The Fall of Israel's Democracy Began With Its Nation-state Law

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Protesters wave Druze and Israeli flags during a demonstration against Israel's Nation-State Law in Tel Aviv, August 4, 2018.

Historical processes don’t take place all at once. The agricultural and industrial revolutions developed over the course of long years. Here too major shifts take place without most of us understanding how, when and why.

Fortunately, the Israelis (not everyone) have awakened to the realization that democracy is in danger, although it took a long time for that realization to dawn. Over six years ago a law was proposed for government approval, whose only purpose was to do away with the equality between Jewish and non-Jewish citizens. These were the first seeds of the elimination of the democracy in which we lived for 70 years.

Already that same day I wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and warned of the disaster inherent in this law. With the exception of a few good Israelis who realized that this was not a personal and ethnic matter, nobody said a word. Four years later the seeds sprouted in the soil of that pathetic Knesset, and the insulting law that differentiates among citizens inside their country was approved. That is something that has no parallel in any other enlightened democracy in the world.

And then my friends and I protested that this is a racist and insulting law. We said that the government that legislates laws that differentiate among its citizens cannot be called democratic. We said at the time, and for all these years we have been trying to explain in every possible way, that the nation-state law is the beginning of the collapse of democracy.

We said that the law, with its brazen wording, represents serous dangers to Israeli democracy, both in defining the identity and the character of the state, and in the formal existence of an orderly democratic regime. The blow to the value of equality as it is reflected in the nation-state law crudely tramples the delicate balance between the Jewish and the democratic aspects of the identity of the State of Israel.

A definition of identity that includes the principle of civic equality without regard to religion, race or gender, as well as the Jewish-Zionist principle of “an ingathering of the exiles,” creates the combination and the balance between a Jewish state with a message directed at Diaspora Jewry as well, and a country with a democratic identity, with a message of equality for all its citizens.

We said that in the face of the masterpiece of integration and balance in the Israeli Declaration of Independence between the Jewish and the universal, between the national-religious and the civic-secular, an ultranationalist law that presumes to redefine Israel’s identity while totally ignoring the democratic principles of equality and minority rights was a crude intrusion.

And (for now) they succeeded. The absence of any reference to civic equality or minority rights in the nation-state law reflects a clear intention of the legislator to do away with democracy.

In a democratic regime, the connection between equality and citizenship cannot be severed. If there is no equality among all the citizens, there is no democracy. There is no such thing as partial equality, there is no such thing as more-equal or less-equal – neither in mathematics nor in citizenship. It is impossible to say that all the citizens are equal but some citizens are more (or less) equal – that exists only in George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.”

There is no democracy without equality, because the recognition of equality dictates most of the principles of a democratic regime. The basic principle of the rule of the people and majority is based on the perception that everyone is equal. Because if not, we would have to weigh opinions and not only count votes. Other democratic principles are also based on the recognition of equality, including the principles of pluralism and tolerance, and the preservation of minority rights and individual and civil rights – all are clearly related to the recognition of the basic principle of equality.

Anyone who has read the nation-state law could already discern the dangers underlying the law. When Prof. Mordechai Kreminitzer wept on air after the legislation of the nation-state law, that wasn’t because of the insult to the Druze community, and when author David Grossman wrote that this law is bad for the State of Israel, he wasn’t trying to placate his Arab friends.

But today, six years later, this bizarre government has succeeded in systematically fulfilling its intentions and trampling every democratic foundation, each time with a different excuse.

Today everyone (who wants and is able to do so) understands that the revolution of regime change from a democracy to a monarchy began with that bizarre legislation, and even if we are able to stop it, the damage that was inflicted is tremendous and it will take time to repair it, if that is possible at all.

And a reminder: This law came into being over six years ago, and today we are all harvesting its rotten fruits – emergency regulations, the prohibition and repression of demonstrations, eavesdropping and more.

Who even remembers that there are minorities, Druze or others, whose rights as citizens were trampled long before, and whose Israeliness was denied them with that same famous selfie of “the heroes of the victory”?

Amal Asad is a brigadier general (res.) in the Israel Defense Forces and is leading the protest against the nation-state law.

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