The Nation-State Law and Israel’s challenge

Netanyahu has now proven that not only is he not that person – he is almost precisely the opposite.

DRUZE RALLY with other Israelis in protest of the Jewish Nation- State Law, in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square on August 4, 2018 (photo credit: REUTERS)
DRUZE RALLY with other Israelis in protest of the Jewish Nation- State Law, in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square on August 4, 2018
(photo credit: REUTERS)
 The ironies surrounding the aftermath of Israel’s recently passed Jewish Nation-State Law are numerous.
It is highly unusual that the issue keeping Israel in the news has nothing to do with its conflict with the Palestinians (or the fact that Hamas may be exploring a cease-fire with Israel), ongoing tensions surrounding Iran’s nuclear program or Israel’s sometimes combative relationship with the United States. It is also ironic, even if understandable, that when millions of American Jews expressed their indignation, Israel did not so much as blink, while the anger of the much smaller Druze community (who are citizens of Israel, which American Jews are not, of course), has led to significant soul-searching, including calls by some far-right members of the government like Minister Naftali Bennett to revise the law’s language. What is perhaps most surprising, however, is that though the law is unnecessarily provocative at this point in Israel’s history and does contain some clauses that are dangerous and which therefore should be deleted, the fundamental claim of the law, that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, is the issue that has most exercised Israel’s Arab and Druze communities – even though there is nothing at all new about that claim.
When Theodor Herzl, the father of modern political Zionism, launched the movement at the First Zionist Congress in 1897 in Basel, he began his lengthy address to the delegates by saying, “We are here to lay the foundation stone of the house which is to shelter the Jewish nation.” The idea of creating a Jewish state, which Israel has always been, was the transformation of 2,000 years of Jewish yearning into a modern political movement, as the result of worsening conditions for Jews in Europe. The goal had never been to create yet one more European-like nation-state, this time in the Middle East. The goal was then, as it has always remained, creating a state that would ensure the survival and enable the flourishing of the Jewish people.
Even the British – who first supported the notion in the 1917 Balfour Declaration but who then became unbendingly hostile to the Jews in Palestine so that Jews had to wrest the land from them – understood that what they endorsed would be nothing like other countries around the world. “His Majesty’s government view with favour,” the Balfour Declaration said, “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” The goal could not have been stated any more clearly even by Israel’s founders.
Israel’s Declaration of Independence made precisely the same point. “The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people,” it begins, stating quite clearly for whom the state was being created.
That language was a far cry from “When in the course of human events…” There was nothing Jeffersonian about the country that Israel’s founders were seeking to create – it was a democracy from the very beginning (surprising, in some ways, since there were no other democracies in the region and because most of the people who founded the state had come from countries where there was no democratic tradition), but never an ethnicity-blind, religiously-neutral liberal democracy. Israel was always intended to be an ethnic democracy, meaning that one people would be at the center of the country’s commitments, while the civic and religious rights of minorities would also be guaranteed. Like every modern state, Israel has too often observed these obligations in the breach, but the theory was clear from the outset – Israel would be a democracy, but not an ethnically neutral one. For that reason, the central claim of the new nation-state law actually changes nothing.
If the claim that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people is not new, why are the Druze and even many moderate Israeli Arabs so incensed? Did they not know what Israel’s Declaration of Independence says? Have they never noticed that the national anthem speaks of the longing of the Jewish soul? Surely they have seen that the Israeli flag is intentionally designed to look like a tallit, the traditional Jewish prayer shawl, have they not? 
The answer, I believe, has to do with the callousness of the discourse that surrounded the passing of the bill. Netanyahu, seeking to placate his right flank on the eve of likely Israeli elections, and likely, more like Donald Trump, to heighten Israeli society’s bitter divisions, did nothing during the process of passing the bill to placate or reassure Israel’s minorities. He knew that the bill did not contain the words “equality” or “democracy.” Not only did he not care, he seemed to want to stir the hornet’s nest. That would afford him yet another opportunity to portray himself as the defender of the Right, as the champion of Zionism, portraying the Left and Israel’s non-Jewish citizens as the enemies of all that Israel was meant to stand for.
It worked even better than he might have expected – Israel is facing a profound internal challenge. In response to suggestions that the Supreme Court might overturn the law, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked warned that such a move could lead to an earthquake. She could be right. Netanyahu’s callousness and political drive may just do to Israel what its enemies have never succeeded in accomplishing.
Can Israel really be a functioning democracy in a meaningful sense of the word even while placing the flourishing of the Jewish people at the top of its priorities? Many of us believe that it is possible, but we understand that it would require a deft hand, an ongoing commitment to nurturing a sense of belonging among Israel’s minorities, the cultivation of a society focused on tolerance and openness, commitment not only to our own flourishing but the flourishing of others as well. That requires a unique kind of leader, the sort that Israel (like the United States) does not have at the moment. It requires a person imbued with Jewish pride but also humility, passionate about Jewish life but a liberal at her or his core, too. If there was any doubt, Netanyahu has now proven that not only is he not that person, he is almost precisely the opposite.
Perhaps the greatest irony of the Nation-State Law is that the man who unquestionably sees himself as Israel’s savior is coming very close to being the person who is doing the state’s foundations unquestionable harm, quite possibly beyond the point of no return. 
The writer is the Koret Distinguished Fellow at Jerusalem’s Shalem College. His book Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn received the National Jewish Book Award as the 2016 Book of the Year. He is now writing a book on the relationship between American Jews and Israel.