The Knesset votes on the nation-state bill, July 19, 2018.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The current debate over Israel’s newly adopted Nation-State Law has been high on emotion and low on facts.
As Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Advisor for World Communities, part of my job is to listen to what people around the world have to say. Much of what I have heard from critics preceding and following the passage of Basic Law: Israel Nation-State of the Jewish People is mistaken and misinformed. The accusations about the new law’s effects on Israeli democracy have no connection to the actual content or context of the law.
The new Basic Law was passed to fill a constitutional void. Israel, like the United Kingdom, lacks a written constitution and instead relies on a set of basic laws. Constitutions or basic laws generally have a triple-purpose: to define the identity of the country; to set rules for the separation of powers; and to protect individual rights. Israel already has basic laws to protect individual freedoms (such as Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty) and to define the various branches of government (such as Basic Law: The Knesset). Until several weeks ago, Israel lacked a basic law defining the identity and purpose of the state.
While the open, free and democratic nature of Israel was enshrined into law, there was no legal basis to ensure that Israel would also continue to be a Jewish state. During the seven-year debate surrounding the contents of the Nation-State Law, there was a broad consensus that a basic law was needed to define the identity of the country and to ensure that the judiciary could not overturn fundamental principles such as the Law of Return (which grants immigration rights to Jews) or reject the State’s use, for example, of the Hebrew calendar.
The new basic law does not, however, contradict or supersede the basic laws that protect and guarantee individual rights of all citizens regardless of ethnicity, religion or gender.
Many critics of the new law believe that it infringes on religious freedom. They are mistaken. The law relates only to the national rights of the Jewish people and does not address religious questions or prescribe an official religion. In this sense, Israel is more liberal than the seven European countries with official state religions, including the United Kingdom, Poland and Greece.
The new law does not erode a single right or protection of any minority. It actually reaffirms Israel’s commitment to minority groups. For example, most nations, and most liberal democracies, only have one official language, the primary one spoken in the country. Israel is the only country in the world where Hebrew is the primary language, and so the Basic Law defines Hebrew as the official state language.
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But the new law also, for the first time, constitutionally enshrines Arabic as a language with “special status.” It affirms that “the status given to the Arabic language before this law came into effect will not be harmed.” This flatly contradicts the misrepresentations of the law as changing the status of Arabic, and goes far beyond what many liberal democracies do for minority languages. Arabic will continue to appear on Israel’s road signs, currency and many other symbols of state sovereignty.
A persistent concern that I have heard is that the law would allow for the establishment of separate ethnic communities. Israel’s Supreme Court has only permitted the establishment of non-Jewish communities and some Members of the Knesset hoped to address this perceived injustice with a clause in the new law allowing for separate communities based on religion or ethnicity. But other members of Knesset, the attorney general and Israel’s president protested the proposed section and ultimately it was not included – demonstrating the strength, not the weakness, of Israel’s democratic institutions.
Criticism about the way the bill treats Israel’s relationship with Jews around the world is also misplaced, given that the bill enshrines into law Israel’s commitment to the Diaspora. The law explicitly mentions that “the state will act within the Diaspora to strengthen the affinity between the state and members of the Jewish people.”
The language chosen in the Basic Law refers to activities in the Diaspora alone simply to avoid an undemocratic situation in which a constitutional “right” would effectively bind the Israeli government to make decisions based on how they would be perceived abroad.
The government of Israel will, of course, continue to invest in promoting the Israel-Diaspora relationship from within the State of Israel as well. The current government has invested hundreds of millions of shekels in Birthright, Masa and a host of other programs that strengthen ties between Israel and the Diaspora. In fact, it was Prime Minister Netanyahu’s first government that provided the initial Israeli government funding for Birthright, which has now brought more than 600,000 young Jews to Israel.
In a strong and vibrant democracy with a free and open press, it is not surprising that there is lively debate about a new basic law. Regrettably, the debate became so politicized that some of those who oppose the current bill were actually co-sponsors or supported a less balanced version of the same bill in 2011.
Amid the debate, it is important that the history and the truth behind the Nation-State Law not be lost. Each of us is responsible for listening and ensuring that our discussions are rooted in the facts. I’m listening to what those who oppose the bill have to say. I hope they too will be open to listening to those who disagree with them.The writer is the prime minister’s adviser for World Communities.
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