One of the most iconic images in Israel’s history is the black and white 1948 photograph showing David Ben Gurion’s proclamation of the new state. He does so under the photograph of Theodore Herzl, the founder of political Zionism and the father of the Jewish state. The Declaration of Independence for the State of Israel was, and is, clear: Israel is a Jewish state and also a democratic state.
To Israel’s enemies – then and now– this has always been unacceptable; there should not be any Jewish state at all, just a democratic one. But to Israel’s friends, as long as Israel is democratic, its special nature as the Jewish homeland and sanctuary has always been acceptable.
Critics of the new law — Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People —passed by the Knesset very recently, maintain that the democratic/Jewish balance has been upset to Israel’s detriment. These critics say that the law makes Israel harder to defend against its enemies in Arab/Muslim countries and in the West by making Israel look illiberal.
Supporters say nothing essential has changed: The emphasis has shifted from democratic first and Jewish second to Jewish first and democratic second. Supporters say this redress in emphasis has been necessary for a long time.
It is clear that the new law emotionally separates Jewish from Arab citizens even more in Israel than has been the case in recent years. The law also drives a wedge between the conservative parties and the rest among Jewish Israelis.
In fact there has always been an unresolved dialectic between the Jewish nature of the state and its proudly democratic nature. The basic law tries to resolve the dialectic by proclaiming that Jewishness is the whole point of Israel.
The fact that the founders set up a Western style parliamentary democracy is important, and a source of pride, but not the reason Israel exists. Jewish national self-determination is the heart of Zionism and the reason Israel exists.
Israel will remain a democracy. Not much concrete will change. Arabic is now a “special language” but no longer an “official language.” That is a symbolic change. So is the statement that Jewish settlement is of great value to the nation.
However, most Arab Israelis feel that their citizenship is of a lower status than that of Jewish citizens and really, logically, this must be the case if Israel is the national home for the Jewish people. Israelis who are Arab feel their citizenship is incidental in a way Jewish citizenship is not.
Certainly the passage of this law is yet another sign of Israel’s shift to the right.
Prime Minister Netanyahu insists that the Palestinian Authority recognize Israel’s right to self-determination as a specifically Jewish state. This new basic law may help push that goal along. Up until now the PA has not recognized Israel as a specifically Jewish state.
The new law is not well-received by many Jewish organizations in America. Among others, the nation-state law has been criticized by the American Jewish Committee and the leadership of the Reform and Conservative movements.
Much of the criticism of the new law in Israel and around the world has been hysterical and hyperbolic. That is a characteristic of this moment in history.
Nevertheless, I personally do not think that its passage was a good idea.
The new law has inflamed tensions by stating mostly obvious truths about Israel. I don’t think it will move the Palestinians toward recognizing the Jewish nature of Israel. The law drives Jews in Israel further apart, agitates Arab citizens even more and invigorates Israel’s enemies in the larger world. The passage of the Basic Law has made the job of Israel’s supporters a bit harder.
I can’t see how the passage of this law, Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, has made things better.