Can Israel be a Jewish State and a True Democracy?

February 22, 2015

One month before the Israeli election, on Tuesday, February 17 in Tel Aviv, hundreds of journalists, political leaders, diplomats, and opinion-makers attended the “Israel Conference on Democracy” sponsored by the New Israel Fund, the Begin Heritage Center, the Israel Democracy Institute, and the ANU movement for social change. Reported on TLVI by Shoshi Shmuluvitz, I thought it important enough to pass the highlights of her report along to you in this blog.

One central focus of the conference was the future of the “Nation State Bill” and how the upcoming Israeli election will determine whether or not the Israeli government will pass this law.

This Basic Law proposal would define Israel as the “Nation-State of the Jewish People.” Introduced into the Knesset by Israeli right-wing parties in 2011, its purpose is to prevent Israel from becoming a bi-national state.

The law says that the right to self-determination in Israel would be unique to the Jewish people, that the state of Israel should establish ethnic communities in which every resident can preserve its culture and heritage, that the Hebrew language would be the only official language of the state while Arabic would have special status, that the Hebrew calendar would become the official national calendar, and that Jewish law would serve as an inspiration to Israeli legislators.

Daniel Sokatch, the CEO of the New Israel Fund, a leading organization committed to equality and democracy for all Israeli citizens, described the serious challenge to the nature of the state of Israel that this proposed law presents:

“The Nation State Bill puts the state, which has to be the neutral arbiter for all citizens, on the side of one bloc of citizens, and upends the fundamental principle that was integral to Israel’s founding, that Israel was a Jewish homeland and a democratic state that provided equal citizenship for all. The Nation State Bill would make the Jewish part always outweigh the democratic part, and the democratic part subservient to the Jewish part. This is not only unnecessary but dangerous because the bill recasts the character of the state.”

Avram Burg, a former speaker of the Knesset and a former head of the Jewish Agency, warned that there is a significant distinction between a “Jewish state” and “a state of the Jews.” A “State of the Jews” is a place where Jews can live and be the majority. The “Jewish state” is a state that discriminates in favor of one group against another.

Ahmad Tibi is an Israeli Arab member of the Knesset and one of ten Deputy Knesset Speakers. He describes himself as Arab-Palestinian in nationality and Israeli in citizenship. He observed that Israel runs 3 types of regimes:

The first is democratic for 80% of the population that is the Jewish majority.

The second discriminates against 20% of the population (the Arab Palestinian population who are Israeli citizens) in all areas except voting. He says there is no equality between Jews and Arabs in the areas of budget, education, services, housing starts, and industry.

The third is a non-democracy in the West Bank under the authority of the military administration that treats the Arab non-Israeli citizen population very differently than it does  the Jewish Israeli citizen settlement populations.

MK Tibi said that “A state that runs the 2nd discriminatory regime and the 3rd non-democratic regime cannot gain the status of a true democracy, yet Israel demands that the world recognize it only by the first kind of society that is democratic.”

Tzipi Livni, running with Yitzhak Herzog on the Zionist List in the upcoming election, said:

“The Prime Minister can’t go to a synagogue in France and tell the French that together we’re fighting against ISIS in the name of western values like equality when a few weeks earlier he refused to say that those should be the values of the state of Israel. And then he undermines our democracy, undermines our values, undermines the legitimacy of Israel, and undermines the part of the world that defends those rights.”

Why has this Nation State Bill become such a hot-button issue now?

Sokatch explained:

“There’s a deep-rooted sense of fear and insecurity that creates an atmosphere in which those in power want to stifle dissent and roll back democratic norms to something that is unfamiliar to those of us who want to be part of the liberal democratic family of nations.”

“There’s no doubt in my mind,” he continued, “that they care about the future of Israel; and foremost in their mind is the security of the state. The only way, however, to continue Israel’s future strength is as a modern, liberal, open democratic society that is also a homeland for the Jewish people.”

What is so disturbing about this Nation State Bill is that the value of democracy is being questioned and even assaulted by significant elements of Israeli society, and that not only presents  problems for Israel’s non-Jewish citizens, but it erodes the legitimacy of the Jewish state in the eyes of the western world.

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