What should have been a relatively minor event in the annals of Israeli legislative history has turned into one of the most spoken of stories in international media. Israel’s Knesset (parliament) voted into law the bill entitled “Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People” on July 19. The law was codified as a Basic Law within the Israeli legal system: Constitutional-type rules that can only be changed with a supermajority of the Knesset.
The passing of the Nation-State law immediately attracted international attention. In the approximately two weeks since its passing, the law has been analyzed by leading American outlets, commented on by media in the most far flung regions of the world, and condemned by Israel’s neighbors.
So what is Israel’s Nation-State Law? Why is it so controversial? And, more importantly, why should it matter to anyone?
Let’s try to answer as many of these questions as we can.
Long Time in the Making
The Nation State law has been under review by Israeli legislatures for years. It was back in August 2011 that the original proposal was introduced by 39 Knesset members along with the chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and former intelligence chief Avi Dichter.
Since the penning of the first draft, several versions have been put up for consideration by both the right and left of the political spectrum. The discussion around the law’s wording essentially evolved around one central balancing act. How much should the legislation emphasize a “nationalist” tone? Should issues of humanism and the ethnic spectrum of Israel be addressed inside the text as well?
In the final draft, the “hardliners” won out. Suggestions to include phrases like “equality” and “all citizens” were dismissed.
So what does the law actually say? In fact, not very much.
The law takes up about one page of text, and as pointed out by a few observers, is declarative in nature. It does not create new rules. The issues that it does address are, to be frank, old news. Opening statements like “The land of Israel is the historical homeland of the Jewish people, in which the State of Israel was established” is nothing earth-shattering. The technical details of establishing the Hebrew language and calendar as official are also not new. The text establishes the Star of David positioned between two blue stripes as the national flag and the “Hatikva” poem as the national anthem. Both of these points have been on-the-ground facts for the past 70 years. Other articles in the law, such as the state’s prerogative to promote “Jewish culture” and maintain a connection with the Jewish diaspora, have long been initiatives of the Israeli government for two generations.
With these unoriginal declarations, perhaps the biggest criticism of the law is that it was totally unnecessary. Considering this, why has there been so much hype about the law?
The Outrage Begins
Critics have really focused on one line, and one line only, at the opening of the legislation. Section 1 of the text states that “The right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.” All attempts to paint the Nation-State Law as evil have essentially been attempts to warp the implications of this one sentence.
The actual meaning of this provision is that Israel, the national home of the Jews, will function to promote a country with a Jewish character.
And there should be nothing wrong with this.
Over four years ago, while the debate of the law’s passing was still raging, a senior Fellow at Kohelet Policy Forum, Professor Eugene Kontorovich, published an article on the legitimacy of Israel’s nation-state bill. The crux of his argument is to compare the bill proposition to that of other EU states. Kontorovich points out that indeed Israel’s bill has no racist comments about other nations or ethnicities and that there is “nothing unusual about having national or religious character reflected in constitutional commitments.” Kontorovich further showed that “Seven EU states have constitutional ‘nationhood’ provisions, which typically speak of the state as being the national home and locus of self-determination for the country’s majority ethnic group.” For this reason, says Kontorovich, “it is hard to understand why what works for them [other Western nations] should be so widely denounced when it comes to Israel.”
Unfortunately, critiques have taken Section 1, and by extension the entire Nation-State Law, as a discriminatory decree meant to undermine the rights of Israel’s minorities.
Take this quote from Vox for instance: “This declaration [of Jewish self-determination] doesn’t just say that Israel is the historic homeland of Jews. Instead, this goes further to unequivocally state that Jews—and only Jews—have the exclusive right to ‘self-determination’ within Israel. In other words, only Jews have the right to determine what kind of state and society they live under. Which means that by default, non-Jews—such as Palestinian citizens of Israel, some of whom are Muslim and some of whom are Christian—don’t have that same right.”
Actually, this is incorrect.
The law does not limit the ability for individual Arabs or members of any other minority to influence the “state or society under which they live.” If that were the case, anyone who is not Jewish would be barred from the political process in Israel. As a matter of fact, Arabs and others have the right to vote. Arabs serve in the Israeli Knesset. Arabs serve in the military and have occupied prestigious government positions including top offices of ministries and Supreme Court justice slots.
Indeed, the whole suggestion that Israel seeks to undermine the rights of non-Jews within its borders is at best a position of ignorance. Perhaps critics of the nation-state should take the time to peruse another one of Israel’s basic laws, Human Dignity and Liberty, which enshrines basic rights for all. The text of Israel’s Declaration of Independence states unequivocally that the state will provide for “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race, or sex.”
But opponents of the law must frame it in a negative light, as a legal crackdown on the rights of minorities, as opposed to a declaration of a nation’s self-determination. It is this sleight of hand in portraying the law that allows its critics to condemn it so. You see, there can be a legitimate conversation about the correctness of an ethnic group of people that all share a common history, language, and religion declaring a national institution that is geared toward promoting their national identity. It is hard to completely demonize a group or person that would uphold that position. So instead, the law is described as an open attempt to quash the rights of anyone who is not Jewish. Now there is an evil racist position everyone can rally to oppose.
The hypocrisy of Israel’s critics on this issue is obvious with just a bit of objective review. Take this quote from Egypt’s Foreign Ministry, for example: “The Arab Republic of Egypt announces…its rejection of the law passed by the Israeli Knesset on the ‘national state for the Jewish people’ law…for its ramifications that consecrate the concept of occupation and racial segregation.”
Do you notice a problem with that statement?
Egypt feels perfectly comfortable with branding itself an “Arab Republic” but feels it is racist for Israel to call itself a Jewish state.
All of this is not to suggest that the law is flawless. Controversy even among Israelis was triggered by the law’s strong exclusive tone that many feel alienates minorities that support Israel and seek to take active roles in the country. Many members of Israel’s Druze population, for instance, have claimed that the law is in a way a slap in the face to the commitment their community has had to the Israeli state for decades. Even far right politicians like Education Minister Naftali Bennett were forced to admit that these were fair claims.
Whatever shortcomings the law may have, however, it is by no means the enshrining of Apartheid its detractors would like to make it out to be.