May 26, 2019

Nation-State Law Was Not Necessary

Israel’s new “Nation-State” Basic Law is neither overtly racist nor suggestive of apartheid. Yet, it is a bad and unnecessary law and ought to be repealed. Israel already has its Declaration of Independence that sets the principles of the State of Israel as the Jewish and democratic nation-state of the Jewish people. 

There is much in the new law that is redundant: The principal language of Israel is Hebrew; the Israeli flag and national anthem are national symbols; Independence Day, Memorial Day and Holocaust Remembrance Day are holidays; Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the Jewish people.

The law is worrisome for several reasons. It formally demotes the Arabic language from an official language to one with “special status,” a slap in the face to the 20 percent minority of Arab-Israeli citizens and Israel’s Druze community. The message of the law to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza is that the State of Israel is the exclusive homeland of the Jewish people despite Palestinian claims for a nation-state of their own alongside Israel. The message to Palestinian Israeli citizens is that they are second-class citizens.

In 1992, a Basic Law was passed that emphasized human rights and equality under the law for all Israeli citizens. The nation-state law fails to mention equality, thus posing a veiled assault on Israel’s democratic tradition and the 1992 law. Future courts and legislatures can use this new law to de-emphasize Israeli democratic traditions.

One wonders why this law was enacted now. Is it a political attempt by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who advocated strongly for its adoption, to shore up his right-wing political base before the next election? 

Another bill currently making its way through the Knesset would raise the number of Orthodox yeshiva students required to serve in the army, a move bitterly opposed by the ultra-Orthodox parties, which have threatened to quit the coalition and force new elections should it become law. Netanyahu needs them in his coalition. Polls show his Likud party would gain no more seats were an election held today. 

The most pressing question for Israelis besides security is the relationship between democracy and Judaism.

The nation-state law has driven a deeper wedge between Israel and Diaspora Jewry. Tensions exist between the prime minister and the Reform and Conservative movements in North America due to his reneging on his own Kotel Agreement, his allowing ultra-Orthodox coalition partners to introduce a conversion bill that would exclude non-Orthodox conversions, and his alliances with President Donald Trump and American Christian evangelical extremists. 

Many in Netanyahu’s party oppose the law, such as President Reuven Rivlin, Benny Begin, Moshe Arens and Dan Meridor.

The vast majority of Israelis don’t want a medieval model imposed on their modern country. Israelis’ most pressing concern besides security is the relationship between democracy and Judaism. As long as Jews remain a significant majority (70 to 80 percent), the conflict between democracy and Judaism appears manageable. 

Section No. 7 of the law enshrines the settlements as an important goal of the country, an issue at the top of the right-wing agenda for decades. To most objective observers, Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state will be assured only by containing settlements to the large blocks that will remain in Israel in an eventual peace agreement and stopping the spread of settlements beyond the security fence that would make partition impossible. Only a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can preserve a strong Jewish majority, thereby preserving democracy and the Jewish character of the state. 

The nation-state law serves a worldview that’s damaging to Israel, a move toward ethnic religious nationalism dominating Israeli political affairs and the separation of Israel from millions of its supporters in the Diaspora. That is not what the nation’s founders envisioned for Israel.

Rabbi John Rosove is Senior Rabbi of Temple Israel of Hollywood and the National Chair of the Association of Reform Zionists of America.