September 23, 2018

Nationality Law: Optics Vs. Impact

I understand why so many people are freaking out over the recent legislation making Israel the “nation-state of the Jewish people.” The optics aren’t good. While much of the Nationality Law affirms the obvious symbols of a Jewish state — the flag, the national anthem, holidays, etc. — other parts are more controversial. These include clauses relegating the Arab language to a “special” status rather than an official one, and promoting the establishment of Jewish communities throughout Israel.

Like I said, bad optics. But what about actual impact? 

Yuval Shani, executive vice president of the Israel Democracy Institute, an independent think tank known to be highly sensitive to anything that threatens Israel’s democratic character, told The Jerusalem Post: “It is not a game changer and has very little problematic implications. It won’t change how the country is run.”

 Having said that, Shani added: “It is not an injury but an insult.”

So, while Arabs and other minorities will not suffer injury and will have the same civil liberties as before — the same freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom to protest, freedom of the press, etc. — many of them may feel insulted and diminished because the “Jewish” part of “Jewish state” will become more official. 

Said another way, the Zionist elephant in the room will now be sitting at the table, munching on the hummus.

I guess it was just a matter of time before the great paradox of the Zionist project — A state for the Jews with equal rights for non-Jews? A Jewish state that recognizes other religions? — would come in for some reckoning. How could it not?

The Jewish democracy project was always destined to be a delicate dance between two crucial ideals in constant tension.

 I confess that what I find bothersome in all the hysteria is a seeming lack of appreciation for the incredible difficulty in managing this paradox, not to mention the precarious tension inherent in the very idea of a Jewish democracy.

Presumably, critics of the Nationality Law would have had no problem with beefing up the “democratic” part of the equation. That would have triggered no controversy. But to beef up the Jewish part? That’s not as popular.

“Democracy” signifies human rights, freedom, equality, social justice and all the noble ideals associated with modern societies.

“Jewish” signifies religion, tribalism, exclusivity and all that is unfashionable about less enlightened nation-states.

Viewed through that lens, any move seen as downplaying democracy and playing up Jewishness is asking for trouble, even if the trouble is mostly symbolic. That is what happened with the Nationality Law: Israel played up its Jewishness and the world pounced.

Through the firestorm, we don’t hear much about Israel’s courageous accomplishment on the democratic side of the ledger. Amid the toxic talk about Israel turning into a racist state, you would never know that the luckiest Muslims in the Middle East are the ones who live in the Jewish state, a state under siege and in a continuous state of war.  

If the law “is not a game changer” and “won’t change how the country is run,” why are people freaking out over the recognition of the Jewish character of the Jewish state? 

With all of their challenges, it is only in Israel where Arabs and Muslims enjoy such a high level of basic rights and freedoms. The new law changes none of that, good or bad. What it does is touch an emotional chord — it reminds non-Jews that they live in a Jewish country.

I don’t want to minimize that sentiment, but I don’t want to blow it out of proportion, either.

It’s instructive that most criticism of the new law is indeed blown out of proportion, as with the Jewish leader who predicted it would result in “enormous damage” to the “legitimacy of the Zionist vision.”

Really? As much as I agree that the optics are bad and a case could be made that the law wasn’t necessary, such over-the-top reactions end up making a case that the law may, in fact, be necessary.

After all, if the law “is not a game changer” and “won’t change how the country is run,” why are people freaking out over the recognition of the Jewish character of the Jewish state? In other words, if the world explodes in horror at a step to reaffirm Israel’s Jewishness, maybe that in itself is a reason for Israel to take that step.

“National self-determination for the Jews in the State of Israel does not compromise by one iota the democratic or human rights of any of its other citizens,” wrote British journalist Melanie Phillips, who has written on the Middle East for decades. “No country in the world offers national self-determination to its minorities, for the simple reason that to do so would make those minorities themselves a nation.”

In any event, the Jewish democracy project was always destined to be a delicate dance between two crucial ideals in constant tension. The rising hysteria against the new law has turned this dance into a fistfight. 

If you ask me, those are also bad optics.