Searching for a balance between Jewish and democratic

The Knesset session was dominated by issues of national identity, with Israel Beiteinu leading a parade of controversial legislation.

August 19, 2011 18:06
Israel Beiteinu MK Alex Miller

Alex Miller 311. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

Remember the boycott bill? It was not that long ago that housing was a problem hardly anyone seemed to care about, and coalition MKs were incessantly drafting “nationalist legislation.”

Instead of “social justice,” pundits and op-ed writers were talking about “democracy” and “freedom of speech,” and whether they were compatible with the state’s Jewish identity.

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It’s hard to believe that just over a month ago, when Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s housing reform was brought to the Knesset for its first reading, it was met with yawns, even though, in an unusual move, the prime minister presented the bill to the Knesset himself.

Coalition chairman Ze’ev Elkin (Likud) called the housing bill, which passed a few weeks later in the shadow of tent cities around the country, a coalition priority, because “it’s very, very important to stop housing prices from continuing to rise.” Meanwhile, opposition leader Tzipi Livni (Kadima) dismissed the idea, saying Netanyahu “talks about reforms only to get headlines.”

During the Knesset’s summer session, which ended two weeks ago, the media, the public and, most of all, MKs were focused on other matters, such as stopping citizens who call to boycott Israel, preventing convicted terrorists from speaking in universities, and investigating left-wing organizations’ funding.

A study released by Mattot Arim only highlighted the trend. The right-wing NGO praised MKs for having 105 “nationalist achievements” this year, as opposed to only 40 in the previous study.

The opposition accused “a lobby of settlers” of taking over the Knesset and “limiting freedom of expression and political protest.” MK Shlomo Molla (Kadima) mocked “Elkin- and Lieberman-style democracy... that will close the mouths of people with opinions they don’t like.”

“Instead of dealing with the housing and health crises, it’s much easier to incite everyone against the minority,” MK Dov Henin (Hadash) said this week.

He explained that the nationalist-bill trend was “part of an attempt to avoid real problems.”

HOWEVER, NOW that the “distractions” are gone and “social justice” is all anyone wants to talk about, the issues of national identity continue to bubble under the surface, with Israel Beiteinu leading the legislative parade.

“We’re a democratic state, and we’re not disconnected from public opinion,” MK Alex Miller (Israel Beiteinu) said.

“Some of these economic issues certainly need immediate attention and long-term solutions.”

At the same time, Miller emphasized the need to deal with the “absurd situation” in Israel, in which the country allows for the discouragements of core parts of the national ethos.

He explained that a number of Israel Beiteinu bills, which were proposed during the summer session, are being prepared for a legislative push in the next session, which is scheduled to begin in late October.

One such bill, proposed by Israel Beiteinu MKs David Rotem and Hamed Amer, would give preference in government hiring practices to anyone who enlisted in the IDF or did national or civilian service, because “those who try to escape [IDF service] should not be carried on the public’s back,” according to Miller. The bill was prepared by the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, which Rotem chairs, and passed in its first Knesset reading. It will be brought to a final vote this winter.

Fellow Israel Beiteinu MK Faina Kirschenbaum plans to bring a bill establishing a parliamentary inquiry committee to probe NGOs that target the IDF, to another vote in the fall, after it was rejected in July.

“There’s an absurd situation in which Israeli organizations initiate processes abroad that lead to officials and IDF soldiers not being able to [safely] visit other countries,” Miller said. “This needs to be revealed.”

Miller, who chairs the Knesset Education Committee, is also working on a bill requiring universities to play “Hatikva” at ceremonies. The Ministerial Committee on Legislation postponed the vote on his “Raed Salah Bill” – named after the leader of the Islamic Movement’s northern branch – which would prohibit anyone convicted of assisting terrorist organizations from speaking in educational institutions.

Considering that Kadima vocally opposed every bill mentioned thus far, it came as a surprise when the party’s MK Avi Dichter proposed “Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People.”

The bill takes a bit of Theodor Herzl, a bit of former Supreme Court president Aharon Barak and a bit of the Balfour Declaration, giving a wide definition of Zionism that, on the surface, would seem to be agreeable to a broad swath of Israelis.

THE BASIC premise of “Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People” is to give constitutional status to the declaration that “the State of Israel is the national home of the Jewish people.” Yet Dichter’s proposal has drawn the Left’s ire, particularly because it relegates Arabic to a “language with special status” as opposed to a secondary official language, and because it says “Jewish law should serve as an inspiration for legislators.”

Some have taken issue with the law’s assertion that “the right to self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish People.”

In Tuesday’s emergency Knesset meeting, MK Ahmed Tibi (UAL-Ta’al) called the bill “the most dangerous, hideous law in the history of the Knesset,” and accused Kadima of being a racist party, because 20 members signed in support of the proposal.

Dichter was distressed by the negative media attention that his bill has received, explaining this week that it simply “reinforces the existing situation.”

“We’re not changing anything,” he said. “Hebrew is the only language required to be taught in schools – not Arabic. I think ‘special status’ is more respectful to Arabic than ‘secondary official language.’” He also denied any connection to the Anti-Boycott Law or the Nakba Law, lamenting “bad timing” and saying he had been working on his bill for over a year.

MK Yohanan Plesner, also of Kadima, voiced opposition to Dichter’s bill, explaining it, along with the Israel Beiteinu bills, as part of the unanswered question of the country’s national identity.

“We have to put things in perspective.

Israel still does not have a constitution. If we did, it would answer civil questions and determine our national identity – the proper balance between Jewish and democratic,” he explained.

He said these bills had “destabilized the existing balance, by emphasizing the Jewish side over the democratic.” The laws highlight Israel’s need for a constitution, which would cement the state’s national identity, while protecting the rights of the minority, according to Plesner.

Dichter says his bill is working toward that purpose, calling it “the most Israeli introduction possible for our constitution.”

“All of the Basic Laws so far put the individual at the center,” reinforcing democratic rights, he explained. “This will be the first Basic Law to deal with our national identity – it puts the state at the center.”

He added that “it has nothing to do with [the UN vote in] September, or the Boycott Bill.”

Plus, as Dichter pointed out, while it says “Jewish” 20 times, the word “democratic” is not mentioned in the country’s Declaration of Independence.

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