The Jewish Nation-state Bill Only Weakens Israel's Democratic Foundations

The State of Israel’s identity is liable to be held hostage to the desire of ministers and their parties to favor their political ambitions over democratic principles.

Haaretz Editorial
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opens the weekly cabinet meeting at his Jerusalem office on November 16, 2014.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opens the weekly cabinet meeting at his Jerusalem office on November 16, 2014.Credit: AFP
Haaretz Editorial

After heavy political pressure exerted by coalition leaders, it was decided on Monday to postpone by a week a vote on the proposed basic law on the Jewish nation-state. But despite this delay, one cannot avoid stating that if these proposals in their current wording pass into law, they will remove the State of Israel from the community of democratic nations, and give it a place of honor instead beside those dark regimes in which minorities are persecuted.

The bill stipulates, among other things, that Arabic – the language of 20 percent of the country’s population – will lose its historic status as an official language; that the equal rights of minorities to live anywhere in the country will be compromised; that Jewish law, which is assimilated into Israeli law, will be given preferred status; and, most of all, that Israel’s definition as a Jewish state will prevail over its definition as a democracy.

The explanatory notes accompanying the bill state that it is required, “At a time when there are those who seek to do away with the right of the Jewish people to a national home in its land, and with the recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.” But this bill will not strengthen recognition of Israel as the Jewish people’s nation-state. It will only weaken its democratic foundations.

Beyond the dispute over whether such a law is necessary – let alone how it should be worded – it appears that Israel’s future identity has become part of a political game, in which settling personal accounts between the prime minister and some of his ministers is much more important than the threat to the status of Israel, its citizens and, particularly, its minorities.

The much-needed debate on the dangerous ramifications of this law has been replaced by speculation on whether the government can survive after it is voted on. The question of whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu means to use the law as a way of catapulting his partners/rivals out of the ring so he can establish a new coalition, or to force a new election, is overshadowing any discussion of its foolish clauses. Thus, the State of Israel’s identity – which was never subject to dispute since its founding – is liable to be held hostage to the desire of ministers and their parties to favor their political ambitions over the principles on which a democracy should rest.

In this context, the positions of Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni are particularly important, because their votes will determine the future of this bill and this government. Lapid and Livni made clear that they do not plan to support any versions of the bill drawn up by Zeev Elkin and Ayelet Shaked. They must be encouraged to stick to this position, even if it means dissolving the government, going to an election, and losing their places in the next cabinet.

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