Opinion

Nation-State vs. Startup Nation: Who Will Prevail?

The vacuous new law won’t do anything to alter the fact that Israeli Arabs are entering mainstream society

The Druze protest August 4, 2018, Tel Aviv
Moti Milrod

On paper, the nation-state law that has stirred so much controversy is, practically speaking, about nothing at all.

All the law accomplishes is to showcase the right’s fetish with national symbols and its obsessive need to make clear to the world and to Israel’s Arab minority who’s the boss here in the Holy Land.

It’s the legislative equivalent of Ludditism, and just like the 19th-century British laborers who tried to stop the Industrial Revolution by smashing a few automated looms, it will be crushed by socioeconomic forces far beyond its power.

I'll get to those forces in a bit, but first, what exactly does the law say?

Much of it sanctifies the totems of the Israeli right by putting them into law. The familiar blue and white is now officially the flag, “Israel” is by law the name of the country, “Hatikva” is the legally sanctioned national anthem and Independence Day is the “official national holiday.”

How did the law fail to mention that gravity is the official natural phenomenon? With the growth in air travel and eventually space travel, we should have enshrined respect for Newton's theory in the legislation just in case somebody got perverse ideas.

The second part of the nation-state law deals with more substantive issues, although by the time the law was approved in its final form even these were watered down to mere slogans. Hebrew is now the one and only official language, although Arabic’s “special” status remains unchanged, and the government will “encourage and promote” Jewish settlement.

Maybe in 1948, when the country was about to be flooded with new immigrants and vast swaths of the new state were unpopulated, we could have used laws like that.  But in 2018 the Hebrew language is under no threat – it’s the unchallenged language of everyday use, and it's the basis of a flourishing world of literature and electronic media.

Meanwhile, the country is fully settled, and if from time to time the government sees the need to establish new towns, there’s no reason why we need a law that talks about promoting “Jewish” as an ideological goal. It’s a sop to settlers, and a law that harkens back to a past that's no longer relevant.

The point of the nation-state law is to tell Israeli Arabs that they can live and work here, and the law will more or less treat them as equals, but they shouldn't think of themselves as anything more than tenants with rights. We’re the landlords, it’s our property and don't you forget it. 

Ayelet Shaked, Miri Regev and Co. are going to learn that the laws of economics will overpower the nation-state law.

What, me study?

In the year 2018, the Israeli economy has performed nothing less than miraculously, as Standard & Poor’s said last week when it upgraded Israel’s credit rating. But the longer-term outlook is something else: Israel’s population is aging and the high-tech economy that is the source of the country's global competitiveness is critically short of skilled workers.

The ultra-Orthodox, the Haredim, are an obvious untapped pool of labor. But the same government that has enshrined the flag into law is rolling back the efforts aimed at ensuring that the Haredim get a secular education and serve in the army so that they can find employment in high-tech or elsewhere.

What’s left is Israeli Arabs, who account for a fifth of the population.

Israeli Arabs are responding to the call – not because they're Zionists determined to build the Jewish state, but because they aspire to a middle-class existence and all the benefits that come from it. And, unless you’re a rightist ideologue with visions of a united Jewish Israel marching lockstep to the sounds of "Hatikva," that’s good enough.

The number of Israeli Arab computer science students has grown 50% in the last five years, while the number of students at universities and colleges has surged 80% in the last seven years.

Like any socioeconomic change, it’s not happening overnight, but you can be pretty sure that a lot of today’s computer-science grads will be startup entrepreneurs in five or 10 years.

In a survey, nearly 85% of Israeli Arabs expressed a strong desire for their children to learn Hebrew at a young age, and not because the government made it the official language. The poll found that big majorities prefer to live in Israel than anywhere else and wouldn’t want to move to a Palestinian state if there was one.

In short, Israeli Arabs are moving into the mainstream because they see opportunity in a booming and open economy (still, despite everything). Given the demographics Israel faces, we should be glad they're doing it and welcome them, but there are still far too many Israelis who see it as a threat. The empty and slogan-filled nation-state law is designed to assuage their anxieties, but it can’t and won’t stop it.

The Druze protest August 4, 2018, Tel Aviv
Moti Milrod