Opinion |

Israel's Jewish Nation-state Bill Is Not Just Useless - It’s Harmful

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Israeli flag graffiti on the separation wall
Israeli flag graffiti on the separation wallCredit: Ilan Assayag

Just when I thought that the Jewish nation-state bill had been shelved, shoved in the deepest recesses of the Knesset archives, it has resurfaced, and seems to have received the government’s support.

This bill is useless and harmful. Ignore the self-righteous explanations that it is no more than a statement, and that it does not discriminate against Israel’s Arab citizens.

Who needs this statement, anyway? The Israeli flag is the Zionist flag; and the Israeli anthem is Hatikvah; Hebrew is the predominant language spoken in Israel; and the Law of Return, passed by the Knesset many years ago, is being implemented on a daily basis. There is no need for a declaration to affirm that in Israel the Jewish people are exercising their right to national self-determination, and that Israel remains committed to providing a haven for all Jews seeking such a haven. All of Israel’s citizens, Jews and Arabs, as well as the rest of the world, are fully aware of that. Any “statement” on this matter is superfluous.

But the problem is worse than that. Enacting this bill into law smacks of a total absence of sensitivity and empathy for our fellow Arab citizens.

Israeli Arabs constitute a fifth of Israel’s citizens, a minority entitled to full equality of rights and of opportunities. Although great progress has been made in Israel’s 69 years, we still have a long way to go to achieve this goal, which is part of integrating Israel’s Arab citizens into Israeli society and into the Israeli economy. That is of ultimate importance not only for Israel’s Arabs but for Israel’s Jewish citizens as well. In other words, it is of ultimate importance for the State of Israel, and should be first priority in the government’s economic and social agenda. Failure to attain this goal could leave many of Israel’s Arab citizens with a feeling of alienation, possibly even hostility, toward Israel. From this perspective, the nation-state bill is a move in the wrong direction.

The bill’s provision that Hebrew be the only official language of the State of Israel deviates from the long-standing, albeit unwritten, understanding that Hebrew and Arabic are both official languages of the state. That was a goal never fully implemented, but it presumably remained in our sights, at least until this this bill came along, downgrading the Arabic language to a “special status”.

Canada, where the majority is English-speaking, is a model of how to provide equal status to French, the language spoken by a minority who, like Israel’s Arab citizens, constitute a fifth of Canada’s population. Canadian ministers and civil servants today are proficient in both languages.

I advise nation-state bill supporters who consider themselves to be followers of Zeev Jabotinsky to reread his opinion on the subject. In the last book he wrote, “The War and the Jew,” in 1940, in which he envisaged the future Jewish State:

“The Hebrew and Arabic language shall enjoy equal rights and equal legal validityBoth Hebrew and Arabic shall be used with equal legal effect in Parliament, in the courts, in the schoolsAll offices of the state shall answer any applicant, orally and in writing, in the language of his application”

Implementing Jabotinsky’s principles requires Arabic language instruction to be substantially upgraded in Jewish schools. There has been talk about doing that for years, yet for some reason, little progress has been made. It’s about time.

The nation-state bill is a move in the wrong direction. We are better off without it.

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