Where Did 'Democratic' Go?

The proposed nation-state bill undermines equality and would actually harm Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state

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David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, reading the Declaration of Independence in Tel Aviv, 1948.
David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, reading the Declaration of Independence in Tel Aviv, 1948.Credit: AP

The ministerial committee formulating the nation-state bill is finishing up the bill’s rewording, and it seems it will not define Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Even the mention of a democratic form of government is subject to dispute. In the best case, Israel will be defined in the bill as “a Jewish state with a democratic form of government.” But more vague language is also being considered that wouldn’t mention democracy at all, but define Israel as “a Jewish state in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel.”

This basic law is superfluous and damaging. The Declaration of Independence includes the historic basis for the establishment of the state, and the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty refers to Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state.” Other regular laws like the Law of Return as well as the Flag and Symbols Law leave no doubt as to the state’s national character. There’s no need for another basic law, certainly not one that will put the state’s democratic foundations in second place and remove it from the state’s decisive definition.

Those proposing these versions of the bill claim they’re aiming to entrench the existing situation, but the truth is we’re talking about a revolution aimed at sabotaging the state’s official status as a liberal democracy. This is an effort to establish in a basic law that the country’s democratic foundation is subordinate to its Jewish one, and to state explicitly that all legislation in the country will be subject to this principle.

In democratic countries the state is perceived as belonging to all its citizens. The proposed “nation-state” model in this bill is one of nationalist ethnic exclusion. If this bill is passed, the state’s discriminatory ethnic character will be enhanced and its democratic character diminished.

If other countries were to constitutionally identify the state solely with the majority group, it would lead to the dismantling of Canada, the United Kingdom and Belgium. Israel’s identifying as a “Jewish state” in a way that undermines equality and minorities would actually harm Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state.

There is resistance in Israel to formulating a constitution or a bill of rights. The Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty and the Basic Law on Freedom of Occupation contain only some of the rights meant to be guaranteed by a constitution. They do not contain any explicit recognition of the right to equality that is the basis of a democratic regime. Although the Supreme Court has ruled that the right to human dignity should be interpreted as including the right to equality, the silence of the Knesset on this issue is deafening.

There is already broad discrimination in Israel against Arab citizens in all realms of life. What’s needed now is a step toward civic equality, not a basic law that will intensify the existing segregation. But the purpose of the nation-state bill is to establish the inequality in law and make it clear to the Arab minority who’s the boss. We must fight for democracy and utterly reject the nation-state bill.

The above article is Haaretz's lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.