There’s no need for a ‘Jewish state’ law

Netanyahu’s bill is no more than a cynical ploy to mobilize his base.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives to the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem November 23 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives to the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem November 23
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says that he wants Israel to be Jewish and democratic. Regrettably, his controversial “Jewish State” bill will make Israel less democratic, and his actions impeding a two-state solution will make Israel less Jewish.
There is no real need for a new law on Israel’s identity. Not a bill like this, not with the proposed phrasing, and definitely not now. Israel’s status as a Jewish, democratic state is already enshrined in its Declaration of Independence, which explicitly defines Israel as a “Jewish state,” and, among other things, guarantees “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants.”
Netanyahu’s bill is no more than a cynical ploy to mobilize his base, firm up his brand and neutralize his troublesome coalition partners – and it could not come at a worse time for the State of Israel or for relations between Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens.
This bill is really for domestic consumption.
With it, Netanyahu is triangulating the centrists in his troubled coalition, and appropriating for himself the populist nationalism of right-wingers like coalition chairman Ze’ev Elkin, who put forward the most extreme of the several versions of the bill that have been floating around.
David Ben-Gurion, who established the Jewish state, as well as Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin, the fathers of the Israeli Right, would never have supported this bill. Netanyahu and Elkin’s Likud Party is not the pragmatic, liberal democratic Likud of Menachem Begin.
With terrorist incidents nearly every day, violence on the streets, and a radicalized right wing on the ascendancy, it is not hard to understand Netanyahu appealing to his base. Elkin’s initial draft went so far as to demote Arabic as an official language, which shows just how much contempt the far Right has for our fellow Arab citizens. But the draft passed by the coalition still omits explicitly protecting “equality,” and purports to force the courts and the legislature to utilize Jewish religious law, to name just two of the sins of this abysmal legislation.
The current bill is dishonest in its intent, lacks any sign of the deep thought that is required for a constitutional document (Netanyahu’s own attorney-general slammed the measure primarily for this reason) and is more concerned with politics than protecting Israel’s Jewishness.
And again, this bill is being presented at the worst possible time. The city I call home, Jerusalem, has been a tinderbox for weeks, and the country could easily slide toward another intifada. Even if Israel needed such a law, the current proposal is so spectacularly ill-timed as to be inflammatory and deeply irresponsible on Netanyahu’s part.
I might have supported a more moderate version of this bill, but I would only do so in the context of a two-state peace agreement with the Palestinians, in which each side recognized the legitimacy of the other’s national aspirations.
Most tragic of all is that Netanyahu is putting forward a bill ostensibly asserting the Jewishness of the state while his actions are guaranteed to lead to the opposite result. He scuttled negotiations with the Palestinians early this year, and we are getting ever more distant from the dream of a two-state solution.
In the absence of a two-state solution, we are left with only two alternative scenarios. Either Israel annexes the territories and grants the Palestinians full civil and political rights, in which case Israel will certainly not be a Jewish state; or we will all live together in one state that protects the national and religious rights of Jews, under bills like this, and does not sufficiently protect those of a national minority that will ultimately become the majority.
It is against these scenarios that US Secretary of State John Kerry warned when he said Israel risks becoming an “apartheid state.” I might not use exactly those words, but the fact is that Netanyahu’s actions undermine the future of Israel as a Jewish state; and his “Jewish state” bill undermines the democratic nature of Israel, and, just as important, its global perception as such.
An enlightened government would be calming tensions now, and would be making conciliatory gestures toward Israeli Arabs. An enlightened government would renew negotiations with the Palestinians without preconditions.
If Netanyahu genuinely wants to ensure Israel remains the “nation-state of the Jewish people,” he would do so by taking actions like seriously promoting a two-state agreement with the Palestinians, not by putting forward superfluous, ill-conceived, jingoistic proposals like his version of the “Jewish state” bill.
Hilik Bar is a member of Knesset, deputy speaker of the Knesset, and secretary-general of the Labor Party.