Israel has no constitution.
Instead, as is the case in Germany and elsewhere, it has a series of “basic laws,” which have much the same status as constitutional dicta. Legislation that runs contrary to a basic law is invalid.
Legislation now before the Knesset would create a new basic law that would undermine the equality of non-Jewish citizens and impose halachic standards on new legislation, as well as on judicial appointments and decisions.
The proposed bill – Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People – was introduced by the governing coalition’s Knesset chairman, Yariv Levin, a prominent member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party. Its intent, to use Levin’s own word, is to “Judaize” the Land of Israel, meaning all the land, from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River.
If adopted, among other things, Israel’s courts would have to give priority to the state’s Jewish identity in dealing with issues of religion and state. Judicial appointments would have to be made based on a candidate’s understanding of Jewish law.
Because “Jewish law” is de facto defined as a charedi understanding of Jewish law, we can only imagine how the courts would deal with such issues as conversion and the challenges posed by the Women of the Wall. (“Charedi,” it must be said, is not a euphemism for “Orthodox,” and it should never be interpreted that way.)
Another provision would obligate the state to allocate resources to build up the national infrastructure in the Land of Israel, including the administered territories, because it is “the historic homeland of the Jewish People and the place in which the State of Israel was established.” Non-Jewish construction would be allowed, but at the discretion of the state, not as its obligation.
Hebrew would be made the only official language, although the proposed Basic Law would allow the state to grant secondary status to two other languages, presumably English and Arabic.
In explaining his bill, Levin wrote, “Despite the widespread agreement among the public in Israel concerning the definition of the State of Israel as a Jewish state, the characteristics of the State of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people have never been anchored in the country’s basic lawsâ€¦. The proposed law emphasizes the traditional and historical connection between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel, and the national rights granted to it as expressed in the Declaration of Independence.”
An opposition member of Knesset sees danger lurking here. Labor Party MK Avishay Braverman said, in an interview on Israel Radio, “When [Israel’s first prime minister] David Ben-Gurion founded the country, it was based on two principles – a Jewish and a democratic state. What is happening here is the annexation of Judea and Samaria, and the deterioration of democracy.”
It should go without saying that the Jewish state must be governed by Jewish values. Yet, as the history of Israel from biblical times attests, halachah is not always consistent with how the state should be governed. From our earliest days, it was recognized that a secular law – the “king’s law” – was needed to govern society. The king’s law accepted the values embodied in Jewish law, but that did not necessarily following its dictates.
One reason for this may be that Jewish law is open to interpretation. May a woman wear a tallit during prayer, or put on t’fillin, or be called to the Torah? Both the Torah and the Talmud say yes to all three, but ancient views dismissed these practices early on, and modern authorities are sharply divided over them. Which “halachah” is a Jewish court supposed to follow? The king’s law obviates that conundrum.
It is a Torah-bound requirement to settle all of the Land of Israel. It is a fact of 21st century life that Israel cannot live in peace with its neighbors if it does so, especially if a basic law requires continued building. Should halachah trump the king’s law, knowing that the result would be greater violence and threat to life?
If Jewish law is to have binding effect, it also must conform to the dictates of Torah. In this regard, one law, thrice repeated, would seem to stand out in opposition to Levin’s proposal. States Leviticus 24:22, “You shall have one law for stranger and citizen alike: for I the Lord am your God.” Similar wording appears in Numbers 9:14 (“there shall be one law for you, whether stranger or citizen of the country”) and Numbers 15:15 (“there shall be one law for you and for the resident stranger; it shall be a law for all time throughout the ages; you and the stranger shall be alike before the Lord”).
There should be a basic law defining the nature and character of the Jewish state. Levin’s proposal is not that law.