Considering the enormous fuss it created within Israel and abroad, you’d have thought the law passed this week by Israel’s Knesset fundamentally changed the nature of the state. But although some of the country’s critics as well as Israelis and Jews who oppose the decision to enact a “nation state” law are acting as if it has created earth-shaking change, that isn’t the case.
The law changes virtually nothing about life in Israel because Israel has, from the moment it was born, been a Jewish state. Indeed, when David Ben-Gurion, the country’s first prime minister, read the country’s Declaration of Independence in Tel Aviv on May 14, 1948, he said that those assembled to ratify the document “hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in the land of Israel, to be known as the state of Israel.”
While its critics have described the passage of the new law as a provocation or, at best, unnecessary, it is an enunciation of the basic principles on which Israel was founded. As Israel is a country without a written constitution, the passage of “basic laws” such as this one serves as the outline for the ongoing construction of such a document. The Jewish state law is therefore merely a statement of national purpose rather than legislation that purports to alter the existing legal structure of Israel’s government.
The problem is that, 70 years after its founding, the fundamental principles that led to Israel’s creation are still controversial among those who oppose its existence. Even some Israelis and Diaspora Jews opposed the passage of the law, not so much because they disagreed with anything in it but because they fear that articulating these principles in this fashion will further alienate Palestinians, the Arab minority inside Israel, the international community, and even young Jews in the United States who are wavering in their support for Israel.
Those critics are probably right that the law will put some more wind in the sails of anti-Zionists who continue to spread the smear that Israel is an “apartheid state.” But the problem with this argument is that the charges made against Israel as a racist state were already being spread before this bill was signed into law. Those who have a problem with an avowedly Jewish state didn’t need this law to be against Israel’s existence.
Regardless of whether the law needed to be passed now or, as is the case, its enactment had more to do with the internal politics of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s center-right governing coalition, the charges of racism or apartheid are still false. Unlike every other nation in the region, Israel remains a democracy, in which all of its citizens have equal rights under the law. These include voting rights and representation in the country’s parliament, the Knesset. Many Arabs and minorities serve in government, particularly in judicial and diplomatic posts.
The idea of a country that is the patrimony of an ethno-religious community strikes some in the West as inherently racist. But Israel is hardly alone in seeing in seeing itself as a nation whose primary purpose is to allow one people to express their national identity.
While the country’s founding document and other basic laws guarantee equal rights for all, the purpose for which Israel was created was to give expression to the right of the Jews to self-determination in their ancient homeland. In that sense, Jews have group rights in Israel while non-Jewish minorities for the most part have only individual rights.
As in other countries where large national minority communities exist, that creates difficulties — in this case, for the 20 percent of the country that is not Jewish. Like all other countries, including democracies, Israel isn’t perfect. But the tension that stems from this situation has been exacerbated by, more than anything else, the fact that their Arab and Muslim neighbors have been seeking to destroy Israel since the day of its birth. In seven decades, Israel has grown from being an impoverished Third World state struggling to house Holocaust survivors and those Jews who were forced to flee their homes in the Arab world. Israel is now a regional superpower with a “start-up nation” First World economy. Nonetheless, it has been at war every day of its existence.
The idea of a country that is not solely the state of its citizens but the patrimony of an ethno-religious community strikes some in the West as inherently racist. But Israel is hardly alone in seeing in seeing itself as a nation whose primary purpose is to allow one people to express their national identity.
The constitutions of many other countries make clear that they exist as vehicles for a national idea in this same manner. Spain is one such example. Spanish nationality is given priority over that of ethnic minorities such as the Basques or the Catalans. The same is true of the Baltic states, all of which have substantial Russian minorities who must accept that Estonian, Lithuanian, and Latvian language and culture are the keystones of national identity. Israel is no more an apartheid state than any of those countries.
The only thing that is really unique about Israel’s insistence that it is a Jewish state is that it is the only one on a planet with dozens of states that are avowedly Muslim, Christian, or associated with another faith. Indeed, according to the Pew Research Center in October 2017, some 27 nations designate Islam as their official state religion, while 13 (including nine in Europe) do the same for Christianity. Another 40 nations give preferred or favored status to a particular faith.
There is nothing inherently repulsive about, or redolent of apartheid in, a law that establishes national symbols: a flag with a blue Star of David, and a national anthem, “Hatikva,” which speaks of the 2,000-year-old “hope” of the Jews to “to be a free people” in “the land of Zion and Jerusalem.” Nor is it apartheid to use the Hebrew calendar or to state the nation’s interest in ensuring the safety of Jews throughout the world.
Or at least there is nothing offensive unless you happen to think the Jews deserve to be denied basic rights of settlement, sovereignty, and self-defense in their own country — rights that no one would think of denying to anyone else. That is why such anti-Zionist bias is indistinguishable from anti-Semitism.
As for other details of the law that critics have harped on, here again, a closer look reveals nothing that would in any other context be controversial. Stating that Israel’s national language is Hebrew while recognizing Arabic’s special status is no more discriminatory than the priority given to Spanish throughout Spain.
Nor is the law’s recognition of the right to Jewish settlement a barrier to peace, since the purpose of Zionism has always been to defend the right of Jews to resettle their ancient homeland, to enable the “ingathering of the exiles” mentioned in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. That right was also in the terms of the League of Nations’ Mandate for Palestine, in which Britain’s obligation to encourage “close settlement” of the country by Jews was clearly specified.
The desire of so many to deny Israel the right to express its Jewish identity is exactly why a majority of the Knesset felt it necessary to remind the world that their country is and will always remain the nation-state of the Jewish people.
The State of Israel in fact already treated all these items as both custom and law before the recent bill was passed. But they remain points of contention because the country’s foes — including a BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) movement dedicated to its destruction — continue to argue against the existence of a Jewish state. That opposition against its existence was the point of the “marches of return” staged by Hamas in Gaza this past spring.
Israel could have gotten along very well without a Jewish-state law and remained every bit as Jewish as it will be now. The internal political wrangling of Netanyahu’s coalition notwithstanding, the reason why so many Israelis believed that such a law was necessary has more to do with the refusal of the Palestinians and so many of their foreign enablers to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter how its borders were drawn as a condition of peace.
The new law may not help burnish Israel’s image among Americans and others who have no sympathy for expressions of nationalism, no matter how closely tied they might be to a nation that is the only democracy in the Middle East or the rights of a small people that suffered exile and persecution for two millennia. But the desire of so many to deny Israel the right to express its Jewish identity is exactly why a majority of the Knesset felt it necessary to remind the world that their country is and will always remain the nation-state of the Jewish people. That is a right that fellow democracies and decent people everywhere should support.