Opinion

The Declaration of Independence Is a Dead Letter

The nation-state law was designed to erase the Declaration of Independence and re-invent Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, rather than as a Jewish and democratic state

David Ben Gurion reading the Declaration of Independence of Israel at the Tel Aviv Museum.
Kluger Zoltan /Government Press Office

The nation-state law reinvents the State of Israel. It wasn’t passed in response to Arab or leftist subversion against the Jewish identity of the state. It is first and foremost a response (even if partially subconscious) by the majority of the Jewish public – the political right – to the realization that the creeping annexation of Judea and Samaria will not allow Israel to continue to exist as a “Jewish and democratic” state. The Palestinians will not be granted citizenship and they will not be allowed to elect or be elected to the Knesset.

Thus, in the sovereign territory of Israel a democratic regime will officially cease to exist (it actually ceased a long time ago). This is why the need arose to reinvent Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, rather than as a Jewish and democratic state.

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The Declaration of Independence was written under very different circumstances, when the possibility of annexing the territories was not even on the agenda, and thus there was no chance that such a possibility could define Israel’s identity. Everyone who longs for that possibility should remember that for 19 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence there were Arab citizens under military rule. And so the declaration, in and of itself, does not ensure equality to all citizens of the state. The high values mentioned in it reflect the humanitarian inclinations of the state’s founders much more than reality.

Either way, it is no longer relevant. It’s a dead letter. And Israel has now been re-founded as “the nation-state of the Jewish people” in which it fulfills its “natural, cultural, religious and historical right to self-determination;” “the right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people;” “the state’s language is Hebrew,” and “The state views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation.” That’s it. There’s no mention of equality for all its citizens precisely because there is no intention of granting equality to all its citizens. Within the borders of Israel a state will exist based on the superiority of the Jewish people. And its superiority will also apply to the territories. That, after all, is the heart of the matter.

And so the innocent question “what do we need the nation-state law for, when we already have the Declaration of Independence,” attests to a misunderstanding of the Knesset’s intention. The law is needed precisely because we already have the Declaration of Independence. It is needed to erase the Declaration of Independence and re-invent the state.

As for democracy: Again, all nostalgic people longing for an imaginary past, in which Israel was a liberal country, should sober up. In the first 29 years of the state, until 1977, there were elections here, but they did not result in a changeover of government. Then, as in the Netanyahu era, elections were intended mainly as a public ceremony to reconfirm and perpetuate the government. And then, too, people could not imagine an alternative to the existing government.

And still, there is a difference. The situation is worse. Now people have trouble imagining an alternative to one man who personifies the government, even though that man is suspected of criminal acts. The potential for a personality cult, for authoritarianism and silencing critical media is growing concomitantly. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has managed to persuade people to adopt a cynical viewpoint by which his criminal conduct (there is no argument over the facts, after all), is not a problem, simply because there is no morality in the world. Everyone acts this way. Corruption is in any case the norm, and so better it is his, because he represents them. In this way, Netanyahu resembles Trump and Putin. Hebrew is the language, “Hatikvah” is the anthem, and Netanyahu is the government.