July 18, 2019

Nationality Law Calls for Reason Over Hysterics

Israel’s new Nationality Law proves that we Israelis are ruled by clowns. 

One of them is Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who fought for this legislation tooth and nail, issuing threats such as “If there is no law, there is no coalition.” Then, merely a week after the law was approved by the Knesset — and amid protests against it by the Israeli Druze — a tweet came from the never-flinching minister: “The government of Israel must find a way to heal the rift.” That is, the rift caused by a bill that Bennett could have blocked.

Then there is Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon. Opponents of the nationality bill had high hopes for Kahlon. They thought he would be the one senior member of the coalition to prevent the bill from passing. But Kahlon disappointed them. He was firm in his support of the new law — until about a week after it was passed. Then, Kahlon suddenly discovered that the government was acting in “haste” and the law needed fixing. 

There is no way to describe Bennett’s action other than calling it folly. The law was first proposed a decade ago — and this was still not enough time for Bennett to take care of this little inconvenience of not creating a rift with the Druze. This law was debated for many months and the focus of attention for many weeks — and this was still not enough time for Kahlon to pay attention to what the law says.

These ministers are an embarrassment. And so are many others who defended and attacked the law without ever bothering to seriously ponder its meaning and consequences.

Last week, a group of 180 authors and intellectuals sent a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, demanding that the law be canceled. One of them, an author of popular books, was invited to explain her position on a radio show. She was humiliated when it was soon clarified that she was confusing the Nationality Law with another law and clearly had not read both. Her confusion still did not stop her from signing a petition that claimed the law “explicitly permits racial and religious discrimination.” Read the law and find this “explicit” line. I will save you the trouble: it does not exist.

Keep it all in proportion: Israel did not change with this law.

The law is “shameful but not discriminatory,” as professor Alexander Yakobson described it. It declares that “the right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.” This is neither racial nor religious discrimination — this is national definition. A “nation-state” must define the “nation” to which the term refers. The law does that: Israel is the nation-state of “the Jewish People,” and theirs alone.

Of course, one does not have to agree with such a definition, nor with any of the other items specified in the law: the flag is white and blue, the anthem is “Hatikvah,” Jerusalem is the capital, Hebrew is the language. One would clearly be right to wonder about the convoluted formulation of Israel-Diaspora relations: “The state shall act within the Diaspora [emphasis added] to strengthen the affinity between the state and members of the Jewish people.” It is aimed at avoiding the interpretation that Israel must alter its own character to “strengthen the affinity” with other Jews. All of these elements of the law can be changed with a 61-vote majority in the Knesset, and all are subject to Supreme Court interpretation. None of these — whether you agree or disagree with them — justifies a hysterical response.

Yuval Shani, the vice president of Israel’s Democracy Institute, had it right when he said that this law is “not a game changer and has very little problematic implications, but it causes anxiety.”

Anxiety is about the way we feel, not about what the law says. Anxiety is what happens to us when we perceive something to be terrible. In some cases, it is necessary and justified. In other cases, it is misplaced and a cause for, well, even more pointless anxiety. 

The Nationality Law does not justify hysterics nor anxiety.

Frustration? Yes, for both supporters and opponents.

Objection? Sure, for some.

Puzzlement? I am certainly puzzled about some aspects of the process.

But keep it all in proportion: Israel did not change with this law. Israeli realities did not change. This law did not save us from any menace. It is also not a prelude to any menace.

Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.