of its proponents, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who heads the far-right Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) party, last week expressed misgivings, saying it could deprive the country’s Druze community of some of its rights.
Of all Israel’s non-Jewish communities, the Druze have generally been the most loyal to the state. For example, it volunteered its sons for mandatory army duty back in the 1950s. Yet in recent years, younger Druze have been complaining that they are treated as second-class citizens, mostly in terms of allocations to their towns and villages, something that could severely strain this loyalty. Their leaders have already turned to the top court to seek redress over the law.
Netanyahu insists that the rights of minorities and individuals will continue to be protected, yet during an event a week before the law was enacted, he stated loudly that “the majority has rights too, and the majority rules.” When the Knesset actually voted, many of its Arab members tore up copies of the Nation-State Bill; some were so agitated that they had to be escorted from the assembly.
To those who say this is the end of Israeli democracy, the law changes little of what’s already on the ground. To those who say the law was necessary, it wasn’t. With birth rates having evened out, demographers say the proportion of the country’s non-Jewish citizens will remain roughly the same, at about 20 percent of the population.
Where the law would really show its teeth is if Israel annexes any or all of the West Bank. Right now, there is zero threat to the Jewish majority among Israeli citizens, but with the West Bank and its millions of Palestinians thrown into the mix, the Arab-Jewish ratio would be much closer to 50-50.
Although annexation was never clearly enunciated during the bill’s preparation, it is something else to keep in mind moving forward, especially with Netanyahu, Bennett, and others pulling for just that.
Lawrence Rifkin is a Jerusalem-based journalist.