Israel’s new nation-state law is loathsome, damaging, divisive and mainly superfluous, but its passage won’t make Israelis’ blood boil. Some agree with the law and others are apathetic, while its staunch opponents quickly recognized that the campaign to fight discrimination against gay men, sparked by the concurrent passage of a new Knesset bill on surrogacy, has a greater potential of sparking mass protests. The nation-state law injects poison into the country’s relations with its non-Jewish minorities, but in the final analysis, after the removal of some of its more controversial clauses, it won’t make much of a difference in the day-to-day lives of most Israelis.
Nonetheless, as far as Israel’s standing and image are concerned, the new law is a mega-attack, a thermo-nuclear onslaught, a landmark that will henceforth divide before and after. Benjamin Netanyahu was right, therefore, to describe it as a “defining moment.” Scores of Breaking the Silence activists, hundreds of B’Tselem reports on the occupation and thousands of BDS proponents, all of which the government cynically holds responsible for its bad name, could never have inflicted such profound, comprehensive and long-lasting damage as Netanyahu and his coalition did by passing the new bill. In Donald Trump’s America, they might have been accused of treason.
The damage won’t be expressed in the few formal protests issued by foreign governments, especially European. The international community has other, more existential concerns right now, emanating from the growing awareness that the world’s greatest superpower is headed by a president who is unintelligible, at best, unstable, at worst and possibly beholden to a foreign government. In any case, the only protest that Netanyahu and most Israelis care about would have to come from the White House: Barack Obama personally blocked passage of the nation-state law, but Trump probably hasn’t heard about it, and if he has, is clueless as to what it all means, and even if he understands, then he doesn’t give a hoot. This is the glory of what Netanyahu describes as the greatest era of relations between the two countries: Israel can cut its wrists to its heart’s content, and America won’t lift a finger.
But a dearth of diplomatic démarches won’t mitigate the inherent destructiveness of the nation-state law. It comes with a built-in time-release mechanism that ensures that it will taint Israel’s good name for many years to come. The law, in fact, marks the ground zero of a new Israel. Its first clause grants the Jewish people exclusive rights to self-determination, and Netanyahu’s coalition was quick to self-determine, in essence, that Israel is arrogant, belligerent and ethnocentric. This is the country’s new reflection in the mirror, and even if most Israelis prefer to look the other way, the whole world is watching, and reaching its own conclusions.
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The Knesset, with dogged determination and clear intent, notified the world of Israel’s withdrawal from the ranks of liberal democracies and of its new affiliation with illiberal, nationalistic states, in which the values of equality and civil rights, like those enshrined in Israel’s non-binding Declaration of Independence, are subservient to the needs of the nation and its land. Just when Western democracies are on the defensive, and in some cases fighting for their lives, Israel defects to the other side. It is moving over into the darkness.
The law accelerates Israel’s transformation from a liberal democracy into an electoral democracy, in which the right to vote is enshrined but not the commitment to equality, minority rights or the rule of law. Last month, even before the nation-state law was passed, the Sweden-base research group Varieties of Democracy, or V-Dem, acknowledged the mutation. Thus, it was only proper and fitting that when the law was being approved, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban was still in town as Israel’s most honored guest. Orban, who has been accused of anti-Semitism, was undoubtedly pleased with his disciples. Israel and authoritarian, immigrant-hating Hungary now belong to the very same club.
But the new law’s biggest casualties so far are American Jews. Many Jewish organizations, including those who normally refrain from criticizing, lambasted the nation-state law as discriminatory. For the many more who stayed silent, the new law is like a poisoned dagger to the heart. The loyalty of most, though far from all, Jewish Americans relies on the perception - or the illusion, if you prefer - that Israel is a “shining city on the hill”, as Ronald Reagan described the United States, and not a bully country that torments its minorities. But in a week in which the Knesset proudly tries to silence Breaking the Silence, Israeli police arrests a Conservative rabbi for allegedly betrothing someone the Orthodox define as a “mamzer,” a bastard, and the Knesset shamelessly declares Jewish superiority and relegates Arabic to a lower league, many American Jews be forced to admit that something is rotten in the State of Israel. For those who gnashed their teeth and stayed loyal despite Israel’s unilateral nixing of the Western Wall deal, its refusal to recognize Reform and Conservative Jews, Netanyahu’s hostility to Barack Obama, his groveling to Donald Trump, the ongoing occupation and the death of the peace process - not to mention the spate of undemocratic laws already approved by this toxic Knesset - the nation-state law could prove a bridge to far, a straw that breaks the camel’s back, the last nail in the coffin of their long-held allegiance.
The new law’s supporters have offered myriad excuses and detailed explanations purporting to prove that the outrage is overblown. Slovakia and Latvia have similar laws, they rejoice, as if these two countries, with anti-Semitism running through their historical veins, are now our new role models. In any case, the problem is with the forest, not the trees. Whatever its fine print, the Nation State law is perceived abroad as a contemptuous show of strength by an aggressive Jewish majority against its Arab minority, which, justifiably or not, suffers enough discrimination as it is. Even if the new law does not make Israel into an apartheid state, it certainly seems to be laying the groundwork, and in any case provides a stellar talking point for those who claim that apartheid is already here. The great patriots of Netanyahu’s coalition gave Israel’s enemies a gift of gold, which they couldn’t have hoped for even in their wildest dreams.
And the truly horrendous thing is that Netanyahu, his ministers and their legislators perpetrated this crime against their country for no good reason, out of their own free will, for pure self-interest and short-term gain, to garner a few brownie points for their faux-patriotism, to outflank the rabid right, to portray the left, which opposed the law, as defeatists and traitors. For such measly returns, the ruling coalition shamed Israel, tarnished whatever is left of its good name and cast it as chauvinistic and narrow-minded. The only democracy in the Middle East, many will conclude, has grown tired of itself.
The proximity to the mourning day of Tisha B’Av, which falls on Sunday, is a good opportunity to remember that the Second Temple didn’t really fall because of “baseless hatred”, as the Talmud asserts, nor because of idol worship, incest and bloodshed, as their disciples contended. The seeds of destruction were planted many years before, in the days, among others, of King Alexander Yanai, aka Janneus, the Hasmonean dynasty’s greatest conqueror. He expanded the territory of Israel, declared himself king, vested all legal and judicial powers in himself, incited and spread division, sparked a civil war, misread his strategic situation and abandoned the alliance with Rome, which had sustained his predecessors. A hundred years later, with the kingdom in tatters, the Jews at each other’s throats and the legions of Rome storming Jerusalem’s gates, it was the Jewish nation and its state that paid the ultimate price.