May 21, 2019

Basic Law: Spiting Our Opponents

As of the Journal’s press time, the Knesset had not voted on the “Nationality Law.” Please see for updates.

UPDATE: On July 18, the Knesset passed the Basic Law.

In my view, Israel doesn’t need a “Nationality Law.” In my view, it is a law that would serve no urgent purpose, would complicate the relations between Jews and Arabs, would damage Israel’s reputation in some quarters, and would be a perfect example of legislative overreach. Not all issues should be written into law. Some things are better left unsaid; some things are better left in their state of unofficial existence. 

And yet, as I write this column, a majority in the Knesset seem to be poised to pass a Nationality Law. Although I dislike this fact, I must respect the view of the majority and must strive to understand the motivations of its supporters. 

What would this law do? The law would define Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. This isn’t highly controversial, at least not among Jewish Israelis. It would declare that the land of Israel is the birthplace of the Jewish people, which is historically vague. Then again, it appeared in the Declaration of Independence and is a well-established cliché. It would declare that united Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. That also isn’t controversial, as the law wouldn’t define the exact borders of the united city (Would it include Abu Dis, for example?). It would make “Hatikvah” the national anthem — we already have that. It will make the Israeli flag the official flag — this time, as part of a clear Basic Law that can’t be changed without a clear majority. 

What is so controversial about this bill, and why are there so many debates about it? In fact, so many debates that as I write this, it’s still too early to say with complete confidence that the bill, in a finalized version, will ultimately pass. 

The focus of the debates is usually about some specific items within the bill, as worded, that are deemed controversial. Truly, they are controversial.

Practices are flexible and vague; laws are stiff, black-and-white. In this case, black.

Here are two examples:

The law would imply that Israel would act only in the Diaspora to strengthen the connection between the Jewish state and the Jewish people. Why act only in the Diaspora and not in Israel itself? Because there are Israelis (let’s be frank — primarily Charedi Israelis) who do not want any law to imply that Israel has an obligation to alter its domestic policies as it strives to strengthen this connection. I can see why non-Israeli Jews will view such formulation of the relations as one-sided and problematic. 

The bill also includes a toned-down version of Israel’s commitment to enhancing Jewish settlement all over the country. This was more controversial in earlier drafts, from which it was clear that the aim of the law is to allow the building of Jewish-only communities. This is exactly where this law would be harmful. In reality, Israel builds for Jews, Arabs and Bedouins; it builds for seculars and for Charedis —  building for specific communities is a well-established practice. But some well-established practices should remain what they are — practices. When you write them as law, they become problematic. Practices are flexible and vague; laws are stiff, black- and-white. In this case, black.

Amid such issues, one might ask: Why do so many Israelis still want this bill to become law? The answer, as surprising (and annoying) as it might seem, is because of the controversy surrounding this bill. That’s right: The reason to create this law — the reason the Knesset wants to pass this bill — is because it’s controversial. The fact that so many people believe that for Israel to declare itself the nation- state of the Jewish people is controversial — that’s a reason. The fact that so many people believe that for Israel to declare Jewish settlements as a mission is controversial — that’s a reason. The fact that so many people believe that for Israel to declare that Hebrew is Israel’s official language is controversial — that’s a reason. 

Good enough reason? I don’t think so. A reason that I can understand and, from time to time, even identify with? No doubt.