Quite a few states in the 20th century passed, or tried to pass, nationality laws, through efforts that share certain similarities. All took place in countries with at least one national minority (sometimes more than one) that sought full equality in the state or in a territory that had become part of the state and in which it had lived for generations.
Nationality laws were passed in societies that felt threatened by these minorities’ aspirations of integration and demands for equality, resulting in regimes that turned xenophobia into major tropes.
Nationality laws were passed in states that were grounded in one ethnic identity, defined in contrast to the identity of the other, leading to persecution of and codified discrimination against minorities. Jews were the first victims of these regimes, in which phobias and suspicion replaced the principles of social and political pluralism.
In 1937, the Polish economist Olgierd Górka wrote that the Polish state was an economic asset whose legal owners could do as they pleased with it. Decisions on national issues were thus similar to the choices made by a factory owner. The state belonged to the major group that shaped its essence and spirit, and which exercised its ownership of it — the ethnic Poles. Polish Catholicism gave the Poles the right to own the national asset known as the Polish state.
Knesset member Yariv Levin’s explanations of his nationality bill suggests that he is following Górka’s path. According to Levin, the state’s Jewish expressions reflect the fact that Israel is not only the Jews’ nation-state, but also a state whose very lifeblood is Judaism — a situation that is unique in all the world. A unique situation in the Western, democratic world, but it has a historical precedent in the Poles’ attempt to create a state that pushed its minorities out of the national partnership.
Romania, too — a state with many minorities, including a large Jewish one — was gripped by a fervor to be defined as the Romania nation-state.
In an essay, the national historian Constantin Giurescu wrote that the ideal of the resurgent Romanian nation was to ensure the optimal development of the most eminent population group, the Romanians. The Romanian nation-state must advance the dominant ethnic group, he wrote, while the minorities were a “problem” that should be seen as “guest groups” or groups under the protection of the true citizens. He did not specify the rights that would be granted to such groups.
Romania’s policy toward minorities became clearer after Ion Antonescu came to power. During World War II it went from attempting an “ethnic cleansing” of the Bulgarians to the expulsion and annihilation of the Jews and the Roma, also known as Gypsies. But few believed the debate over nationality laws in the interwar period would end in an effort to solve the nationality question by purging the nation of its minorities.
The proposed nationality bill does not refer explicitly to the rights of minorities living in Israel and does not explicitly guarantee their equal rights. The version proposed by Levin (Likud) and MK Ayelet Shaked (Habayit Hayehudi), and presumably that of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as well, say that Israel will be Jewish and democratic and it guarantees, in a general manner, the equal personal rights of every citizen, in accordance with the laws of the state.
But alongside this lip service, the bill specifies that national minorities are to have no say regarding the character of the state of which they are supposedly citizens with equal rights.
Minorities have no right to any national expression in their own country. All obligatory state symbols are Jewish ones. Only Jews have the right to immigrate freely and receive citizenship. The state will cultivate only the Jewish heritage and traditions; Jewish law is to serve as inspiration for laws, and so on.
One need not be a historian to see the resemblance between the Israeli nationality bill and nationality laws of 80 years ago. Like them, it delineates the boundaries between the most important, dominant group of citizens and the rest, who are turned into guests of a sort in their own country — tolerated ones, for the present.
At the extreme nationalist fringe of the bill’s promoters, efforts are already under way to define its final goal. The followers of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane and members of Lehava will not settle for formulas specifying Israel’s Jewish character and the Jews’ sole claim to national privilege in the state. Their model for the nationality law is the Nuremberg Laws. Their main goal is to preserve Jewish racial purity and to wage war on marriages or romantic relationships between Jews and members of minority groups.
Lehava’s website states: “Intermarriage is forbidden according to the will of God, who gave severe warnings in his Torah against mixing the seed of the living God with other nations and against losing the special uniqueness of the Jewish people.”
No, they say, this is not racism. The goal is only to protect our nation. In 1936, two Nazi jurists, Bernhard Lösener and Friedrich Knost, published a book about the Jewish question in Germany that spoke about the Nuremberg Laws. The purpose of these laws, they wrote, was not to cause racial hatred. On the contrary, it was to ease and regulate the relationship between Jews and Germans over the long term.
What can we learn from all the efforts to pass nationality laws? Mainly that we know what they lead to. We also know that many of the individuals who laid the ideological foundations for such legislation or who supported then never envisioned that they had set in motion a process whose end they could not have imagined.
The author is a professor of Holocaust-era history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
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