The impact of the controversial Jewish Nation-State Law is largely symbolic and not practical, the heads of the Israel Democracy Institute said Sunday in a briefing for English media.
The IDI is an independent center of research and action dedicated to strengthening the foundations of Israeli democracy. It works to bolster the values and institutions of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state and influence policy, legislation and public opinion.
Even though IDI monitors legislation that it believes harms Israeli democracy, its leaders downplayed the practical impact that the final version of the Jewish Nation-State Law passed two weeks ago could have on Israel’s future.
“It is not a game changer and has very little problematic implications, but it causes anxiety,” IDI vice president Yuval Shani said. “It won’t change how the country is run.”
“It is not an injury but an insult. It doesn’t change anything practically.”
For instance, Shani pointed out the law’s downgrading of Arabic from being an official language of Israel, which he said it had been since the first law that passed in the Knesset which retained British mandatory legislation. But he said that the new law also says the status of Arabic would not be harmed.
IDI President Yohanan Plesner said the practical impact of the bill was currently merely “symbolic and educational.” He said it “won’t have immediate concrete implications.”
But he said it was possible that in the future, if the makeup of the Supreme Court was different, it could use the bill as the source for rulings that reduce equality or rights for non-Jewish or non-Orthodox groups.
Plesner, who is a former Kadima MK, said the problem with the bill was that Knesset members left out a guarantee of equality. He pointed out that the other Basic Laws that have passed also do not mention equality.
“The main problem with the bill is not what is in it but what is missing from it – which is that Israel is democratic and committed to the full equality for all its citizens,” Plesner said. “When the democratic component is missing, rather than strengthen Israel as a Jewish state, it provides ammunition to the enemies of Zionism who want to harm Israel’s right to self-determination.”
Shani compared Israel to Poland and Hungary, saying that there have been populist trends in all three to emphasize the core identity of the nation, weaken gatekeepers and limit civil organizations.
“We are worried about the trajectory,” he said. “We don’t feel all hope is lost. We don’t think Israeli democracy is in a tailspin. Israeli democracy has strong institutions and foundations. Our job is to raise attention to these developments.”
Plesner said data from the IDI’s annual democracy index indicates that the Jewish Nation-State Law does not represent the preference of a majority of Israelis, because the vast majority wants to preserve the current balance of Israel as a Jewish-Democratic state or strengthen the democratic component.
He credited IDI and others with lobbying Knesset members so that the Nation-State Law and other controversial legislation became less damaging to Israeli democracy in the final drafts that passed into law.
“There is a real struggle over the soul of Israeli democracy,” Plesner said. “There has been major success in diluting problematic legislation.”
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