Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with fellow Likud MK Avi Dichter at the Knesset. Emil Salman

Analysis Nation-state Bill Heralds the End of Israel as a Jewish, Democratic State

Israel wants to be 'darkness unto the nations' — to remove the mask so as to reveal the ugly face of ultranationalist Israel in all its repugnance

The Knesset debate over the proposed Basic Law on Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People is of momentous importance, second only to the declaration of national independence. If passed, the law will foment a revolution, no less. It will spell the end of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state that is bound to the principles of the Declaration of Independence (a commitment that was in an earlier version of the bill and was removed); a state bound to universal and liberal values (whose sources can be found in Jewish and other cultures), even if they are not realized perfectly in practice. This state will be replaced by a Jewish state, religious and ultranationalist, anti-humanist and anti-liberal.

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This will be the case not only because of the constitutional, racist authority to establish “pure” communities on the basis of religion or ethnicity — in practice, Jewish communities from which Arabs are excluded. Rather, it is mainly because, despite the bill’s name and content, Israel is not only the nation-state of the Jewish people. It is also the state of all its citizens, including its Arab citizens. If that were not so, it would not be a democracy. A basic law that ignores this reality is a law that excludes and humiliates others, and invites utter and abhorrent rejection, not only by non-Jews, but by anyone with an ounce of humanity and fairness. Moreover, a country that has no borders cannot define itself. If the territories are annexed, can Israel define itself as the nation-state of the Jewish people? Actually, yes, but only according to the school of thought of the “apartheidists” threatening to take over the Knesset because of the morally corrupt competition for the title of most extreme right-winger.

It is very doubtful that the Knesset has the authority to take such a revolutionary step, which uproots the state’s fundamental values. A justice system that is not committed to equality cannot be considered a system of justice.

The unacceptable nature of the bill is also attested to by the contradictory and mendacious explanations of its purpose. On the one hand, it is claimed that it will not express the character of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people (that is, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declaring anew the establishment of the State of Israel). On the other hand, it is claimed that it will change the balance between the national character of the state, which the High Court of Justice has destroyed by giving too much weight to human rights. Why? Because we do not have a constitution, we do not have strongly enshrined basic rights, there are no clear rights to equality and freedom of expression, the court, under constant assault, has no firm powers. Because the court can consider demolishing an Arab community to establish a Jewish community instead and approve the makeup of an agency that decides land-allocation policy in Israel, nearly half of whose members represent Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund, which is obligated to the interests of Jews only. In this reality, passing an armor-plated basic law in the name of which the infringement of equality and other rights can be justified is a piggish action by the majority, because it can. Discussion of the bill by its supporters, such as its sponsor, MK Avi Dichter (Likud), and Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee Chairman MK Nissan Slomiansky (Habayit Hayehudi) is pathetic and ludicrous when they complain that Jews don’t have enough rights in Israel and therefore, as opposed to everything known in the world, they, the Jewish majority, and not the permanent minority, need special constitutional protection.

If this basic law passes, Israel will become a leader among nationalist countries like Poland and Hungary, to which it has drawn closer recently, while distancing itself from properly run Western countries. Even in the most nationalistic countries the constitution grants status to minorities or commits itself to equality, and not only as lip service. Israel wants to be “darkness unto the nations” — to remove the mask so as to reveal the ugly face of ultranationalist Israel in all its repugnance. Those who ostensibly want to glorify the state’s Jewishness are doing the opposite. If the basic and permanent significance of the Jewish state, based on its constitutional identity, is exclusion and humiliation of the permanent minority, the Arabs; if, in the name of nationalism, it ignores the tradition of human rights, who can help but criticize it?

With this basic law, the state divorces itself from the liberal Jews of the world. The latest version of the bill, apparently on the demand of the ultra-Orthodox parties, increases the estrangement from the Jews of the world. According to the new version, only in the Diaspora will the state work to maintain the connection with the Jewish people. In Israel, it will be able to continue damaging this relationship, as it has been doing all the time.

In leading the nation-state law, Netanyahu has put himself in opposition to President Reuven Rivlin. The latter wants to bring together the various tribes of Israel so a civil society can exist here. The former is sowing separatism and factionalism between Jews and Arabs (one would be hard-pressed to find a more alienating and hostility-inducing action than this law, whose latest version further hurts the status of Arabic), between Israel and world Jewry, between the secular and the religious, liberals and nonliberals.

Apparently Netanyahu and his Likud colleagues have replaced the spirit of Zeev Jabotinsky with that of Habayit Hayehudi’s Bezalel Smotrich and company. A government that does this cannot pretend to be the government of all Israelis. A Knesset that does this cannot enjoy public legitimacy. Those who sow the evil wind blowing from this law, will reap the whirlwind.

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