Jewish and democratic

Since its founding in 1948, Israel has grappled with the conundrum of being both a Jewish nation-state and a democracy. Is it even possible?

The Knesset building (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The Knesset building
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The Nation-State Law surely created varied reactions since last week. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan led the pack, calling Israel “the most Zionist, fascist and racist country in the world.”
The Jewish Nation-State Law... legitimizes all unlawful actions and oppression. There is no difference between Hitler’s Aryan race obsession and Israel’s mentality.
Hitler’s spirit has re-emerged among administrators in Israel,” said Erdogan, who has not been exemplary in dealing with the Kurdish minority in his country.
Of course, that hyperbole goes way overboard in describing the effects of the law on Israel, but closer to home, there has also been more nuanced, but still barbed criticism. Ayman Odeh, chairman of the Joint List, said Israel “passed a law of Jewish supremacy and told us [Israel’s Arab citizens] that we will always be second-class citizens.”
Officially called the “Basic Law: Israel as the Nation State of the Jewish People,” the legislation – which was passed by a vote of 62-55 – states that “Israel is the historic homeland of the Jewish people, and they have an exclusive right to national self-determination in it.”
It puts on paper some of the defining characterizations of Israel that have been part of the country’s fabric since 1948, many of which are already parts of laws that codify and express Israel’s Jewish identity. For example, the Law of Return, passed in 1950, automatically grants citizenship to any Jew immigrating to Israel.
But the law goes beyond previous declarations of Israel as a Jewish state by further marginalizing its minority citizens in stating that the state’s language is Hebrew and relegating Arabic – the language of 20% of the population – to “special status in the state.”
Another clause says, “The state views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation,” wording that can be construed as supporting Jewish-only communities.
Kulanu MK Akram Hasson and other top Druze officials filed a petition on Sunday asking the High Court of Justice to strike down all or part of the law as unconstitutional.
Hasson said the law transforms the country’s Druze population and other minorities, including Arabs, into second-class citizens. The petition called the law “a terrible blow to the Druze sector, a terrible blow to democracy and a terrible blow to Zionism.
The Jewish Nation-State Law disproportionately and unreasonably harms [all minorities, turning them] into exiled people in their own homeland.”
As Prof. Dov Waxman of Northeastern University wrote, Israel has never been a truly liberal democracy that treats all its citizens equally regardless of their ethnicity or religion. “Instead, from the outset it has been an ‘ethnic democracy’ or ‘ethnocracy’ as scholars have labeled it, serving Jews first and foremost. While Arab living standards have certainly risen over the years, Israel has never fully lived up to the promise contained in its Declaration of Independence to ‘foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants,’ and ‘ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex,’” wrote Waxman.
Since its founding in 1948, Israel has grappled with the conundrum of being both a Jewish nation-state and a democracy. Is it even possible? Those tenets in the new law include many of the values that probably many people reading this right now share and weighed when deciding to pick up their lives and move to Israel – the symbols of the country like the flag, Hatikva, Jerusalem as the eternal capital of the Jewish people, and the Hebrew calendar as the guideline for the rhythm of the country.
But they were already well in place. Did we really need a new law that states the obvious, but also further erodes any sense of Israel’s minorities of belonging to the country? As we wrote last week when the bill passed, we agree with Likud MK Bennie Begin, who before abstaining on the vote for law, said it should have stated clearly that Israel, as a Jewish and democratic state, is committed to safeguarding the rights of its minorities. After all, isn’t that what being a Jewish state is all about?