Does Israel need the new nation-state law? (or: please stop toying with Israel’s vision)

November 24, 2014

First, full disclosure: I assisted in compiling the recommendations given by Prof. Ruth Gavison to Minister of Justice Tzipi Livni on the constitutional anchoring of Israel’s vision. This report was submitted to Minister Livni last Wednesday (Hebrew version – here. An English version should be available soon). I am also the principal author of “Jewish and Democratic: Perspectives from World Jewry”, a special report by The Jewish People Policy Institute that deals with this matter. The views in the following article are my own.

We have to begin this article with some facts: in the last couple of years, several initiatives were made to add to Israel’s book of laws a new law that would more clearly anchor Israel’s status as a “Jewish State”. These initiatives (for background about them, and about the rationale behind them, look at the background chapter of the JPPI study) were highly controversial, and last week they were the cause of a political crisis within the coalition. This crisis now threatens the future of the coalition.

Yesterday the cabinet approved a version of the proposed Basic Law – amid much protest and political maneuvering. The Knesset is supposed to vote on the legislation next Wednesday. The threat to the coalition is serious, and hence it is not at all clear that an actual vote is going to take place, let alone get a majority of votes. That is to say: the road ahead is still long and can be winding. Reaching agreement on the final language of this bill, language behind which a majority could stand, is not going to be an easy task. Legislation is always about details, and in the case of a bill that is mainly declaratory even more so – every word could be a cause for disagreement, every nuance can foil the attempt to pass the bill.

Does Israel even need such a bill? Obviously, there are legislators and ministers who believe that it does. The Gavison report to Minister Livni argues that it doesn’t. But it is important to look at all of Gavison’s conclusions: she does not claim that Israel has no need for a stronger sense of vision. In fact, she says the opposite: Israel’s vision as a state that is Jewish, Democratic, and a guardian of human rights needs strengthening. She just doesn’t believe that adding a layer of legislation could do the trick, and she convincingly explains why the proposed bills would harm Israel’s vision more than help it.

You should wait for the official translation for the exact language (it's coming soon, maybe as soon as tomorrow), but in one early paragraph Gavison says something along these lines: The vision of Israel must remain complex and include Jewishness, democracy, and human rights. The Jewish majority in Israel cannot and should not give up the element of Jewish distinctness. In fact, she argues, keeping this element of a Jewish character and recognizing it as an important part of Israel’s vision is important to the viability of the state, and to its ability to provide security, welfare, and protection of the rights of all its citizens. In other words: if Israel weakens, everybody suffers – and to keep it strong and vibrant it needs to have a vision that the core community of the state, Zionist Jewish Israelis, supports.

Gavison comes out clearly – and in my view convincingly – in support of the vision and in opposition to legislation. But this doesn’t mean that she would endorse the language of doom and gloom associated with it by both sides of the Israeli debate. I certainly wouldn’t. This means that not having a bill is not a sign that Israel’s Jewishness is under an attack (by forces of de-legitimization, a too-liberal court, a post-Zionist narrative) that threatens to eliminate it. This also means that having a bill is not a sign that Israel’s democracy is under an attack (by forces of ultra-nationalism, a too-hawkish public, an exclusionary narrative) that threatens to eliminate it.

Crying “Israel’s Jewishness is under severe threat” and crying “Israel’s democracy is under severe threat” is a tactic that proponents and opponents of the legislation use to sway the public their way. But as they use this tactic, it (the tactic) eventually becomes more threatening than the imaginary threats they are supposedly battling. The legislators – those in favor and those in opposition to the bill – are the ones convincing the public that a threat is looming and that Israel’s state of affairs is miserable. Hence they are the ones that undermine the fairly solid vision of Israel with which a vast majority of the public has no problem.

Does Israel need a “Basic Law: Israel, the national state of the Jewish people”? It probably does not need such a law. Would it be a disaster to have such a law? It probably wouldn’t make much of a difference. But it is important to have a serious discussion before such a law is passed, and it is important not to undermine Israel’s vision by playing politics with Israel’s vision. If there’s something disturbing and even sad about the cabinet vote yesterday, it’s exactly this: the strong suspicion that, more than they want a law, the politicians want to play politics and use Israel’s vision as a hammer against political opponents. I wish they’d stop.

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