January 23, 2019

In support of Israel’s national identity bill

The collapse of the Netanyahu government is very much the tragedy of a death foretold. The tensions in the coalition were inherent from the beginning. But new legislation that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seeks to introduce may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. The proposed legislation, which would define Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, is an attempt to finally produce the Israeli equivalent of a Constitution, establishing the guiding principles for the state’s governance. The document itself is short — barely a page long — and expressed in very simple language.

It affirms some very basic principles — principles that have been widely recognized as fundamental to the state’s existence and have been largely taken for granted over the past 67 years, including reference to the land of Israel as the historic home of the Jewish people, its right to self determination and an affirmation that at the state’s very foundation are the notions of freedom, justice and peace.

The question is, why now? What has impelled Netanyahu to risk his government over something that is widely accepted in the country anyway?

The answer is multidimensional but can probably be redacted to a few key words: the need to set both a vision and a purpose for the country.

In rapid succession over the past 20 years, the concept of the legitimacy of a Jewish state has come under pounding internal assault — first in the 1990s from Israel’s post- Zionist historians, then from the Israeli Supreme Court under Chief Justice Aharon Barak; following that, from a raft of post-9/11 campus radicals; and finally from the Palestinian Authority itself, which is now successfully leading the world in its delegitimization efforts. They have attempted to chip away at the foundational legitimacy of the Jewish state, declaring any religious affiliation of the state to be racist and buttressing accusations of a reversion to South African-style apartheid. Forgotten, of course, is that most Arab countries in the region define themselves as Islamic states, and Israel is far and above the only country in the Middle East to extend true legal protections to its minorities.

From the state’s very beginnings, it has been debated whether Israel should be governed as a Jewish state or as a state of all its citizens. No one has forgotten that there is a sizable minority — a little more than 20 percent — of non-Jews living in the country, including a broad mix of Arabs, Druze, Bedouins, Thais, Filipinos and Russians.

The question has never been completely resolved, and in the absence of a Constitution (which was once attempted but abandoned when the tension over the religious character of the state scuttled the effort), the country has been legally held together by the passage of a series of Basic Laws, which govern such controversial subjects as Sabbath observance, marriage, death, conversions and immigration.

But now, as one European country after another lines up to recognize a Palestinian state outside of an internationally sanctioned peace agreement, the government of Israel can probably see the writing on the wall. Just as Palestinians have elected not to accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state, so will the international community be goaded into following suit when it finds Israel doggedly resistant to the demands for the establishment of an implacable foe on its doorstep.

Opponents of the new law have mounted a vigorous attack upon it, declaring it at odds with the democratic nature of the state.

It’s a curious argument, as our modern understanding of the concept of democracy is government sanctioned by the majority. The democratic nature of a state is not destroyed when the majority elects a government that seeks to affirm the nation’s identity and character.

In addition, the bill takes great pains to stress that the state will uphold the individual rights of all its citizens according to law; that the state will act to enable all residents of Israel, regardless of religion, race or nationality, to preserve their culture, heritage, language and identity; and that members of recognized faiths shall be entitled to rest on their Sabbath and holidays.

No discrimination against any non-Jews there.

But there is another important argument to make. There are those critics who portray democracy as a sacred totem to which all human beings must bow in worship, even when the existence of that ideal conflicts with the expressions of a nation’s identity or even its national security. However, even the West’s greatest philosophers and most fervent proponents of democracy never believed that there was a perfect representative system that would ensure the interests of all citizens within any given polity would be completely represented. How could it be logically so when democracy is the rule by majority vote? To put it starkly, in any democracy, there will always be tension between a majority mandate and minority aspirations. They are in constant balance and at times the balance will shift unfavorably against the minority.

We are well aware, after all, of the flaws in American representative government and how hard it is to guarantee that any law passed by Congress will not at one time or another be tipped against one particular minority or group of individuals. We cannot forget that a small country such as Israel, with a population
1/39 the size of the U.S. population, is a unique experiment in world history and as a Jewish sovereign democratic state — the first in 2,000 years — cannot and should not be expected to meet an impossible standard that even the most vigorous democratic nations have failed to achieve.

The vote in the Knesset to approve the “Israel, the Nation-State of the Jewish People” bill has become essential for Israelis themselves to stridently affirm that, after centuries of persecution, there now exists and will always exist a place of refuge for the Jewish people, one which guarantees, in the words of the country’s 1948 Declaration of Independence, “the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, in their own sovereign state.” It is this unassailable right to self-determination, which draws its life blood from Jewish law and history, that lies at the heart of Israel’s founding — and not its opponents’ tendentious argument that protecting the sensitivities of minorities was and is primary. The twin ideals of Jewish nationhood and representative democracy have sometimes come into conflict — that is true. But, as many Zionist thinkers have recognized, that tension might be the price for having any Jewish state at all.

Avi Davis is the president of the American Freedom Alliance in Los Angeles. He blogs at The Intermediate Zone.