Last July, a few days after the controversial Jewish Nation-State bill was voted into law, the Jerusalem Report magazine fired its longtime cartoonist Avi Katz for drawing the legislation’s champions as pigs from George Orwell’s 1945 classic “Animal Farm.”
Above the illustration, Katz wrote the book’s most famous line, “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”
One can argue over whether it’s ever appropriate to draw Jews as pigs. But in Orwell’s novel, they represent a corrupt ruling class claiming that all animals have the same rights when really they don’t, and that was clearly the point Katz wanted to make.
Comments Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made over the weekend about the law suggest that Katz’s illustration was spot-on, with the premier’s explanation of what the legislation means regarding equality reflecting that of the pigs in “Animal Farm.”
The revived discussion over the Basic Law: Israel – the Nation State of the Jewish People started when model and actress Rotem Sela complained about Likud Minister Miri Regev accusing her party’s political rivals of wanting to establish a government with the help of Arab parties.
“What is the problem with the Arabs???” Sela wrote on her Instagram account, which has hundreds of thousands of followers. “Dear god, there are also Arab citizens in this country. When the hell will someone in this government convey to the public that Israel is a state of all its citizens and that all people were created equal, and that even the Arabs and the Druze and the LGBTs and — shock — the leftists are human.”
To the surprise of many, Netanyahu responded to her post: “Dear Rotem, an important correction: Israel is not a state of all its citizens. According to the nation-state law we passed, Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people — and not anyone else,” he wrote on his own Instagram account.
“As you wrote, there is no problem with Israel’s Arab citizens. They have equal rights and the Likud government has invested more than any other government in the Arab population,” he added.
The issue was evidently so important to him that he brought it up again at Sunday’s weekly cabinet meeting.
“I would like to clarify a point that, apparently, is not clear to slightly confused people in the Israeli public. Israel is a Jewish, democratic state. What this means is that it is the nation-state of the Jewish people alone,” he declared. “Of course it respects the individual rights of all its citizens – Jews and non-Jews alike. But it is the nation-state, not of all its citizens, but only of the Jewish people.”
Non-Jews have “national representation” in other states, he went on. “The national representation of the Jewish people is in the State of Israel. Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people and of it alone.”
The nation-state law, passed into law on July 19, 2018, stipulates that the “right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.” What that means in concrete terms remains unclear.
“Israel’s Arab citizens vote in our elections, serve in our parliament, preside over our courts, and have exactly the same individual rights as all other Israeli citizens,” Netanyahu told the United Nations General Assembly in September.
So what are these rights to national self-determination they don’t have?
In his speech in New York, Netanyahu also said that there are dozens of countries “that define themselves as nation states of a particular people, even though there are many ethnic and national minorities within their borders.” He did not specify.
Was he was referring to countries like the Syrian Arab Republic, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, the Arab Republic of Egypt or the Islamic Republic of Iran? He presumably does not want to emulate the way these states treat minorities.
Perhaps he had in mind a country like Ireland, whose constitution speaks of the “Irish nation.” If so, one may wonder how he’d feel if Dublin were to pass a new law saying that Ireland is the nation-state of the Irish people, and of no one else.
And what if the Bundestag were to declare that the right to exercise national self-determination in Germany is unique to ethnic Germans, with Chancellor Angela Merkel insisting that other groups, even if they have citizenship, need to seek “national representation” elsewhere?
Of course there are huge differences between stable and secure European countries and the embattled State of Israel. No one is trying to wipe Germany off the map; no one is questioning Ireland’s right to exist. By contrast, there are many forces that want the world’s only Jewish state to disappear.
Israel’s robust democracy — which includes guaranteeing “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants,” as promised in the Declaration of Independence — was always seen as crucially important in rebuffing efforts to delegitimize the state.
Netanyahu’s provocative distinction between “individual rights” and the “right to exercise national self-determination” is meaningless in practice — by which I mean that the nation-state law does nothing concrete to help guarantee Israel as a Jewish state or to deny non-Jewish rights in Israel — yet risks depicting Israel as akin to the pigs’ unjust regime in Orwell’s novel.
All Israelis are equal but, according to Netanyahu’s stated understanding of the nation-state law, evidently some are more equal than others.