The Nation-State bill: Yes or no?

We seem to have become a country on strike.

Special committee to pass the Basic Law: Israel, the Nation-State of the Jewish People committee chairman Amir Ohana (Likud) , Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and Tourism Minister Yariv Levin (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Special committee to pass the Basic Law: Israel, the Nation-State of the Jewish People committee chairman Amir Ohana (Likud) , Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and Tourism Minister Yariv Levin
It seems as though we have already become accustomed to a new uproar every week, a new reason for protest and demonstrations. We seem to have become a country on strike. And with every burning issue that’s currently on the agenda, we hear the shrill voices of its extremists, inciters and pyromaniacs.
If we try to ignore, for just a moment, the politicians who are trying to get more screen time on our account, and if we try to ignore the most influential leaders of society that follow an extremist political, religious or nationalistic line, we will be able to deal with the issue of the Nation-State Law without harsh words of incitement in order to understand what really moves its supporters and opponents.
The State of Israel is a sovereign country, established legally and with the support of the nations of the world, as the state of the Jewish people. This was determined in the UN Partition Plan, it was confirmed in the UN resolution and stated in the Declaration of Independence. This matter was never disputed or doubted; and even Israel’s opponents are well aware that this was the essence and destiny of the State of Israel. Our problem is mainly the fact that, since the establishment of the State of Israel, there has never been a formal constitution for reasons that will be explained below.
Such a constitution, which exists as a binding, written, socially-agreed-upon document, defines the basic principles of the state, its policies and its conduct, the rights of its citizens, and the manner in which the various authorities in the country operate. The constitution is above ordinary law which is derived from it, it is more difficult to change but allows for amendments and, as stated, it establishes and anchors the basic principles of conduct of the society in a country.
Although the Declaration of Independence states that a constitution will be enacted for the State of Israel, this has never happened, primarily due to fear of confrontation with religious parties who do not agree to certain principles of such a constitution. The Jewish response to the issue was to create solutions for the absence of a constitution by creating basic laws. This served as a guideline for legislation and basic rights and principles of administration and government without the need to confront sensitive topics on which there was a dispute. In this manner, several basic laws were enacted in the State of Israel until this day, concerning the Knesset, the government, the president, the army, freedom of occupation, and other laws that define Jerusalem as the capital of the state, the powers of the state comptroller, the judicial system, human dignity and liberty. All other disputed issues have not been dealt with and remain mere catchphrases in the Declaration of Independence.
The Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel, which is the official founding document of the state and defines the principles of its conduct, explicitly states a number of things: the establishment of a Jewish state for the People of Israel in the Land of Israel; the openness of the state to Jewish immigration; the complete equality of social and political rights for all its citizens of all religions, origins and genders, the freedom of religion. The document also calls on Israeli Arabs to take part in building the state on the basis of full and equal citizenship and appropriate representation in state institutions.
Those who have connected the dots so far surely understand that all these principles have been established in the past and have even been written down in the founding document of the state. Moreover, the state has deliberately refrained over the years from adopting a full constitution only because of the fear of confrontation with religious elements in Israeli politics. Consequently, there is only a need to adapt the basic laws so that they may, one day, serve as the basis for the establishment of such a constitution.
And now to our case. Is the enactment of the Nation-State Law at this point in time necessary and appropriate? The answer, in the words of former president Shimon Peres, is “yes and no.” It is absolutely not necessary but it is very appropriate. The law does not change the status quo in the country. The State of Israel was always and will always be the state of the Jewish people with Jerusalem as its capital and Hebrew as its official language.
In addition, and in accordance with the principles of the Declaration of Independence, the equality of civil rights between all citizens of the state, regardless of religion, race or gender, will be maintained. The law does not harm the status of Israel’s Arabs or other minorities living in the country, like the Druze, Circassians and Christians. On the other hand, it also doesn’t improve the situation which has been existing until now. So what actually happened here?
Another basic law based on the principles of the Declaration of Independence was enacted in addition to those which already exist and define the essence of the State of Israel. Various political elements tried, and maybe succeeded, to derive some political benefit from the legislative process. Nothing has changed in practice and in the way things were handled before the passing of the law.
Extremist elements among the minorities in the country were given another unnecessary opportunity to provoke conflict and controversy and to increase the already existing social incitement and polarization and to organize a few more public demonstrations.
If only the leaders and elected officials of the nation would focus on the majority and not on the minority. If only they would regard the welfare of the citizens of the state over their own benefit. If only they would take into consideration the long term instead of only until the end of their term of office, then the situation would have been completely different. Then the leaders would be focusing on establishing a constitution for the state, anchored in it the laws for the benefit of its citizens, instead of creating provocations just for once, unifying the people instead of polarizing them, improving economical, educational and medical infrastructure instead of creating political headlines inciting each other, and building a long-term visionary strategy for the state instead of passing unnecessary laws that don’t move anything forward. Maybe then the squares would be used for festive gatherings, happy events and exciting performances instead a demonstration every other weekend by another faction. And there wouldn’t be anyone who benefits from all the demonstrations, incitement and polarization and therefore also doesn’t see a benefit in strengthening unity and common goals over highlighting our differences.
The writer is a former brigadier-general who served as a division head in the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency).
Translated by Juliane Helmond