- Israel passed a bill declaring itself exclusively for the Jewish people
- Opponents of the bill argue that it ends any semblance of democracy in the country
- Proponents herald its passage as a victory for Judaism
- Both sides acknowledge the law has sacrificed Israel's democracy
The struggle to keep a balance between a Jewish national identity and a "democracy" has defined Israel’s domestic politics since its founding in 1948.
Established without a constitution, but a clear mission to serve as a homeland for Jews, human rights and democracy has always been fungible and precarious, often sacrificed in the name of protecting the Jewish identity of Israel. Many analysts and members of the global Jewish diaspora have lamented the slow waning of Israel’s democracy in the name of Jewish national security.
But on July 19th, the veneer of democracy slipped off entirely with the passage of the Nation-State Law. The law gave Jews the exclusive right of self-determination, promoted the establishment of Jewish settlements, and downgraded Arabic from an official language to having ‘special status.’
Upon its passage, Arab members of Israel’s parliament protested and were escorted out of the chamber. Thousands demonstrate in Tel Aviv and members of the Jewish diaspora condemned the law as racist. Supporters of the law, meanwhile, celebrated the legal enshrinement of Judaism above other minority groups.
Al Bawaba conducted a cursory analysis of media coverage and opinion-pieces regarding the law, and found one striking similarity between those who praised and condemned the law: both sides acknowledge the law privileges Zionist values over democracy. While some consider this an abject failure and a national humiliation, others consider it a historic victory in the ongoing battle to answer one burning question: Who is Israel for?
Some are celebrating this law as precisely the new foundation Israel needs to clarify itself as fundamentally a Zionist project and not a fully-fledged democracy.
The law then, is clear in what it accomplishes and what it imperils.
Before we explore media reactions to the law’s passage, here are the basics of the law itself.
The Nation-State Law
Debated and modified for nearly a decade, the law is a Basic Law of Israel, meaning it regards the foundational principles of Israel and requires a supermajority in parliament to overturn.
Consisting of 11 articles, the law contains several clauses that have garnered considerable controversy.
Sub-section B of Article 1 says: “The Right of national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish People.”
Article 4 declares Hebrew as the “state language” while giving Arabic the downgraded place of having a “special standing.”
Article 6, on settlements, says: “the State will act to ingather the exiles of Israel and to promote Jewish settlement in its territory and it shall allocate resources for these purposes.”
Former versions of the law also contained provisions that protect and advocate for segregation between religious groups in addition to codifying Jewish religious law in certain legal proceedings.
The law is thought to be symbolic and declarative in nature, though its supporters and opponents all expect the law to have very real policy implications in court decisions, law enforcement and in defining the political character of Israel.
All are sure it will impact the balance between Judaism and democracy in favor of Judaism. The full text of the law can be found here.
The Law’s Opponents
Many of the law’s opponents are quick to argue it will derail Israel’s attempts at maintaining a democratic political system by favoring one ethno-religious group over another.
“For 70 years, Israel has been sitting on a contradiction,” reads one column in Time, before going on to explain how the law essentially solves the contradiction by dissolving semblances of democracy from Israel.
The reliably liberal and independent Haaretz published several opinion pieces against the law, including one by an Arab who seemed to ironically support it by saying the law will productively expose the un-democratic elements of Israel, publicly displaying itself as the ethno-state it was always pretending not to be.
More directly, a Haaretz analysis piece argues that the bill officials mark the end of Israel “as a Jewish, Democratic State,” and the beginning of Israel as simply a Jewish State. “Israel wants to be 'darkness unto the nations' — to remove the mask so as to reveal the ugly face of ultranationalist Israel in all its repugnance,” the sub-headline reads.
Many newspapers whose primary audience is the global Jewish diaspora also stood staunchly against the law.
One diaspora paper, Jewish News, announced the law to a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” concealing a dark ethno-centrist message under the veil of a patriotism.
“A unilateral nationality law contradicts the vow we made to ourselves and to the world in the Declaration of Independence, which says the state is the national home of the Jewish people, but at the same time will ‘maintain full equality for all its citizens, regardless of religion, race or gender,’” the author goes on to argue.
Here, the reference to the Declaration of Independence is an important one, for it is the primary document upon which Israeli values are stated. Due to the fact that Israel does not have a constitution that officially codifies rights protections, the Declaration of Independence is used as a de facto legal document that enshrines human rights as imperative. Even in the Declaration however, the tension between democracy and sectarianism is palpable as the author implies.
Protesters against the nation-state law demonstrate in Tel Aviv (AFP/FILE)
The Forward, a diaspora paper geared towards an American Jewish audience relayed that “the bill completely ignores the Israeli Declaration of Independence, which stipulates that all citizens of the state must have equal rights.”
