Securing Israel’s Jewish and democratic future

Anchoring in law Israel’s character as a Jewish and democratic nation state, with both parts equal, is the correct thing to do.

Knesset (photo credit: BAZ RATNER)
(photo credit: BAZ RATNER)
THE DEBATE around the nation state law is rife with interests that have little to do with the big idea behind it.
Politics has clouded the substance and the fact that Israel is now headed for an election is part of the picture. Now the bill may have to wait. Had there been a stable government, it would have been possible to seal the deal in five minutes. But the main protagonists never sat down to discuss it seriously; indeed, most of the politicians arguing for and against seemed more interested in taking sides than in the bill itself.
I am an avid supporter of enacting basic laws, among them a law defining Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people, which together will eventually form a constitution. Israel needs a constitution. Once it seemed that the spirit of free, independent Israel fused with the spirit of Jewish tradition would be enough.
But things inside the country are changing. Most dramatically, Israeli demography is shifting to the detriment of the Zionist camp. Already more than 50 percent of the pupils in first grade study in non-Zionist streams. And the fundamental questions of religion and state, Palestinians and Israeli Arabs, remain up in the air, waiting for the messiah.
The only way to determine Israel’s character for generations to come is through basic laws, including one that preserves its essence as a Jewish and democratic state. The vast majority of Israeli Zionists agree with this definition. Very few want a halakhic Jewish state in which everyone calls himself a Torah sage and purports to speak in the name of God; very few want a secular “state of all its citizens” in which there are no Jewish symbols and no Law of Return conferring automatic citizenship on Jewish immigrants.
There is in Israel a trickle of post- Zionists who argue that it is impossible to reconcile a Jewish state with democracy. I have no argument with them over the proposed nation state law. In my view, they are outside the game. My argument is within the majority Zionist camp, who agree to the definition of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people and want their children and grandchildren to live that way.
The Israel of today maintains a healthy balance between Jewish and democratic. Of course, there are problems and there is criticism that needs to be heard. But on the whole, the Jewish-democratic balance is well preserved. Indeed, the challenge is not the current status quo, but rather how to maintain Israel’s Jewish and democratic character in the future.
The Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty, which was passed in the early 1990s, enshrines democratic principles; the Basic Law: Israel – the Nation State of the Jewish People is meant to safeguard attributes of its Jewish character. It does not absolve the government from confronting questions of religion and state; nor does it create shortcuts for the incorporation of minority groups. It simply defines the character of the democratic Jewish nation state.
The Israel of today does not allow family reunions for Palestinians because we are a Jewish nation state; in the Israel of today the Jewish National Fund holds only land belonging to the Jewish people; in the Israel of today, Jewish culture is clearly predominant. The proposed nation state legislation merely anchors this existing reality in law; it does not change it.
So why all the fuss? Politics, especially politicians.
Four years ago, Avi Dichter, then an opposition Kadima Knesset member, submitted the Basic Law: Israel – the Nation State of the Jewish People to the Knesset. In other words, the initiative came from the liberal, centrist Kadima party, headed then by Tzipi Livni. Twenty of the 28 Kadima Knesset Members were signatories. Dichter told me that there were even more who wanted to sign. The consensus in the party was clear. Not one of them disparaged the importance of democracy; not one of them had difficulty understanding the text.
Opposition to Dichter’s bill actually came from the center right, from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. For reasons of religion and conscience. Not his. Other people’s. Netanyahu of the previous government didn’t want a crisis with his Haredi coalition partners. He wanted peace and quiet. The Haredim oppose basic laws in principle – so why rock the boat? In its current incarnation, Netanyahu latched onto the nation state legislation as if he had found a long lost son; and Livni has been carrying on as if it were a catastrophe for the entire human race.
Dichter doesn’t understand how his former party colleagues managed to turn the law they had so overwhelmingly supported into something so inherently “anti-democratic.” From which political bottle did the genies he never released escape? Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people. That is the essence of Zionism. Indeed, the resident minorities have long since come to terms with Israel’s Law of Return and its Jewish symbols. That is the way with minorities in every democratic nation state in the world. Moreover, Israel is not alone in its approach to its nationhood. There are countries with laws of return, like Japan and Finland, and there are countries with a specific religious identity, like Britain and Switzerland.
Our nation state stands on constitutional thin ice. Dichter rightly wanted to consolidate it through a basic law. In the absence of a full-fledged constitution that is the correct thing to do: anchoring in law Israel’s character as a Jewish and democratic nation state, with both parts equal.
The fact that the domestic debate in Israel over the basic building blocks of a constitution has become an international issue says more about attitudes to Israel than about the health of its democracy. 
Dr. Yoaz Hendel is the head of the Jerusalem-based Institute for Zionist Strategies