Affirming Israel’s Jewish Character Does Not Negate Civil Equality

The new Basic Law proposed in the Knesset aims to interpret laws through the prism of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people and does not discriminate against any religion or establish any group as second class.

Joel H. Golovensky
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Joel H. Golovensky

Israel was conceived and was born as the Nation State of the Jewish people.

But this essential characteristic has been eroded and diminished. There are nine basic laws defining the state's democratic nature, but not one delineating its Jewish character. Two of these nine Basic Laws (The Dignity of Man and Freedom of Enterprise) have been used by the Supreme Court to enact a "constitutional revolution". One result of this revolution has been to distort the delicate balance between the Jewish and democratic interests of the state which had been carefully nurtured by the Supreme Court for the first 44 years of our existence. Many argue that the skewing of the balance between the two interests was simply part of the super-activist agenda of former Court President Barak and his revolutionary allies. But, in a recent position paper of the Institute for Zionist Strategies, Dr. Aviad Bakshi suggests that the broken equation resulted from the grossly lopsided constellation of Basic Laws: nine laws promote democracy, zero promote its Jewish character.

In the 18th Knesset, forty MKs introduced "Basic Law: Israel as the Nation State of the Jewish People," and the present government coalition agreements include a commitment for its passage in the 19th Knesset. The new law will redress the imbalance in the Basic Laws and reestablish the symmetry which prevailed for most of our history.

Contrary to the claims of some of those who oppose the law for their own reasons, the Basic Law does not repeal any other basic law nor even the Court's expansive interpretation of civil rights: The new law simply takes its place alongside the others. It does not negate the principle of equality, it does not discriminate against any religion or establish any group as second class. It does not seek to destroy the minority politically and juridically, as a recent Haaretz editorial recklessly asserted.

An example of what it does accomplish can be seen from the Supreme Court's decision in Gnimaat v. Medinat Yisrael (1995) where the court ruled that all laws enacted before or after the Basic Law of the Dignity of Man must be reinterpreted through the prism of those rights. The new Basic Law proposed for the current Knesset adds that the laws must also be interpreted through the prism of Israel as the Nation State of the Jewish People. This is an example of the Law adding to the existing basic laws and re-establishing a balance between the two "rights," rather than subordinating one to the other as currently is the case. The Basic Law: Israel as the Nation State of the Jewish People does not subordinate democratic principle to national rights: It simply reasserts the national interest as a fundamental principle alongside that of universal rights.

Haaretz's editorial attacking the proposed law does the newspaper a disservice. As each reader is invited to judge for himself, the editorial uses hysterical hyperbole rather than reasoned argument. This grossly distorts the new basic law and its effects.

The favorite distortion is that the new basic law demotes Arabic from its current position as an "official language." In fact, the law enhances the actual status of Arabic ensuring that Arabic speakers have access to all government services, by stating that access to Arabic will be a general overriding requirement, rather than the current ad hoc system that can be challenged by judicial process.

Indeed, it is not unlikely that the Ministry of Finance will oppose this provision since it will cost the State dearly in increased translations and publications. While Arabic was an official language under the British mandate, and while Ordinance 82 of the Mandate Law purports to carry this forward, the Courts from the beginning until today have interpreted the position of Arabic as a language which must be used under certain limited and defined circumstances – and not as an "official language". Thus, as my Institute has pointed out, Knesset laws and all debates, committee hearings, and plenary proceedings are conducted exclusively in Hebrew as are government promulgations. Court law suits, claims, papers, hearings, evidence, and rulings are all exclusively in Hebrew. If Arabic were an "official language," everything would have to take place in Arabic in addition to or even instead of Hebrew. It would cost huge amounts of resources for Israel to add Arabic or any other language (e.g., Russian or Amharic) as an official language.

Nor does the new basic law dilute equality or lessen the government's obligation to provide housing for Arabs and all other groups in equal measure. The new Basic Law does reaffirm the Jewish state's obligation to encourage aliyah and to build Jewish settlements inside its boundaries (which boundaries are unspecified but the impact of the law is to allow Jewish settlements within the 1967 boundaries; settlements outside these boundaries relate to other legal issues not governed by the proposed law) - the very heart of Zionist activity and development.

Under current judicial rulings (the most recent being the Katzir case), neither the government nor the Jewish National Fund can build exclusively Jewish settlements on state land (more than 90% of all land in Israel). However the court previously ruled that the government can build housing exclusively for Bedouins and prevent Jews from buying that (subsidized) housing. Thus in terms of legal rulings, the government can build settlements within the 1967 borders exclusively for Bedouin tribes, for example, but not for Jews!

Haaretz' editorial is unworthy of the paper’s high standards. It uses name calling rather than analysis. While besmirching three times as “racist” a law previously signed by 40 Knesset members, it attacks Naftali Bennett as the representative of "the skullcap wearing extreme right."

People of different views can reasonably debate the wisdom of the government law, but Haaretz’s editorial does not contribute to such a dialogue.

Joel H. Golovensky is the Founding President of The Institute for Zionist Strategies.

Israel's 33rd government sworn in at the Knesset.Credit: Emil Salman

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