The Nation-State Law: A challenge to be faced

Cast in the terms of modern political science, Israel’s nation-state law formally ends the period of nation building in Israel’s political history and inaugurates the period of state building.

Israeli flag (photo credit: REUTERS)
Israeli flag
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Israel’s Nation-State Law – long overdue, finally enacted and maliciously misconstrued – has conclusively detached Israel’s sovereign identity as the nation-state of the Jewish people from the demography of its citizens. No longer will Israel’s sovereignty be determined by the religious pedigree of the wombs of its mommies. No longer will Israel’s Jewish identity be hostage to the halachic authority of Israel’s Orthodox rabbis who constantly monitor and regularly manipulate the religious status of those wombs in order to determine who is and who is not Jewish. From now on, the religious identity of the citizens of Israel – and of their mommies – has no bearing whatsoever upon the sovereign identity of the State of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.
The Nation-State Law inoculates Israel from the vicissitudes of demography and immunizes it from the fickleness of democracy. The Jewish national home is now a legitimate and permanent fact of modern world politics, the crowning achievement of Zionism’s rejection of the Jewish nation’s history of statelessness. Never again will a Jew anywhere in the world go wanting for a passport; never again will the Jewish people be deprived of their place among the nations. By transferring Jewish sovereignty from the nation of Israel to the State of Israel, the nation-state law guarantees the authority of the state in perpetuity and without regard to the condition of the nation. Even if the people of Israel lose heart, the State of Israel will endure and soldier on.
Cast in the terms of modern political science, Israel’s nation-state law formally ends the period of nation building in Israel’s political history and inaugurates the period of state building.
Nation building in Israel, which consumed considerably more than a century of Zionist output, including almost 70 years of sovereign independence, created a national spirit among its devotees that was soaked in Zionism’s high ideals of renewed Jewish culture, rugged physical comfort, and egalitarian socialist camaraderie for the Jewish nation, which would be restored to ancient Israel’s Biblical patrimony.
To achieve each of these goals, the Zionist movement imposed upon the reconstituted land-based nation a renewed and refurbished Hebrew language that would unify the people and regenerate their Judaism; it inspired among its adherents a heroic spirit of combat and comradeship that sanctified warfare and consecrated the brotherhood forged in blood; and it devised an egalitarian work ethic which was fully captured by the institution of the kibbutz and boldly expressed by the tread of the tractor, whose sacred metal teeth helped make the desert bloom.
But in the past 25 years, more or less, each and every one of these Zionist methods of nation building have run their course and mostly disappeared beyond the horizon of the sovereign secular State. Israel’s agricultural hinterland, where tractors surely remain ubiquitous, has been swamped by hi-tech Tel Aviv and the appeal of capitalist individualism. In all likelihood, those who drive the tractors of the hinterland and determine the placement of its tread within the sacred earth of ancient Israel’s Biblical patrimony are either foreign workers from a third-world country armed with official work permits, or indigenous Arabs from the other side of the Green Line who are paid for their work in cash.
Then there are the dirty little secrets of Israel’s people’s army. Despite its ongoing cost in human lives, the army no longer forges a national esprit-de-corps sanctified in blood. The fact is that universal conscription, excluding Arabs and haredim, hovers at around 50% of the draft age population. Worse yet, the overwhelming majority of the conscripts contribute little to the defense of the homeland, which means that the Jewish State is about 10 minutes away from recognizing the futility of a universal draft and replacing the national army with a military class, which is common to all modern, progressive, and secular sovereign states and thus fully proper. When that happens, haredi Jews will be free to milk the state for their personal benefit without ever having participated in the period of Zionist nation building. And that outcome explains the recent obsession among many Israelis with what is called shivyon b’netel – forcing the haredim to carry their share of the already completed burden of nation building – which amounts to shutting the barn door after the animals already escaped.
But nothing speaks more vigorously to the end of nation building and the beginning of state building than the clause in the nation-state law that declares Hebrew to be the official language of the Jewish state.
States establish an official language only after the period of nation building has been completed, that is, only after it is certain that its national identity is secure. For example, in the United States of America, the most secure nation-state in all of human history, whose official language is English, the language of another nation, the sovereign state could care less about the language of commerce and communication preferred by its citizens. All that matters is that the citizens of the nation accept the fact that the institutions of the sovereign state must be addressed in the official language of the nation. In other words, by declaring Hebrew to be the official language of the State of Israel, the nation-state law declared that the period of Zionist state building has already arrived.
Now state building is not so much about language and culture, calendars and holidays, days of work and days of rest. Rather, state building is about sovereignty. And sovereignty is about defining the territorial reach of the sovereign state, which means setting the territorial boundary lines beyond which the state has no political and military authority. Zionism, however, has steadfastly refused to define the territorial limits of the Jewish state, imagining that those limits would be set not by the sovereign Jewish state but by its Arab enemies after making peace with Israel. Thus, the slogan of land for peace; thus, the illusion of the two-state solution.
The nation-state law has drained that slogan of its efficacy and brought that solution to its final ruin. The nation-state law challenges the citizens of Israel – Jews and non-Jews alike; Left, Right, and Center – to forsake the comfort of nation building and address the challenge of state building. The nation of Israel has won; we have defeated our enemies. Now the time is at hand to permanently secure the future of the State of Israel, which can only be accomplished by clearly defining its territorial boundary lines.
Are we ready to meet this challenge?
The writer, who earned his Ph.D. in Political Science at Columbia University, is the rabbi of Minyan HaVatikim in the Rimon section of Efrat. He is currently writing a book on Integrated World/Jewish history.