Is Israel on the road to apartheid?
Last Thursday the Knesset passed a law that declared Israel to be the “national home of the Jewish people.” The law, which its backers touted as an expression of Israel’s national identity as a Jewish and democratic state, was passed by a bare majority of 62-55, hardly a strong vote of confidence.
This is not just a regular law passed by the Knesset. It is a hok yesod, a basic, foundational category of Israeli law, that serves as a constitution-in-formation.
The law defines Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people,” not of its citizens, some 20 percent of whom are not Jewish. It says that the right to national self-determination rests solely with the Jewish people. Non-Jewish citizens are guaranteed individual rights while Jewish citizens have collective rights.
Arabic loses its status as an official language and becomes a language with “special status”.
Israel views Jewish settlement as a “national value.” The law refers only to Jewish settlements.
Daniel Sokatch, CEO of the New Israel Fund, wrote recently that “because Israel has no constitutional provision that guarantees citizens equal protection under the law, a basic law legitimizing discrimination lays the groundwork to radically change Israeli society.” Consider the effect this law will have on the majority of Israel’s non-Jewish citizens (Muslim, Druze, Christian, and Circassian). The primary message to them is that they are not equal to Jewish citizens. Even Israel’s Druze minority, who serve with honor alongside their Jewish fellow soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces, feel discriminated against by this law. Bahij Mansour, Israel’s ambassador to the Dominican Republic and a Druze citizen of Israel, wrote, “How does the state of Israel expect me, a diplomat representing it around the world, a member of the Druze community, to explain or defend this discriminatory law? There is no effective tool to explain such a bill, which omits mention of equality and democracy, that ignores minorities and their language, which conflicts even with Jewish values.
Israel’s Declaration of Independence says the country “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.” As a basic law, the new law will supersede the values expressed in the Declaration of Independence, which place equal weight on the Jewish and democratic aspects in defining the character of the state that was established in 1948.
According to the Israel Association for Civil Rights (ACRI), this subordination of democratic to Jewish poses a grave danger to the future of democratic values and minority rights. On the issue of Arabic, the ACRI position is that lowering the status of the language of Arab speakers is “a violation of the basic rights of a national native minority in Israel.” Judging from the angry reaction of Arab Knesset members to the new law, non-Jewish citizens will feel even further alienated from the majority Jewish population. Arab-Jewish relations, always tense, will be damaged even further.
The bottom line: This law is unnecessary because it has been clear to all, especially to non-Jewish citizens of Israel, that Israel is a Jewish state. Its language, laws, Sabbath and festivals, its anthem, flag, and major institutions, all attest to the Jewish character of the state. The only conclusion that can be drawn from the passage of this law by the most right-wing government in Israel’s history is that the intent of the law is to further alienate the Arab/Palestinian citizens of Israel from the state and to “provide a legal basis to discrimination,” as Sokatch says.
Why should diaspora Jews be concerned? First, because many of us care deeply about Israel and its democracy. We are deeply proud that Israel has remained a strong democracy in a region of autocracies and monarchies. But this law does seriously weaken the state’s democratic character.
The law already has been sharply criticized by diaspora Jewish leaders, including Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism. “The damage that will be done by this new Nation-State law to the legitimacy of the Zionist vision and to the values of the state of Israel as a democratic — and Jewish — nation is enormous,” Jacobs wrote. The American Jewish Committee said that it was “deeply disappointed” and criticized another clause that says Israel views Jewish settlement as a national value. AJC sees this as a “euphemism for the originally proposed endorsement of support for Jewish-only communities.”
Jacobs added: “There are millions of us who are united in our opposition to this new law… [we are determined] to fight for an Israel that will be true to its own founding declaration of equality for all, with freedom to worship and to live with true hope for the future.”
One additional clause should be of some concern to diaspora Jews: “The state will act to preserve the cultural, historical, and religious legacy of the Jewish people among the Jewish diaspora.” Under pressure from ultra-Orthodox political parties, the clause “among the Jewish diaspora” was added to ensure that the law not be used to promote Jewish religious pluralism in Israel. It also could have been interpreted as the recognition of liberal Judaism in both the diaspora and in Israel. This could affect future High Court rulings on conversion, marriage, and prayer at the Western Wall.
One final example of the impact that this law will have in Israel: Hand in Hand, which promotes Arab-Jewish cooperative education, released this statement: “…the Nation-State law will entrench inequality between Jews and Arabs in Israel. It provides grounds for supporting Jewish-only communities and discrimination against Arabs. To all of you who believe that Israel should be a safe and welcoming place for all citizens — we need you with us, now more than ever.”
Finally, Amir Fuchs of the Israel Democracy Institute said that the law resembles the preamble of an as-yet unwritten Constitution and that “there is no (democratic) country in the world that has not specifically enumerated the right of equality in its constitution.” What is missing, according to Fuchs, is “a clear statement that the state will have equal rights for all its citizens.” The tipping point to what effect the law could have on the nature of Israel will be in close Supreme Court decisions where the “Jewish” element could take precedence over the “democratic” element.