Media Comment: Is our state democratic?

The law does not prevent the election of a non-Jewish prime minister. So what is the whole brouhaha about?

Protests against the nation-state bill in Tel Aviv, July 14th, 2018 (photo credit: COURTESY STANDING TOGETHER)
Protests against the nation-state bill in Tel Aviv, July 14th, 2018
These past week’s media attention was devoted to two issues, the Nation-State Law and the Surrogacy Law. They overshadowed almost anything else. In the news, they preceded the murder of Aviv Levi on the Gaza border on July 20 and Yotam Ovadia in the town of Adam on July 26. They took precedence over the ongoing war on the southern border. This legislation must be a real threat to the well-being of the State of Israel, otherwise it would not have been so central.
Before considering the media’s treatment of the issues, it is worthwhile to review the facts. The Nation-State law states three basic principles: 1) “The land of Israel is the historical homeland of the Jewish people, in which the State of Israel was established; 2) The State of Israel is the national home of the Jewish people, in which it fulfills its natural, cultural, religious and historical right to self-determination; 3) The right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.”
These three basic tenets were predicated on Israel’s proclamation of independence from 1948, which stated among others: “Accordingly, we, members of the People’s council, representatives of the Jewish community of Eretz-Israel and of the Zionist movement, are here assembled … by virtue of our natural and historic right…hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish State in Eretz-Israel, to be known the State of Israel.”
Is there any material difference between the law and the declaration? We do not find it. Did the media clarify that or muddle it? Both texts make it clear that the state is a Jewish State. No one’s citizen status has changed. All citizens, whether Jewish or not, have equal citizen rights, including the right to vote and be elected. The law does not prevent the election of a non-Jewish prime minister. So what is the whole brouhaha about?
One of the questions posed is if the law just restates the obvious from the declaration, why is it needed? This is an interesting question that could have been addressed equally to the two basic laws of 1992 that “declare basic human rights in Israel that are based on the recognition of the value of man, the sanctity of his life and the fact that he is free. Define human freedom as the right to leave and enter the country, privacy, intimacy and protection from unlawful searches of one’s person or property. This law includes instruction regarding its own permanence and protection from changes by means of emergency regulations.”
These basic laws were also just a reaffirmation of the Declaration of Independence according to which the State of Israel “will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”
Why then, was it necessary to legislate these laws? For a simple reason that the Declaration of Independence has no legal value. The Basic Laws enacted by the Knesset are an ongoing process of creating Israel’s constitution. Just as the 1992 legislation was needed to assure the humanistic principles underlying the Jewish State, so has the Nation-State law assured that Israel is a Jewish State. There is indeed only one part of the law in which Jews and non-Jews are unequal and that is the Law of Return. One may envisage in the future a Supreme Court which would invalidate the Law of Return since it violates the principle of equality. The present law prevents such a scenario, it defines the State to be Jewish and thus allows preference for Jews over non-Jews.
However, the media discourse over the law is very different. Perhaps the best clue for what the brouhaha is about are the interviews on both Galatz and Reshet Bet with Assaf Heifetz, a former Chief of Police. Asked what is wrong with the legislation, he answered, the Druze population is obviously offended and if so, it must be a bad law and MK Benny Begin is against the law, so it must be a bad law. His answer was so silly that Ran Binyamini, the anchor on Reshet Bet, found it necessary to remind Heifetz why the law is bad – according to Binyamini it treats the Druze as second-rate citizens. Heifetz, of course, agreed with him. But in contrast to Binyamini, to be accurate, there are no second-class citizens in Israel. There are either citizens or non-citizens. Jews in the Diaspora who are not citizens of the State merit a special status through the Law of Return. Non-Jews who are not citizens, do not.
Why indeed are the Druze so upset? Eyal Assad, head of the Druze members of the Bayit Yehudi party, explained on INN News on July 26, “The Nation-State law is a declarative law which defines the State of Israel as the State of the Jews and there is no Druze who has anything against that…. The anger is that the law equates the Druse and the Arabs. It left out the rights of the Druze.” In other words, the problem is not what is in the law but what it left out. Arabs are not drafted into the army, the Druze are. Such fundamental differences should not be glossed over.
Atta Farhat, chairman of the Druze Zionist Council for Israel also supports the law. Yet who are the Druze representatives who are interviewed? People like Rafik Halabi, the former IBA editor, who did his best to oust Prime Minister Netanyahu in 1997 but failed.
The same story concerns the Surrogacy Law. The noise was due to the fact that the law does not provide the rights of surrogacy to males who live together as a couple. This was deemed to be so blatant a violation of the rights of gay men that the National Broadcaster Kan permitted its employees to participate in the various demonstrations against the law. The media discourse was boring and very one-sided. The idea that allowing surrogacy to gay men may really harm women who would be paid to use their bodies hardly received any attention. Even today, gay men go to countries such as Thailand, pay money to poor women there who give birth and are then separated from their offspring for the rest of their life. One can only imagine the ensuing psychological damage.
But no, such serious questions are not part of our media focus. It is much more interested in democracy. The Knesset legislation, it is claimed, and the media actively promotes this narrative, is, in both instances, a violation of democracy and so must be annulled, at all costs.
If “democratic” implies that the Knesset is not sovereign to legislate but the media is, then perhaps we do not need such a “democratic” state?
The authors are members of Israel’s Media Watch (