Star of david overlooking Jerusalem.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Jewish nation-state bill, which the Ministerial Committee for Legislation on Sunday unanimously approved for government support, has sparked quite a bit of controversy.
Critics claim the bill, which seeks to enshrine in law the fact that the State of Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, infringes on the rights of the Arab minority, and does an injustice by stating that Arabic has a special status as a language, rather than enjoying along with Hebrew the de facto “official language” status holdover from the British Mandate period.
Defenders argue the bill would anchor in law the uniquely Jewish and Israeli elements of the state without hurting the rights of non-Jews.
Without getting into the details of the legislation, there are few principles that need to be stated: It is important to declare clearly and unequivocally in law that the State of Israel was established so that the Jewish people could realize their right to self-determination in their national homeland.
At the same time, it is essential that this Jewish state live up to its Declaration of Independence by upholding the “precepts of liberty, justice and peace taught by the Hebrew prophets,” and by protecting “the full social and political equality of all its citizens without distinction of race, creed or sex.”
Both of these moral pillars of the State of Israel can be learned from the lessons of history. On one hand, history has taught the Jewish people that it cannot rely on the nations of the world for protection from oppression and violent hatred. Jewish sovereignty is an ethical imperative for all humanity.
On the other hand, centuries of discrimination that culminated in the Holocaust have taught the Jewish people the dangers of bigotry, racism and religious chauvinism. Just as the Bible commands Jews to be sensitive to the suffering of the stranger, “because you were strangers in Egypt,” so too should contemporary Jews be attuned to the needs and rights of minorities living in a Jewish state.
A robust democracy that enshrines in law the basic rights of minorities, regardless of “race, creed or sex,” is the best guarantee against the potential excesses of an exclusively Jewish state.
As long as Israel maintains a strong Jewish majority, it is eminently possible to balance both the Jewish and democratic dimensions of the State of Israel.
The sizable Arab minority will never identify completely with the national symbols of the State of Israel such as the flag with its Magen David, the national anthem that includes a line about a “yearning Jewish soul” and the national holidays that mark victories of the Jewish state, the tragedies of the Holocaust and the traditional holidays of the Jewish religion.
But anchoring in law these symbols and passing the Law of Return, which grants automatic citizenship to Diaspora Jews, or legislation that protects the Shabbat as a day or rest or that outlaws the raising of pigs does not contradict Israel’s democratic character.
Freedom of expression, equality before the law, the right to political representation, freedom of religion and other democratic principles can still be upheld without undermining Israel’s Jewish character.
Despite being around for nearly seven decades, the State of Israel has not changed one fact of Jewish life: Jews cannot take the right to live for granted. Israelis like to think the creation of the State of Israel has cured the Jews’ existential uneasiness. They believe that with the return of the Jews to their historical homeland they have become a nation among the nations. As Saul Bellow noted in To Jerusalem and Back
(1976), “The search for relief from uneasiness is what is real in Israel. Nationalism has no comparable reality... The Jews did not become nationalistic because they drew strength from anything resembling Germanic blut und eisen [Blood and Iron], but because they alone among the peoples of the earth had not established a natural right to exist unquestioned in the land of their birth.”
Legislation that seeks to anchor in law the right of the Jewish people to live in the land of their forefathers, is yet another attempt at normalization, a search for relief from the uneasiness. Jews have a moral right to political sovereignty and they have a moral obligation to protect the rights of minorities. Not only are these two axioms not mutually exclusive, they emanate from the same lessons of history.