A Jewish and democratic Basic Law is the Zionist option

Israel’s leaders should loudly and proudly declare the right of the Jewish people to a state, especially in the face of the persistent rejection of that right by our purported peace partners.

The Knesset
Predictably, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s support for a new Basic Law stating that Israel is “the nation-state of one people – the Jewish people – and no other” has aroused strong feelings – for and against. Absent a constitution, Israel’s Basic Laws have a quasi-constitutional power, essentially underpinning the guiding principles of the state.
Although Netanyahu has stressed that, “It will define the national right of the Jewish people to the State of Israel, without infringing on the individual rights of any citizen of Israel,” Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and others have protested that the new law would prioritize Israel’s “Jewish” status over its “democratic” character.
Livni has some cause for concern, as the starting point for this legislation is an earlier version proposed by MKs Yariv Levin and Ayelet Shaked. Levin is part of the young guard of the Likud that now dominates the party, and has moved it a considerable distance away from the enlightened liberal nationalism of its first leader Menachem Begin and his teacher Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Both Levin and Shaked (from Bayit Yehudi) espouse a narrow, often chauvinistic Jewish nationalism and it’s not surprising that one of “Livni’s people” warned recently that “if it turns out to be a Yariv Levin type of bill, Livni will block it in the Ministerial Committee for Legislation.”
Netanyahu is right to claim that at the heart of the Israel-Palestinian conflict has always been the refusal of the Palestinians to accept that the Jews have any right to sovereignty in their historic homeland – or indeed, any connection to the Land of Israel. However, was this new law the best of the various options available to the prime minister? The Levi-Shaked proposal was not the only suggested model for a new Basic Law. Livni had secured the services of Professor Ruth Gavison, asking her to research and prepare a draft Basic Law which would definitively proclaim Israel a Jewish and democratic state.
Gavison is a noted lawyer and campaigner for the partnering of Zionism and democratic values, and has already produced the most thoughtful and far-reaching manifesto for religious- secular relations in Israel, in partnership with Rabbi Yaacov Meidan. Livni could not have made a better choice.
Another idea was far simpler and is worth another look. Yesh Atid MK Ruth Calderon proposed that Israel’s Declaration of Independence be formalized into a Basic Law. This is a clear improvement on the Levin-Shaked proposal because not only does the Declaration firmly proclaim the state’s Jewish character and, indeed, it’s Jewish raison d’etre, it also goes on to address the liberal democratic character of the state in no less categorical terms.
Netanyahu and others have argued that there is no need for the new Basic Law to stress Israel’s democratic nature as this has already been covered by previous legislation – pre-sumably referring to Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty which does indeed specifically refer to Israel as “a Jewish and democratic state.” However the purpose of that law is to set out certain liberties and rights to be enshrined in the legal system; it is not a law purporting to define, once and for all, the character of the state. That is the aim of the new Basic Law.
So, should this final, constitutional definition be: “The State of Israel is the state of the Jewish people,” or: “The State of Israel is the democratic state of the Jewish people”? One way to answer the question is to examine the history of Zionism. The wording of the Declaration of Independence tells us that the founders of the state were committed to a state imbued with the values of religious, racial and gender equality now associated with western liberal democracies (and lest we forget, the Declaration was signed by representatives from across the spectrum of the Zionist movement, not just the dominant socialists). But what of the founders of the Zionist movement itself? What of the earlier thinkers and theorists from Herzl onward? The answer is indisputable. Delegates at the pre-state Zionist congresses were democratically elected. What’s more, women had full equality as voters and representatives at a time before women had the vote in the vast majority of the democratic states of the time. (The US, for example, did not introduce women’s suffrage until 1920 – the first Zionist Congress was in 1897.) Herzl’s 1902 utopian novel Altneuland features a national election in the Jewish state in which all citizens have the vote regardless of gender, race or religion. The plot has a liberal candidate, running on a platform of equal rights for all citizens, defeating a far-right racist who believes non-Jews should be denied the right to vote.
Ironically, it is the self-proclaimed defenders of Zionism on the jingoistic Israeli Right that have drifted the furthest from the values of the Zionist forefathers.
What’s more, it was specifically their forefather, Revisionist founder Jabotinsky, who was the most consistent and passionate advocate of a liberal Jewish state that would give full equality to its non-Jewish citizens.
Israel’s leaders should loudly and proudly declare the right of the Jewish people to a state, especially in the face of the persistent rejection of that right by our purported peace partners. But to anchor in Israel’s de facto constitution a definition of the Jewish state, which implies a clear emphasis on Israel’s Jewish status, over and above its democratic character, plays into the hands of the most bigoted elements of the Israeli Right. More fundamentally, it is a betrayal of Zionism’s legacy as a profoundly progressive movement.
The author lives in Jerusalem and has written on Israeli politics and the Jewish world for a number of Israeli, British and American titles. He is the director of the Israel Government Fellows, an elite leadership and professional development program for young Diaspora Jews, but writes here in a personal capacity.