No to the nation state law

The “Nationality Law” is set to overturn this framework, painstakingly constructed by mutual agreement over the years. Instead of promoting unity, it will lead to greater division and polarization.

December 23, 2014 21:53

Annika Rothstein holds an Israeli flag that was ripped off her Israel-bound suitcase. (photo credit: Courtesy)

As the forthcoming national elections (unnecessary and unwise as they are) draw near, there is one law proposal which should not, and must not, be an election issue: the proposed Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People.

Let me express myself clearly: If we truly wish to create a gulf between the Jewish people settled in Israel and the rest of world Jewry, then we should make this proposal a central issue in the forthcoming elections.

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On the other hand, if we wish to sustain and strengthen the bonds between the Jews in Israel and those in the rest of the world – then the proposal should be shelved.

After the 1988 Knesset elections, Yitzhak Shamir, then chairman of the Likud, attempted to establish a government headed by the Likud, without the participation of the Labor Party. At that time both Likud and Labor were powerful parties. To form a government excluding Labor, Shamir was obliged to turn for support to the religious and Orthodox political parties. This support was promised, but on one essential condition: the definition of a Jew in the Law of Return had to be altered.

From the moment that this demand became known, deputations from Jewish organizations supportive of Israel all over the world arrived in the country one after the other, voicing intense opposition to any change in the definition of “Who is a Jew.” It was felt that any such change would place control of that definition exclusively in the hands of extreme Orthodox circles.

Shamir realized that despite the placatory declarations of a variety of Israel politicians, any change in the definition of “Who is a Jew” would deeply, perhaps fatally, divide world Jewry. He stopped the proceedings – feeling unable to take personal responsibility for bringing about any such division. So eventually, a national unity government was formed (one which, it will be recalled, Shimon Peres did everything in his power to topple).

The proposed “Law of Jewish Nationality” will not strengthen the unity of the Jewish people. On the contrary, it will stimulate division: for the very simple reason that – with all due respect for the Jewish heritage and its indissoluble links with the State of Israel – a very significant proportion of Jews in the world today (including, it may be mentioned, Israel’s present prime minister) has Reform or secular leanings: a fact which in no way makes them any less Jewish.

Speaking for myself, as one born and raised in Israel, and for many years publicly active in this country, I have never had a problem with seeing Israel as the state of the Jewish people before this law was proposed.

Israel’s Declaration of Independence states clearly that in expression of our natural and historical right, we proclaim the existence of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel – namely, the State of Israel. We have promulgated the Law of Return – a law without precedent in history – which states that whoever is a Jew is, by virtue of his/her ethnic origin, entitled not only to Israel citizenship, but to all kinds of material assistance in claiming that citizenship and settling in Israel. Unlike most of the countries of the Western world, we do not completely separate religion and state. We have a number of laws which enshrine and enforce Jewish law in civil life – in areas such as kashrut, marriage and divorce, Sabbath observance, and so on.

In 1992, while serving as chairman of the Knesset Law Committee, I had the privilege – together with my colleagues Professor Amnon Rubinstein, Professor David Liba’i, Shulamit Aloni, Reuven Rivlin and Rabbi Yitzhak Levy – of steering the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty. After very extensive discussion, it was determined, under the heading “Objectives,” that the law was intended “to anchor in a Basic Law the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish and a democratic State.” Those who seek to persuade us that we need a new “Law of Nationality” claim that it is necessary to distinguish between “individual rights” and “national rights.” If so, does this mean that everything stated in the Declaration of Independence, in the Law of Return, and in the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty, is devoid of meaning? Are these not constitutional documents, stating clearly our rights as a nation in the Land of Israel, and expressing our values, as a state both Jewish and democratic?

There is no conflict between “Jewish” and “democratic” values. Professor Amnon Rubinstein made this clear in 1992, when I submitted the law for approval to the Knesset in plenary session. These values are not static; they cannot be ultimately defined at any given point in history. They are values to which the dynamics of time and reality continually impart new meanings, and they coexist in harmony, side by side.

The “Law of Nationality” does the opposite. It appears to imply that a doubt exists as to whether the State of Israel is in fact the state of the Jewish people. Such a law actually disturbs the balance between “Jewish” and “democratic” values. It undermines the “democratic” values, in that it seeks to subject Israel’s entire legal system to interpretation exclusively in terms of Jewish law.

It will also destabilize a situation which has until now been manageable, with regard to the collective aspirations of the entire people of Israel. For better or for worse, we have, until now, succeeded in establishing a common denominator – a framework for living within which, despite tensions and divergent points of view, all sectors of the people have been able to function with a measure of common understanding.

The “Nationality Law” is set to overturn this framework, painstakingly constructed by mutual agreement over the years. Instead of promoting unity, it will lead to greater division and polarization. It will increase tension and dissension between different sectors of the population, and ultimately, will harm the State of Israel. For the above reasons, I would, if it were in my power, put a stop to this legislation.

Terrorism is continually gaining strength; the state is threatened by real external dangers; our economy is showing signs of serious strain; and we have not yet succeeded in coping with such problems as the increasing cost of living. What we urgently need today is unity of purpose, not additional differences. Let us look back to the national unity government of 1984, which successfully carried out the withdrawal from Lebanon, and which was able to implement the financial plan of 1985 that set the nation’s economy back on its feet.

The author of these lines was chairman of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee during the tenure of the 12th Knesset. President of the Federation of Israeli Chambers of Commerce.

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