Overall, not a particularly great week to be an Israeli. With the cabinet approving Israel’s highly-contentious “nation-state bill,” it seems the term “Jewish democratic state” has been finally put out to pasture, along with the unicorns, dragons and other mythical beings.
The bill – in actuality, there are three different versions currently vying for approval – aims to solve the innate tension between Israel’s identity as both Jewish and democratic by tilting the balance heavily toward the Jewish side. In effect, it is a right-wing attempt to affirm Israel’s status as “the national homeland of the Jewish people” in accordance with Israel’s Declaration of Independence, but sans pesky Greek traditions that only get in the way.
The version by Likud MK Zeev Elkin, the more extreme of the three and one of the two approved by the cabinet this week, removes the word “democratic” from the definition of Israel’s identity as a nation, makes Israel’s democratic principles secondary to its Jewish identity and allows the state to allow people “belonging to one religion or nationality” to set up “separate communities.”
In a softer draft of the bill by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the one that’s expected to win out, the words “Jewish democratic” do appear, but another key word is removed: “equality.” Instead of promising full religious, social and national equality to all citizens, regardless of gender, race or creed, as promised in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, Netanyahu’s bill includes the carefully-worded phrasing “Israel will uphold the personal rights of all citizens in accordance with all laws.”
The fact that the bill caused an acute political crisis that almost broke up the government has contributed to the absolutely panicked way in which the media, both in Israel and abroad, has covered the bill: the ruination of Israel’s democracy, the corruption of Israel’s moral character, no alarm bell was left unrung.
“Since its founding in 1948,” mused a self-described “heartbroken” New York Times editorial this week, “Israel’s very existence and promise – fully embraced by the United States and the world of nations – has been based on the ideal of democracy for all of its people.”
Let’s get this out of the way right now: The so-called “nation-state bill” that was approved by Israel’s cabinet this week and caused an international uproar is not the historic “turning point” it’s said to be.
What it is is an affirmation of a reality that has been entrenched for a very long time.
Israel, in many ways, has always been more Jewish than democratic. Even without a law like this one to codify it, its legal and legislative systems have often put the needs of Israel’s Jewish population before its adherence to democratic principles. Arab and other non-Jewish citizens of Israel have been systemically discriminated against for decades when it comes to access to education, land, infrastructure, water and political representation.
Even without legislative pieces that sound as if they’ve been lifted from the personal diaries of Daniel François Malan, Israel has a legal system that has allowed hundreds of Jewish communities to reject non-Jewish applicants for housing on the basis of “social suitability.”
Arab Israelis didn’t need new reasons to feel like second-class citizens, even if the current nation-state bill makes it all but official. The bill is not the ruination of democracy in Israel – that ship has sailed long ago.
This is not to say that this bill isn’t bad, or insignificant. It is bad because it codifies and institutionalizes Israel’s worst faults as a nation. It is bad because it lays the foundations for more discriminatory policies and legislation against non-Jews. It is bad because at the heart of it lies great political cynicism, a pandering to nationalist voters prior to the Likud primaries and an election that is expected soon.
“I miss the racists of old,” said Balad MK Jamal Zahalka during a Knesset debate in 2008. “At least they weren’t opportunists who sought cheap popularity.” This week Zahalka was forcibly removed from the Knesset’s podium by vice-speaker of the Knesset Moshe Feiglin, after calling the Likud MK a “fascist.” Any such act against the many Jewish MKs who have called Arab and left-wing MKs “traitors,” “terrorist-lovers” and worse over the years is unthinkable, of course.
So no, the new nation-state bill isn’t the apocalypse. Israel has been a Jewish state with a democratic hobby for a very long time. In fact, something like this should have been expected by anyone who didn’t turn a blind eye to Israel’s behavior in recent decades.
But it does have a silver lining: The proposed bill is so blatant, so clear, that it forces even Israel’s most adamant blind supporters to open their eyes.
In other words: Welcome, Diaspora Jews, to the Israel you’ve been avoiding. For too long, you have been defending an imaginary Israel. The real one looks much like the one described in the new nation-state bill.
For many years, the money, influence and unwavering support of Jews abroad, particularly those in America, has enabled many of the behaviors that contributed to the kind of arrogant solipsism that made Israeli politicians believe they can get away with anything. Much of it was done in the name of an ideal Israel, an Israel that never really existed, a Jewish democratic country that could balance its dual identities.
Now that this image is being revealed for the illusion that it is, Diaspora Jews can use their considerable influence on Israeli politics to help bring about true democracy in Israel.
It’s not going to be an easy battle. In his speech in the Knesset on Wednesday, Netanyahu remained adamant about his intentions to pass his version of the bill, saying to his detractors in a theatrically-shocked voice, “I don’t understand what your problem is.”
And, really, what is their problem? It’s not like Netanyahu is changing anything. He’s simply lifting the veil.
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