Israel's Nation-state Bill Is Undemocratic

Opposing the bill doesn’t mean negating Israel’s history, only recognizing that a democratic state cannot identify itself with only part of its population

The bill, intended as a Basic Law, would create a nation-state not envisaged in the Declaration of Independence, which promised equality for all of Israel's citizens.
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“We, the people of South Africa, believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity.” So begins the constitution of post-apartheid South Africa. Article 2 of the Belgian Constitution states that the country is comprised of three communities: the Flemish community, the French community and the German-speaking community. “France ensures the equality of all citizens before the law, without distinction of origin, race or religion,” states Article 1 of the French Constitution. 

The above examples put the lie to claims that the nation-state bill now being advanced in the Knesset (which states that Israel is the “national home of the Jewish people” and that the right to self-determination in Israel is unique to the Jewish people) contains a normal, democratic and acceptable view of self-determination. Constitutions in democratic countries recognize that the state belongs to all its citizens equally (the French model), or to a number of groups that make up the population, on an equal basis among those groups (the Belgian model).

Obviously, these constitutional principles are not always properly implemented and racism and discrimination can be found everywhere, but the Israeli nation-state bill is unique in how it seeks to apply the accepted concept of democracy while identifying Israel, officially and constitutionally, with only one part of the population. Opposing the bill doesn’t mean negating Israel’s history. Rather, it’s about recognizing that a democratic state cannot identify itself with only part of its population.

The parallel to the Israeli nation-state bill would be a declaration, enshrined in Britain’s Constitution, that it is the country of the English people, and that the right to self-determination there is reserved for the English people. Were that to happen, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would leave the United Kingdom. Quebec would respond in similar fashion were Canada to declare that the right to self-determination there is reserved for the Anglo-Canadian majority. After the breakup of Yugoslavia, new forms of ethnic nationalism arose that seek to identify the state, by determination, with just one group – but these are not what one would call worthy role models.

The idea of linking self-determination and the state’s identification with a certain ethnic group within it, at the expense of others’ equality and sense of belonging, is not anchored in the law or practice of the democratic countries. And it goes beyond a sense of belonging. In Israel, and this is nothing new, Arabs have experienced ongoing discrimination and exclusion. Only legislation that constitutionally enshrines the right to equality for all citizens, and a policy that implements such equality, can overcome this.

Today, “self-determination” doesn’t necessarily mean that every national or ethnic group must have its own state, but rather that the government should represent all the different groups. Hence the term “internal self-determination,” meaning representation of the different groups within the framework of existing states. The right to “external self-determination,” i.e., to withdraw and establish a separate independent state, is reserved for peoples under colonial rule, foreign rule or rule that doesn’t represent them. But they, too, do not have the right to establish a state that will identify itself with only one part of the population.

It remains to be seen whether the version of the nation-state bill to be brought before the Knesset for approval will include the provisions that also have practical implications (such as authorizing communities for Jews only and lowering the status of the Arabic language), but even without such provisions, this bill seeks to undermine the principle that stands at the foundation of democracy: the principle of equal citizenship.