Israeli police officers stand guard during a protest by Israeli Arabs in the northern city of Nazareth..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Controversy over various versions of the “Jewish state” bill has less to do with substance than appearance. Politicians who support it, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, seem to think it will boost popular support among our predominately right-wing populace.
True, some critics have argued that the legislation, if passed, would enable Supreme Court justices to prioritize Israel’s Jewish character over and above values such as human rights. But this is only in theory. Individual justices would be likely to continue to balance Israel’s Jewish and democratic values, as they have in the past, in their usual way, with or without this legislation.
Passage of the legislation is unlikely to change the state of affairs in Israel significantly where immigration, land distribution, the calendar, the spoken language, religious affairs and the symbols of the state all reflect the de-facto reality that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people.
No one seriously denies this is the case. Indeed, it is precisely this reality that has become the focus of so much criticism of Israel, and not just by Israel’s Arab minority.
Ultimately, the measure essentially states the obvious.
Support for a “Jewish state” bill, whatever its precise wording, has become a rallying call for those who seek to reaffirm Israel’s Jewishness in the face of what they rightly see as a dangerous campaign both locally and abroad to delegitimize a uniquely Jewish state.
Those who oppose the bill claim to champion the need for a delicate balance between the particularistic character of Israel as a uniquely Jewish state founded by and for Jews, and universalistic values such as protection of individual rights regardless of race, religion or national identification.
Both proponents and opponents of a “Jewish state” bill have legitimate concerns and make important points.
But the residual question is whether this sort of legislation helps or hinders. As things stand, it may do more harm than good.
The benefits to be derived from the legislation are few, if any. Delegitimization of Israel will continue with or without a “Jewish State” law. Its passage only invites more criticism of Israel, though that should not necessarily prevent legislators from doing what they think is right.
If we are to be honest with ourselves, however, the problem in Israel today is not insufficient emphasis on Jewish aspects of the State of Israel. The main challenge is incorporating and integrating a very large non-Jewish minority. And passage of a “Jewish state” law will make this endeavor more difficult, if only because of the Arabs’ negative perception of the law, not its substance.
Supreme Court Justice Salim Joubran, the only Arab justice on the nation’s highest court, noted this week that the equality promised in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, is, sadly, not operative for all. The State of Israel does not allocate land to its Arab citizens in a fair and egalitarian way. Besides Beduin townships in the Negev, not a single Arab town has been built in Israel since the founding of the state.
The Central Bureau of Statistics released data this week that found Arab Israelis were half as likely to receive undergraduate degrees as Jewish Israelis. And as Joubran pointed out, the best Arab schools are run by churches, not by the state. Obviously, the political leadership of Israel’s Arabs bears a share of responsibility for the way things are. Arab MKs too often seem intent on articulating the most radical political positions they can conceive rather than focusing on improving the day-to-day lives of their constituents.
Joubran admitted as much, noting, “When I complain about the state, I’m also complaining about [us]; leaders of the Arab community must also take responsibility and handle problems. They must also fight and demand to meet with ministers [in an effort to] close the gaps.”
But the State of Israel certainly has a responsibility. More than a fifth of our population is Arab. Every effort should be made to allow all citizens to feel that this is their home.
There is a strong consensus among Israel’s supporters that laws ensuring a Jewish majority, such as the Law of Return or restrictions on family reunification for Arabs, should remain on the books. At the same time, however, more must be done to provide Arab citizens with housing, quality education, professional training and job opportunities, not just because it strengthens Israeli society, but because it’s the right thing to do.