What’s behind the effort to make Israel, the ‘Jewish State,’ more ‘Jewish’
With the myriad challenges the Israeli government currently faces – regional turmoil, unrest in Jerusalem, and opposition to a highly contentious budget — this might seem like an interesting time for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to promulgate a new law defining Israel’s identity as “the nation state of the Jewish people.” The bill, which was supposed to have been voted on this Wednesday but has now been delayed, would recognize Jewish religious law as an inspiration for legislation, and affirm that, “The right to the fulfillment of national self-determination within the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.”
At first glance, the timing for this bill is odd. The past months have seen the most unrest in years among Israel’s Palestinian population. The murder of 16 year-old Muhammad Abu Khdeir, who was kidnapped and set on fire in revenge for the murder of three Israeli teenagers in July, have fueled tensions that are high after decades of neglect at the hands of the Israeli government. Anti-Arab demagoguery by Israeli politicians, and anti-Arab attacks by Israeli citizens who take that demagoguery seriously, is on the upswing In the view of Israel’s non-Jewish citizens, who make up some 20% of the population, the new law would make clear that they are second-class citizens.
The move is understandable, however, when one takes into account that Netanyahu needs to protect his right flank from rising contenders like Naftali Bennett, Minister of the Economy, who recently wrote a New York Times op-ed declaring the two-state solution dead. Netanyahu is also pressured by critics within his own Likud Party, where he finds himself representing the left-leaning camp in an increasingly right-wing party.
Israeli centrists and liberals, including former Israeli president Shimon Peres, have roundly criticized the proposed law. “The bill will damage the country both at home and abroad and it will erode the democratic principles of the State of Israel,” Peres said, calling it “an attempt to undermine the Declaration of Independence for political interests.” Israel’s current president, Reuven Rivlin, who has been waging an admirable campaign against racism in Israel, also criticized the proposed law. Leaders of two centrist parties in Netanyahu’s governing coalition, Tzipi Livni of Hatnua and Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid, have said that they will oppose the bill.
For its part, the U.S. State Department issued a subtle but clear warning against the bill. “Israel is a Jewish and democratic state and all its citizens should enjoy equal rights. We expect Israel to stick to its democratic principles,” said spokesperson Jeff Rathke last week — earning him a quick rebuke from Bennett.
As for Israel’s Arab population, they quite clearly see the bill as an effort to codify their inferior status. In the wake of the horrendous synagogue terror attack of November 18, much was made of the fact that one of those killed, Zidan Saif, an Israeli policeman, was himself an Arab, and a member of Israel’s small Druze community. Yet this new law would make clear that this man was not an equal citizen to those whom he died defending.
“The ‘nation-state law,’ is saying, in other words: ‘Only the Jews should remain here,’” Zidan’s uncle, Mahmoud Zeif, said on Israeli Army radio last week. “So many came to comfort us last week, and to exalt Zidan for saving lives, and today [the government] passes a law like this. How can this be? Why is this at all necessary?”
Saif’s brother said that he would discourage other members of the Druze community to join the IDF as a result of the law.
It’s worth recognizing that the issues of identity that the law attempts to address are real and legitimate. And Israel is by no means the only country that faces the challenge of balancing liberalism and nationalism. But the current law seems to simply abandon any pretense of balance in favor of the latter. Like other populist leaders in the region and beyond (Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan comes to mind), Netanyahu has now chosen to favor chauvinism over equality for the basest of reasons: political survival.
One imagines that Netanyahu would have something to say about any similar law being passed in the United States, home to the world’s second-largest Jewish community, asserting America’s Christian identity. And he would be right to.
Since taking office in 2009, Netanyahu has placed a great deal of emphasis on the demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state in any final status agreement. But given how contentious this issue has proven to be even among Israelis themselves, it hardly seems reasonable to demand that the Palestinian leadership weigh in on the question.
“This law is fearful. It is not closing the chapter on Israel’s tense relationship between Jewish identity and the State,” wrote Israeli analyst Dahlia Scheindlin, “it is opening the window to acid rain.”
The law is framed as an attempt to resolve tensions between Israel’s democratic and Jewish aspects, but it seems far more likely that it will only heighten those tensions. The consequences remain to be seen, but it’s safe to say that it won’t bring greater security or peace – for anyone.
PHOTO: Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement to the media in Jerusalem November 18, 2014 REUTERS/Baz Ratner