Netanyahu’s new nation-state law doesn’t even serve his own stated goals for it

The vaguely formulated law does nothing practically to help guarantee Israel as a Jewish state, but it does risk making Israel less democratic

Raphael Ahren

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at an annual event for foreign journalists in Jerusalem, January 10, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at an annual event for foreign journalists in Jerusalem, January 10, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Many paragraphs of the so-called Jewish Nation-State Law state the obvious: Hatikva is Israel’s anthem, its flag is blue and white with a Star of David in the middle, and so on. Fair enough. Others are more problematic. In the best cases, their practical application remains entirely unclear. In the worst, they reek of discrimination.

For instance, the law says the language of the state is Hebrew, while Arabic “has a special status in the state.” Critics argue this is effectively downgrading Arabic, which until now was considered an “official language.” But the law also says that it does nothing to “harm the status given to the Arabic language before this law came into effect.”

What will the law mean for the future of Arabic in Israel? Will street signs henceforth only be written in Hebrew and English? Will the government stop printing certain forms in Arabic? Nobody knows.

Then there’s the segment that stipulates that the “right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.” What does that even mean?

Defending the bill long before it was passed into law on July 19, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu explained that while civil rights are enjoyed by all Israeli citizens, national rights are reserved for Jews. “It will define the national right of the Jewish people over the State of Israel, without infringing on the individual rights of any Israeli citizen,” he said of the bill at a cabinet meeting in 2014.

Everyone knows what civil rights are: free speech, the right to privacy and property, the right to worship according to one’s conscience, and so on.

But what is a national right?

The law wants to set in stone the fact that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people. Most Jewish Israelis adamantly support that notion. Jews, like all other nations, have the right to sovereignty in their ancient homeland.

But that idea could have been expressed — indeed it was expressed in several previous drafts of the law that were disregarded by the government — without divisive language. If what you want to do is to proclaim Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, you can do so without explicitly denying non-Jewish citizens a “right” you bestow upon Jewish citizens.

What practical effect is intended by this clause about the right to exercise national self-determination being “unique to the Jewish people”? Again, it’s not clear. But it doesn’t seem to square with that basic principle of democracy: every citizen has exactly the same rights. Enlightened countries usually don’t distinguish between “individual rights” and “national rights,” and neither had Israel — until now.

This clause — and the law as a whole — also appear to blatantly contradict Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which not only vowed to “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex,” but also invited Arab inhabitants to “participate in the upbuilding of the State on the basis of full and equal citizenship.”

With Ayoub Kara, Netanyahu himself appointed a non-Jew to a cabinet post. The prime minister takes pride in the fact that non-Jews serve on Israel’s highest courts. Judge George Kara, a Christian Arab, famously convicted former president Moshe Katsav of rape and sent him to prison. An Arab Supreme Court justice, Salim Joubran, oversaw our last elections in 2015.

So what right do Jews have that George Kara doesn’t have, that Salim Joubran doesn’t have? Is something now supposed to change? We don’t know.

Likud MK Oren Hazan takes a selfie with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, and MK David Bitan, right of Netanyahu, after the passage of the so-called Jewish State law at the Knesset on July 19, 2018. (AP Photo/Olivier Fitoussi)

Confronted with growing criticism of the nation-state law, especially from Israel’s Druze community, Netanyahu this week argued that the legislation was crucial in order to protect both Israel’s Jewish identity and its Jewish majority. And he claimed that left-wing criticism of the law was therefore hypocritical.

“Over decades the opposition has preached to us that we must withdraw to the 1967 lines in order to ensure that Israel remains the national state of the Jewish people in which there is a Jewish majority,” he said during Sunday’s weekly cabinet meeting. “Then suddenly when we pass a Basic Law to ensure exactly this, the left cries out in protest? What hypocrisy.”

This argument is disingenuous.

When many on the left advocate against the expansion of settlements and for a withdrawal from large parts of the West Bank, they do so in part because of the perceived imperative to separate from the Palestinians. If a partition of the land becomes impossible, and we are forever intertwined in a single entity, they fear, this larger, binational state will lose its Jewish majority and would thus have to subvert its democracy if the Jews were to continue to determine its direction.

Israel, in other words, they argue, cannot remain a democracy with a Jewish majority if it holds on to all of the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. This is a conundrum to which the pro-settlement movement has yet to provide a consensually satisfactory answer.

Netanyahu understands this issue perfectly well, despite his declared support for the settlements and his opposition to a fully sovereign Palestinian state.

Whatever he said at Sunday’s cabinet meeting, he also knows perfectly well that merely passing a law that declares “national self-determination” to be exclusive to Jews does absolutely nothing to practically help guarantee a Jewish majority in Israel, or to change the fact that Israel’s identity as a Jewish state is in peril if no separation from the Palestinians is achieved.

The prime minister also argues that the nation-state law is necessary to protect Israel from ongoing attacks against its Jewish character.

“There are unending attempts to rescind the definition of the State of Israel as the national state of the Jewish people. We legislated the Nation-State Law in order to ensure that Israel will remain the national state of our people — this is the purpose of the state’s existence,” he said, also Sunday, during a meeting with Druze local council heads.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Druze regional council heads at his office in Jerusalem to discuss the nation-state law on July 29, 2018. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

What are these “attempts to rescind” Israel’s status as a Jewish state? This writer initially thought Netanyahu was thinking of the occasional Haaretz op-ed proposing changing the words of “Hatikva” to make it more inclusive.

But Netanyahu provided a different example. “Please share: why the nation-state law is needed to guarantee the State of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people,” he wrote on his Facebook and Twitter accounts, together with a clip of MK Hanin Zoabi.

In the clip, Zoabi, a highly provocative, anti-Zionist lawmaker for the Joint (Arab) List, says her party rejects the idea of a Jewish state. “Even if we are talking about two states — not one of them can be a Jewish state,” she says.

תשמעו את חנין זועבי ותבינו למה צריך את חוק הלאום

שתפו בבקשה: למה צריך את חוק יסוד הלאום שיבטיח את מדינת ישראל כמדינת הלאום של העם היהודי >>

Posted by ‎Benjamin Netanyahu – בנימין נתניהו‎ on Sunday, July 29, 2018

Zoabi’s words are sure to make most every Jewish Israeli cringe. But she represents a small minority of the Israeli electorate. Netanyahu knows full well that her vision of a non-Zionist Israel next to a Palestinian state has zero chance of being implemented in the near or distant future.

There are, however, several ways to strengthen Israel’s Jewish character without antagonizing its non-Jewish minority. There may be profound political disagreements about whether he could be doing more to create a climate in which it might one day be possible to safely separate from the Palestinians. But there is little argument, by contrast, that he could do more to solve the crises surrounding the conversion law and the Western Wall, and thus ensure that Jews of all religious stripes would feel more welcome here.

Simply legislating that only Jews have “the right to exercise national self-determination” does not guarantee that Israel will remain a Jewish state. The concern is that it merely makes Israel a little less democratic.

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