The Nation-State Law – the facts

The Nation-State Law is certainly not a “law against the Druze” as some disingenuously called it.

Druze leaders partake in the protest against the Nation-State Law in Tel Aviv, August 2018 (photo credit: CORINNA KERN/REUTERS)
Druze leaders partake in the protest against the Nation-State Law in Tel Aviv, August 2018
(photo credit: CORINNA KERN/REUTERS)
Most states in the world define themselves as “nation states” – whether by law or by historical tradition, including several with national or ethnic minorities.
The usually accepted norms for a “nation state” include a defined territory, a sovereign government, and a culture, history and language shared by a majority of the state’s citizens.
According to these norms, Israel is a classic nation state, and it is therefore difficult to fathom the noisy, even rowdy, protests against the Nation-State Law, unless they are motivated by ignorance – or worse, a denial of the very right of the Jewish people to sovereignty and independence. Some jurists claim that the law may be superfluous, since its principles are already founded in the Declaration of Independence. Other jurists, however, contend that several important articles in the Declaration of Independence must be reinforced by legislating a basic law, particularly since various elements, like the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement targeting Israel, in recent years have repudiated these supposedly generally accepted principles.
Still, it must be admitted that some articles in the new law appear to be the result of not very happy political compromises.
For example, in the matter of the official language – would it really have been a problem if the Arabic language had retained its original status before the law, particularly since the law does not legislate any material changes anyway – instead of stripping the Arab language of its previous title of a “national language?” Another problematic clause has to do with “Jewish settlement.”
If this refers to the building of communities inside the State of Israel, whether by the government, Zionist institutions or private entities – then this takes place anyway, without the need for a new law. But if it refers to Judea, Samaria and the Golan Heights, this article’s inclusion in an official state law is bound to create unnecessary international complications for Israel, so that any supposed gain would be outweighed by the loss.
One might assume that some of the initiators of this article believed that this was a good way to advance the realization of “Greater Israel,” but paradoxically, if the Arab population in the country should one day become the majority, or at least a large minority, this would ipso facto spell the end of the Jewish nation state.
Leaving all sorts of incitement and politically motivated provocations aside, the main cause of the commotion against the law was its alleged discrimination of the Druze community, though in fact, in the eyes of most Jewish Israelis, the Druze are entitled to a fully equal, in some instances even preferential, status – and not only because of the “blood-bonds” but above all because of a shared vision of the future.
The actual size of the Druze community is irrelevant and some things that were said in this respect should better have remained unspoken. But what is the protest actually about? The Nation-State Law is certainly not a “law against the Druze” as some disingenuously called it. On the contrary, it may be that the drafters of the law assumed that since everyone accepts the Druze community as an integral part of the state, with equal rights, there was no need for any special mention.
This probably was a mistake, since the feeling of discrimination is personal and relative, even if there is no actual discrimination.
Be that as it may, the government now faces the need to address the problem – and this could be achieved, for example, by legislating a “Bill of Rights” for the minorities in the state, as an addendum to the Nation-State Law –just as the United States adopted its Bill of Rights containing amendments and additions to the American Constitution and Declaration of Independence.
This document would inter alia specify civic, cultural, religious and other rights stated in the Declaration of Independence, which the new law does not negate in any way.
Such a “Bill of Rights” would stress the “Israeliness” of the state’s citizens, both Jewish and non-Jewish, with all the rights and obligations deriving from their citizenship. Of course, these rights should not include the right to national self-determination for any minority, a “right” which does not exist in any other sovereign country, since its realization would lead to the disappearance of the State of Israel.
An important provision in the law addresses the affinity between Israel and the Jewish people everywhere – stating, among other things, that “the state shall act within the Diaspora to strengthen the bonds between the state and the Jewish people.” “Diaspora” was apparently introduced in order to underscore that in Israel the term “the Jewish people” supposedly refers only to those who are recognized as such by the rabbinical establishment.
This interpretation cannot be accepted. On the contrary, the legal and practical significance must be that also in the Diaspora, just as in Israel, the state will act to maintain the ties between all parts of the Jewish people – Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or those not affiliated with any formal denomination – with the State of Israel. This should be the primary historical, cultural and political significance of the law: The Jewish nation does not only include Jews living in Israel, but also Jews throughout the world – and that is why it employs Theodor Herzl’s term “State of the Jewish people,” and not “Jewish state,” as the latter’s religious connotations are exploited by Israel’s enemies to make false accusations about supposed discrimination against other religions in Israel, and also to deny the national identity of the Jews, and thus their right to a state.
We should thus welcome the Nation-State Law, in spite of its flaws, as an important addition to Israel’s legal codex, always bearing in mind the state’s democratic responsibility while enforcing it.
The writer served in the Knesset and is a former Israeli ambassador to the United States.