Jewish State Law Will Only Harm Netanyahu

Netanyahu should take a lesson from Menachem Begin, whose insistence on passing the Basic Law on Jerusalem only harmed the very thing he sought to protect.

Shlomo Avineri
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.Credit: Emil Salman
Shlomo Avineri

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is right: Israel is the state of the Jewish nation. Everybody knows that – the Jews in Israel, Arab Israelis, the Palestinians, world Jewry, the countries of the world – irrespective of their opinion about the government’s policies. For that reason, there is no need for further legislation. It would only do harm.

The State of Israel gained international legitimacy as the state of the Jewish nation in the United Nations partition decision of November 29, 1947. There is no democratic state that disagrees with this today. Israel is one of the most prosperous countries in the world and one of the most amazing success stories of the past 100 years. It is also a strong country, with one of the world’s most sophisticated armies. At a time when no small number of countries – from Iraq and Syria and Sudan and Libya to Ukraine – are on the verge of collapse, Israel is a rock of stability that maintains, for all its problems, its democratic regime and national goals even under harsh conditions. Not a few nations envy us.

Furthermore, even though Israel has no official capacity regarding the fate of Jewish communities overseas, the countries of the world are attentive to Israel’s stance in reaction to anti-Semitic incidents. There is no need to enshrine Israel’s being the state of the Jewish people by some act of legislation: It already exists as such, de facto and de jure.

Any attempt to enshrine this status in a Basic Law, as the prime minister is now doing, will only cause damage and disagreement, both within and outside the country. Indeed, we all know that there is deep disagreement among Israel’s Jewish citizens regarding the meaning of Israel as a Jewish state: Most of the Jewish population in Israel interprets this in terms of national self-determination and a historic identity and culture – which itself has various interpretations. On the other hand, in the eyes of some of the religious population Jewish identity is primarily religious. And there are marginal groups – from Neturei Karta to the nucleus of anti-Zionists (who prefer the politically correct term “post-Zionists”) who reject – for different, but opposing reasons – the existence of the country as the Jewish state.

Proposing a Basic Law on the issue will deepen this argument, which is legitimate in itself, but will definitely not help deepen the common denominator between Israel’s Jewish citizens. Likewise, with the constitution of the present Knesset who knows what clauses could be added to the law in some shady deal aimed at preserving this strange coalition, which includes the fundamentalist, messianic Habayit Hayehudi and Yesh Atid, which pretends to be secular, enlightened and liberal.

In addition, the representatives in the Knesset of the Arab populace can be expected fight tooth and nail against such legislation. They are likely to also encourage mass demonstrations against it. There is no need to agree with the hostile stances of some of the Arab Knesset members in order to realize that it’s not easy for Arabs to be a minority in the state of the Jewish nation. The prime minister’s legislation initiative will only deepen the Arabs’ feeling of alienation. In the present combustive atmosphere between Jews and Arabs, such a stressful public debate can only encourage violence from extremist groups among both Jews and Arabs.

Dual loyalty charges

The possibility that Jewish groups worldwide will object to such legislation also cannot be discounted, not because they are anti-Israeli but because they are liable to fear, sometimes justifiably, that clarifying this issue will play into the hands of anti-Semitic groups that will claim that if Israel is the state of the Jewish people, maybe there’s no room for Jews in their countries. Surely there will be an ugly round of accusations of dual loyalty, despite the fact that there’s no reason to pour fuel on this fire.

In the international arena such a bill is liable to form the basis of criticism derived, at least partially, from a misunderstanding. Many people in the world see in the term “Jewish state” an expression of religious identity and reject it, just as they reject terms such as “Christian state” or “Muslim state.” Historically, liberals and Jews always objected to the branding of countries in such religious terminology. The debate that will arise in Israel when such a bill reaches the Knesset will only deepen anew this opposition – and all of Israel’s attempts at public diplomacy, which will try to explain that the issue is not religious identity but national identity, will not help.

The proposed Basic Law will also draw international attention to the not-simple question of the status of Israel’s Arab citizens, and will definitely serve as a weapon in the hands of the Palestinians in their objection to any wording that recognizes Israel as the Jewish nation-state.

In short: Legislating such a Basic Law would have no benefit, and only cause damage. The question is what is the logic behind such an initiative, beyond internal electoral considerations that could perhaps strengthen the prime minister’s standing? It appears that the answer should be sought in the tradition of the Revisionist movement, which historically shrouded itself in rhetoric and the belief that if you convince yourself then you also convince the nations of the world, and a new reality can be produced by words alone.

Begin's mistaken initiative

The prime minister should recall one of Menachem Begin’s moves when he served as prime minister, a move that caused great damage to Israel – and for some reason has been forgotten and is rarely mentioned when discussing Begin’s complex political legacy. On June 30, 1980 the Knesset passed the Basic Law on Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, also known as the “Jerusalem Law.” This law did not in practice significantly change Jerusalem’s status, as envisaged on extending Israeli law to East Jerusalem. The Jerusalem Law did not bring any country or statesman to agree to the annexation of East Jerusalem and even caused some of the foreign embassies based in Jerusalem to move to Tel Aviv – notably the embassies of South American countries and the Netherlands, the only European embassy there was in Jerusalem. Even before the law was passed most foreign embassies were based in Tel Aviv, but the few that were in Jerusalem allowed Israel to boast that some members of the international community recognizes Jerusalem as its capital.

After the law was passed most of the embassies were moved from Jerusalem, which now has no foreign embassies. Begin delivered a moving, rousing speech in the Knesset, but the move he instigated caused Israel and the status of Jerusalem considerable damage, accompanied by a stinging condemnation from a crushing majority of the UN Security Council.

It could be that there are Israelis who deride the Security Council decisions, but Israel feels the dearth of embassies in Jerusalem to this day. Anyone concerned with Israel’s foreign policy knows that there have been other positive developments that were prevented or harmed as a result of the Jerusalem Law.

One of the things that citizens are allowed to demand of their government, even when they disagree with its policies, is similar to the Hippocratic Oath taken by doctors: Never to do harm to anyone. Netanyahu’s proposed Basic Law will bring no benefit, only damage. One can only hope that Netanyahu will learn from the price Israel paid for passing the Jerusalem Law, and not follow in Begin’s footsteps. Haughtiness and rhetoric are no substitute for policy. The whole world already knows that Israel is the state of the Jewish people.

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