Nation-State Law and disorder

The trigger for the latest round of threatened diplomatic warfare was, of course, the passage on July 19 of Israel’s Nation-State Law.

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
It’s good to laugh, but unfortunately the best I could do in this case was an ironic chuckle. Last week, PLO Executive Committee Secretary-General Saeb Erekat announced the Palestinian Authority is considering filing a UN General Assembly resolution to rescind Israel’s membership in the international organization and is weighing turning (yet again) to the International Court of Justice at The Hague.
The trigger for the latest round of threatened diplomatic warfare was, of course, the passage on July 19 of Israel’s Nation-State Law. Apparently, Erekat and his boss, PA President Mahmoud Abbas, believe – or want the world to believe – that the law creates a system that is the equivalent of apartheid and undermines chances of a two-state solution.
The PA’s absolute opposition to any Jewish presence in a future Palestinian state, according to this twisted logic, is neither a hurdle to peace nor racist. Only the Jewish state can be guilty of apartheid. And I note the irony that the Palestinian leadership prefers to call Israelis “the Jews” while protesting Israel’s right to define itself as a Jewish state.
It’s understandable that the Palestinians are touchy on the subject of Israeli identity. After all, where would they be without it? How would the Palestinians define themselves if it weren’t in relation to Israel?
The first part of the law that has raised so much controversy defines the Land of Israel as “the historical homeland of the Jewish people in which the State of Israel was established”; the flag is the blue-and-white Star of David; the symbol is the ancient seven-branched Menorah with olive leaves on either side, and the anthem is “Hatikvah.” A unified Jerusalem is the capital and the law also declares that “the state will be open to Jewish immigration and to the ingathering of the exiles.” The official language is Hebrew, although Arabic is granted a “special status.”
The Palestinian flag – black, white and green stripes with a red triangle – is the same as the Jordanian flag but without the Hashemite Kingdom’s seven-pointed star; the Palestinians speak the same language and have the same religion, culture and, to a large extent, history as Jordan (whose population includes a Palestinian majority). “The State of Palestine,” recognized by more than 130 countries, is unique in both declaring its statehood and insisting that its “citizens” are refugees. Rather than calling for an ingathering from the “Palestinian diaspora,” to build its own stable and viable society, it insists that the UN and other international bodies have to fund generation after generation of its permanently exiled “refugees.”
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president of that bastion of democracy and freedom, the Republic of Turkey, declared “the spirit of Hitler” lives on in Israel for passing such a law.
The international leaders and commentators opposed to the law seem to have forgotten the principle that a democracy, like Israel, is free to call itself and define itself as it will. Sadly but predictably the law’s passage has harmed Israel’s status and standing, however it wants to define itself. But the backlash to the law is largely a knee-jerk reaction. If Israel were not “The Jewish State” nobody would care what we called ourselves. Who queries France’s right to call itself the French Republic? Or Iran defining itself as “The Islamic Republic,” for that matter. Even post-Brexit, the media and social media have not been flooded with discussions about Britain’s choice to refer to itself as the United Kingdom (in defiance of the aspirations of Scottish and Welsh nationalists).
It is Israel’s very nature as a democracy that allows politicians, the press and all citizens the right to protest the law. Similarly, the Nation-State legislation’s proponents, chiefly MK Avi Dichter who has been promoting the bill for years, have every right to raise the matter in parliament.
The reaction to the law at home has been typically Israeli: The automatic response is to divide everything into Left and Right instead of right and wrong – with a huge space for nuance in between.
I’m not convinced that it was necessary to push the Nation-State Law through the Knesset right now, especially as it does not do much more than enshrine the existing situation. The reactions to it, however, show why some thought it essential to protect the country’s nature as the world’s only Jewish state before it was too late.
On August 1, citing the “apartheid” trope, MKs from the mostly-Arab Joint List reportedly petitioned the International Parliamentary Union against the law (having last year sought EU intervention to block its passage). They are their own worst enemies, or at least the worst enemies of the sector they profess to represent. Had the Arab parliamentarians spent more time truly encouraging integration and the closure of socioeconomic gaps rather than spending so much energy as the unelected representatives of the Palestinians, the law might not have been drawn up in the first place. They seem keen to be a law unto themselves. Interestingly enough, the Joint List MKs did not consider resigning from the Knesset, with all its benefits, over the law. Zionist Union MK Zouheir Bahloul did announce his intention to resign, but his standing in his faction was shaky at best and I’m not the first person to wonder why he joined a party with the word “Zionist” in its name if Zionism so goes against his principles.
Druze dissent to the law has received most media focus, although here too the differences in opinion emphasize the democratic nature of Israeli society. It is patronizing to consider a 140,000-member community as something monolithic. And there are definitely those interested in weakening the bonds between the Jews and the Druze.
The Druze (along with the Circassians, some Christians and some Bedouin and other minorities who serve in the military) have tied their fates to the state. The bonds should not depend only on the blood of those who fell protecting the country and its citizens but also by shared dreams for a better future in the one place we all call home.
IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Eisenkot was right this week to call to keep politics out of the military after a handful of Druze soldiers and reserve officers stated their intention to refuse to serve. In a society as divided as Israel’s, it would be impossible to run the military were it allowed to splinter along political, religious or ethnic lines.
Regarding the status of Arabic, by the way, I have long favored the compulsory teaching of the language in schools in the Jewish sector and making sure Hebrew is taught in Arab schools.
The fact that the terms “equal” and “democratic” do not appear in the legislation is being used to fuel the opposition to it and further slur Israel abroad. Yet these fundamental rights are enshrined in other Basic Laws, and the 1948 Declaration of Independence, which is not negated by the latest legislation, clearly stipulates Israel will “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.”
Preserving the dignity of the Druze and other minorities, along with their inherent rights, is essential but it requires a delicate balancing act. Every sovereign country has the right to define and to protect its own identity. It’s sad that instead of using this opportunity to carefully think through all aspects of the law and its ramifications, the bill was passed in a late-night vote (62 to 55) just before the Knesset went into recess.
I do not know who to credit for giving me the last laugh (or ironic chuckle) regarding the legislation, but I heard a commentator on the radio aptly point out that there is nothing more Israeli than passing the Nation-State Law in a rush and then trying to figure out how to fix it afterwards.
Half-baked legislation followed by Pavlovian reactions: There should be a law against it.