Reality Check: Netanyahu has given up on full equality for Israel’s Arabs

Is now really the time for the government to seek to further stoke the flames of Jewish-Arab tension by discussing a bill that effectively downgrades the status of 20% of the country’s population?

Binyamin Netanyahu (photo credit: REUTERS)
Binyamin Netanyahu
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Out of Israel’s population of nearly nine million people, 75 percent are Jewish. Hebrew is by far the country’s dominant language. The country’s calendar is Jewish: Shabbat is the legal day of rest and on Yom Kippur the whole country falls silent. In the major supermarket chains, all the food is kosher, as are most restaurants around the country. At major national ceremonies, a seat of honor is always found for the Ashkenazi and Sephardi chief rabbis. The country’s founding document declares in its very first sentence: “The establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz Israel, to be known as the State of Israel.”
As a result, over 60 years later, anyone with one Jewish grandparent automatically has the right to Israeli citizenship, regardless of where they were born, their knowledge of Hebrew or previous affiliation with any Jewish organization, be it synagogue, cultural club or sporting team. The country’s national anthem, “Hatikva,” is exclusively Jewish-focused, talking of the “Jewish spirit yearning... to be a free people in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem,” while the national flag is a Star of David and the symbol of the state is the Temple’s seven-branched menorah.
I could go on, but you get the point: Israel is very clearly the Jewish state; there is no other country like it. So, using the very Jewish rhetorical device of posing a question to which you already know the answer, why the need for a new basic law defining Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people? And the answer is that there is no need. Unless, of course, you want to make 20% of Israel’s citizens (some 1.7 million people) feel unwelcome in their own country, which is precisely the intention of right-wing Knesset members Ayelet Shaked, Yariv Levin and Ze’ev Elkin.
Elkin’s proposal downgrades the status of Arabic as one of the country’s two official languages, encourages Jewish settlement construction anywhere in the country (without defining Israel’s borders) and says legislation should be inspired by Jewish law and that courts should look to Jewish law in cases where civil law provides no clear answer. Shaked and Levin’s proposal meanwhile firstly affirms the exclusive right of the Jewish people to national self-determination in Israel and only, in its second clause, commits to upholding the personal rights of all the country’s citizens.
THIS COLUMN is being written before Sunday’s cabinet meeting, which is scheduled to discuss Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s compromise suggestion for this unnecessary basic law. Netanyahu’s proposal also focuses on Israel as the national home for the Jewish people but avoids the nastier parts of Elkin’s bill, such as the downgrading of Arabic or the prioritization of Jewish settlement activity. Crucially, however, although Netanyahu insists that his proposal enshrines “full individual rights according to law,” nowhere does it mention “full equality” for all Israel’s citizens.
It’s instructive to go back to Israel’s declaration of independence, which in the same breath as declaring “the State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration” adds that the new country will “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.”
Given the glaring socioeconomic differences between the Jewish and Arab populations in Israel, particularly with regard to land, urban planning, housing, infrastructure, economic development and education, it’s hard to argue that the above tenet is being met, but at least it is still there as a goal. Netanyahu has given up even the pretense wanting full equality for all the citizens he serves as prime minister.
It’s therefore hard to take seriously Netanyahu’s denunciations of Ashkelon Mayor Itamar Shimoni’s decision to issue a blanket ban on Israeli-Arab builders working at municipal kindergartens following last week’s terrorist outrage in Jerusalem. Such racism on the part of Shimoni is the logical outcome of the atmosphere created by right-wing Knesset members, encouraged by Netanyahu, who seek to undermine the democratic foundations of the country by ramming its Jewishness down the throats of all its citizens.
Following a summer which saw the shocking kidnapping and murder of three young Israeli hitchhikers in Gush Etzion, the brutal kidnapping and murder of a young Palestinian from Shuafat in Jerusalem, a 50-day war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and the recent wave of individual acts of terror by Palestinians from east Jerusalem, is this now really the time for the government to seek to further stoke the flames of Jewish-Arab tension by discussing a bill that effectively downgrades the status of 20% of the country’s population? For the pyromaniacs and delusional messianists on the Right, determined to bring about the end of the Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, with an end goal of creating a binational, apartheid state between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, the answer is clearly yes. It is up to the sane members of the coalition - Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua - along with the opposition, to make sure no version of this unnecessary bill ever becomes law.
The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post