Israel recently passed a new law known as “Basic Law: Israel – The nation-state of the Jewish people.” For those of you who are unfamiliar with Israeli politics, a Basic Law is the equivalent of a constitutional provision. Israel has no formal constitution like the U.S. or Canada, but its Basic Laws serve the same function. Israel has several Basic Laws, including laws governing elections, the structure of government, and the fundamental rights and freedoms enjoyed by all Israeli citizens.
So what exactly is this law and what does it do? Let me first begin by explaining what the new law does not do. The law does not legalize any form of discrimination against anyone in the country who is not Jewish. Israel’s critics claim that the law mandates the establishment of Jewish-only settlements. It doesn’t. The text of the law states that “The state views Jewish settlement as a national value and will labour to encourage and promote its establishment and development.” This is simply a fancy way of saying that the State of Israel will help and encourage Jews who want to live in their ancestral homeland to do so. There is no mention of segregating Jews from non-Jews or not allowing non-Jews to live in Israeli communities.
Israel’s detractors will also have you believe that the new Basic Law relegates the Arabic language to an inferior status vis-à-vis Hebrew. The law says that, “Hebrew is the language of the state,” and that, “the Arabic language has a special status in the state.” But it also states that, “this clause does not change the status given to the Arabic language before the basic law was created. In other words, Arabic still has the same status in the country that it always had. Nothing changes.
In fact, this law doesn’t just leave Arabic alone. It leaves everything else alone, too. It doesn’t change anything. The rest of it tells us what Israel’s flag is, what its national anthem is, and proclaims that the State of Israel, “will be open to Jewish immigration and the gathering of the exiles.” In short, what is said in the new Basic Law has already been said before. The law changes nothing. So why was it created? I speculate that the framers of the law intended it to be a response to those who criticize Israel because it is in fact a Jewish state. It’s basically a way of saying that yes, Israel is a Jewish state and that’s not going to change.
And why should it? Israel is hardly the only nation-state on Earth that was created to serve the interests of a particular ethnic or religious community. The very term nation-state implies that it is a state composed, at least primarily, of one particular nation. France is the nation-state of the French people, Germany is the nation-state of the German people, Italy is the nation-state of the Italian people. So why is it a problem that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people? I don’t hear anyone complaining about how Egypt and Syria proclaim themselves to be Arab states, or how Iran calls itself the Islamic Republic. But it seems like everybody is up in arms whenever Israel reaffirms its identity as a Jewish state. Hence, the global reaction to Israel’s new Basic Law: Israel – Nation-state of the Jewish people is quite predictable.
Now just to be fair, there are also some politicians in Israel – Zionist politicians – who are opposed to the new law. That being said, those who criticize the new law, but still believe in a Jewish State of Israel are critical of the law for the same reason I am. Because it is redundant, doesn’t change anything and simply provides another excuse for Israel’s enemies to accuse the Jewish state of practising racism and apartheid, even if such criticism is slanderous at best.
Nevertheless, now that the law has passed, Israel needs to deal with the fallout. But how? I believe the best way would be for the Israeli government to reaffirm the state’s commitment to equality for all of its citizens in the same way that the new Basic Law reaffirms Israel’s Jewish identity. This can and should be done by creating yet another Basic Law outlining the state’s promise of equality to the country’s ethnic and religious minority communities. Such a law would clearly state that all Israeli citizens are equal before the law and that the state will protect the cultural, religious and linguistic rights of minority communities. Perhaps we could even call it, “Basic Law: Equality for all citizens.”