Jewish Nation-state Law Will Make Us All Second-class Citizens

The proposed bill disenfranchises both Jewish and non-Jewish Israelis since we will all live in a diminished democracy.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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The Knesset plenum.
The Knesset plenum.Credit: Emil Salman
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

In preparation for Wednesday’s Knesset vote on the Jewish nation-state bill some Arab Israelis have added to their photograph on social media accounts a virtual stamp or watermark saying “second-class citizen.” While it may be an effective form of protest and has certainly caught the attention of the media, it is wrong to say that the nation-state law, should it ever make it over the political and legislative hurdles and actually become a law, will make Israel’s non-Jewish citizens second-class. And no, not just due to the fact that despite nominally enjoying equal civil rights, in many ways they are second-class citizens already.

While it certainly won’t improve Jewish-Arab relations, the bill does not discriminate between Jews and goyim in Israel. The bill is not about favoring one group of civilians, it even commits the Jewish state to ensuring the personal rights of all its citizens and maybe, in the “watered-down” version Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is promising, it will even promise equality.

The fundamental flaw in the bill is not that it creates inequality, though naturally, when a country’s democratic foundations are weakened, its minority groups automatically become more vulnerable and even less equal. But the Jewish nation-state bill will not elevate the status of Jewish citizens either; all of us will suffer because of it.

A law which establishes the ascendancy of supposedly Jewish values above the basic democratic principles does not favor me because I am a Jew or disenfranchise my non-Jewish neighbor. It disenfranchises both of us since we will all live in a diminished democracy and ultimately enjoy less freedom if it becomes law.

Jewishness is my primary identity, though I have others. Judaism is my tradition and heritage and when I choose to be religious, my faith. The Jewish people are my history and whether I like them or not, my extended family and future. Jewish is my cuisine, music and literature. But while I am quite happy for legislators and judges,in Israel and abroad, to find inspiration in the more reasonable legal principles of the Talmud or the writings of Maimonides and other rabbis, Jewish values, even if we could hypothetically agree on what they are, will never replace liberal democracy as my preferred form of government. And the unstated but unmistakable intention of the nation-state law is that Israel will become less of a democracy, certainly not a liberal one.

The sponsors of the bill, and Netanyahu as well, argue that it is needed since many today, more than even, are questioning the right of the Jews to their homeland. That is at best a paranoia-induced illusion and at worst a bare-faced lie. The Jewish state has never been so widely accepted and nearly universally recognized as it is today. Over 80 percent of the world’s nations have formal diplomatic relations with Israel and a significant proportion of those which don’t have quiet strategic and economic ties with the Jewish state. This week, one of those relationships on display was the silent coordination between Israel and Saudi Arabia on the sidelines of the Vienna P5+1 talks with Iran.

There are still those who dream of Israel’s elimination but even they don’t deny the fact that it is the Jewish state, it is clear in their anti-Semitism, though they half-heartedly try and hide it as anti-Zionism. True, there is a small fringe of whose who still think that Israel’s Jewishness can somehow be diluted and replaced with some anodyne non-identity, but the only place this disparate group of “radical” academics and quixotic activists have any semblance of relevance is in their own echo chambers on campuses and the Internet. And of course they exist in the fevered imaginations and rhetoric of Israeli politicians and Jewish Diaspora activists who are using the phantom threat of “delegitimization” as an excuse for either not moving forward in the diplomatic process, or for urging Israel to go full speed ahead lest we become international pariahs.

The reality, however, is that despite 47 years of occupation, continued settlement building and wars in Gaza and Lebanon, not only has Israel not been delegitimized, but its international relations have been reinforced through burgeoning exports and technological cooperation. The world makes do with rhetoric and then gets back to business. Only flat-earthers and other assorted oddballs don’t recognize the Jewish state and the tiny handful of states who have no ties, official or unofficial, are the pariah states.

If this law passes, the international reaction will be the same. A few words of regret, criticism and condemnation, but no real damage. The world recognizes the Jewish state, that won’t change; it just doesn’t really believe we are much of a democracy anymore. But that doesn’t really matter. Most countries aren’t real democracies.

And that’s the tragedy of the nation-state law. It won’t change Israel’s Jewish identity – that is an inalienable fact – but it will further erode its already weakened democracy.

Israel’s core identity as a Jewish and democratic state is an anomaly. But anomalies exist at the heart of many great democracies. Great Britain is a wonderful democracy but its unwritten constitution also elevates a “royal” family of mostly sub-mediocre members to a ridiculous level of privilege and influence. The United States, the most successful democracy in history, has a constitution which enshrines travesties such as the death penalty and the right of citizens to carry lethal weapons. On the whole, there are much greater sins a small democracy can commit than to identify itself as well as the only guaranteed haven for the most persecuted people in history.

But while the Law of Return was just the kind of an anomaly that a democracy can afford to have, a law which establishes an alternative and superior set of values, however ill-defined they may be, is another matter.

In at least one way, the nation-state law is even worse for Jews than it is for Israeli citizens of other (or no) faith. If it passes, we will all be living in a diminished democracy, but at least Israeli Christians and Muslims won’t have to suffer the indignity of their religion being abused, interpreted and manipulated by a government and legal system which has appropriated for itself the right to decide what the “principles of freedom, justice, righteousness and peace” are in the Jewish tradition. The law will take away my right to decide for myself what being Jewish means to me. It will strengthen those who want Judaism to mean the same for all of us. This is why both Haredim and the Reform movement, Jewish minority groups outside the Israeli mainstream who normally agree on nothing, are united in opposing the bill. They instinctively know when the majority is trying to impose on them a specific definition of Jewishness.

By weakening its democracy, this nation-state law will also make Israel less Jewish for many Jews. It will still be the Jewish state, since legislation and political power-play can never confer identity, but all Israelis, Jews as well as Arabs, will become second-class citizens.

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