“Even the words “Jewish and democratic” appear nowhere in the bill,” the article adds, before citing a 2017 Democracy Index poll that show, “46.5 percent of Israelis felt that the Jewish aspect in the country was too strong, while only 26.5 percent felt that the democratic aspect was too strong.”
In a Canadian diaspora outlet, a rabbi publically expresses fear that Israel will be unable to cultivate or maintain a relationship with Jews living outside Israel. Citing Article 6 of the law, which states “the state will act to preserve the cultural, historical and religious legacy of the Jewish people among the Jewish diaspora,” the rabbi says “it’s an open question how exactly the Jewish state thinks it can accomplish that,” thanks to the law’s undemocratic features.
“My vision for the state is not one wrought up in confusion of its own significance,” says another rabbi in London, “with an inferiority complex and where rampant religious and ethno-centrism permits the establishment of mono-ethnic/religious communal settlements and even the suggestion of lesser status of minority groups.”
Many in the Jewish diaspora favor the preservation of human rights in Israel over maintaining Jewish political dominance in the country. This view is often scoffed at by conservative and right-leaning Jews living in Israel, who are more critical of international human rights doctrines and general believe the ethnic conflict between Jews and Arabs to be an existential one.
As such, they perceive laws that give Arabs and Jewish Israelis equal status as political threats.
The Law’s Supporters
Many of those who support the goals of Zionism above democracy have heralded the law is refreshingly clear in its support of Judaism.
Preserving human rights, to many commentators and supporters of the law, just isn’t as important as making sure Jews maintain first-class citizenship.
(Arutz Sheva, Jewish National Syndicate)
One article published in the Jewish National Syndicate, stunningly portrays the fragile balance between Judaism and democracy as a kind of delusion. Claiming it to be code for, “Jewish and Arab,” the author is skeptical of any attempt to be democratic in Israel.
“Jewish and democratic” is essentially used as cover to mean “Jewish and Arab,’—Arab nationalism that supports terrorism and radical Islamism, defended in an Orwellian manner in the name of “democracy,” says the author.
The law then, for this author, clarifies the symbolic nature of Israel as exclusively Jewish, thus preventing any creeping Arab political influence, which in the eyes of the author, is just another way of saying terrorism.
In other words, the only way Israel can survive as a state is if it drops the veil of ‘democracy’ and invests only in its Jewish national character.
(Arutz Sheva, Israel National News)
Another article published in Arutz Sheva strangely pushes a conspiracy theory that Israel has been the subject of a concerted, “satanic” campaign of ‘international delegitimization,” and that those who criticize the law are anti-semitic.
“The law approved by the [Israeli parliament] Knesset puts a bank on the thundering, satanic campaign of international delegitimization that, even after 70 years, calls into question the right of Israel to define itself as the nation-state of the Jewish people,” says the author.
The piece also welcomes the fact that the law describes, in crystal clear terms, that Israel is only for Jews.
In The Forward, David Hazony echoes the sentiments of Arutz Sheva and claims that detractors of the law are wrong to be so offended.
That Jews have an exclusive right to self-determination is “almost synonymous with the very idea of a Jewish state. What could a right of ‘national’ self-determination to non-Jewish communities inside Israel possibly mean other than ending the Jewish state as such?”
Hazony, however, tries to maintain that democracy, in some order is still preserved by the law: “What democratic country on earth offers national self-determination to 20 percent of its citizens?” Nobody told Hazony, apparently, that majoritarianism can easily mutate into tyranny of the majority.
Even though Hazony’s views represent a small attempt to insist Israel is still a democracy, he concedes that it may only be a democracy for Jews.
“You can freely dislike the idea of an ethnically or historically based democracy for a specific people. But know that it’s not fascism,” says Hazony. Again, Hazony seems blissfully content to understand democracy as a political system whereby a majority has all the power.
The Common Thread
A demonstrator against the nation-state bill in Tel Aviv (AFP/FILE)
In every analysis and commentary on the law, from those who adamantly oppose it to those who support it, there is a universal agreement that democracy, on some level, is sacrificed in the name of codifying Israel as a Jewish state.
The means, practically, that the law may give legal privileges to Jews that will not be enjoyed by Arabs and that Jewish settlements, now existent under a legal black hole, will become legally legitimated.
To argue that Israel is not a democracy has always been contentious. But after the passage and passionate defense of this nation-state law, the Israeli government and those who support Israel being an exclusively Jewish state, have dropped any precept that democracy is a foundational principle for the country, or is a system that informs its politics. For them, democracy has gotten in the way of demographics.
The preservation of Jews as privileged citizens and the denigration of Arabs as second-class citizens now has a legal blessing, as the end of 70-year dilemma marks the beginning of a newly empowered and terrifyingly ethno-nationalist political system that has been unleashed.
© 2000 - 2019 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)