Many of us are having a hard time understanding the pros and cons, rights and wrongs, and eventual outcomes of Israel’s newly enacted nation-state law.
On the surface, one might wonder what the fuss is about. We all know Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people. A law that supports that fact should therefore not be contentious. But it is, because the reasons for the law, the eventual outcomes and the responses to the law are multifaceted and highly complex, layered and, in many cases, not yet known.
As with everything that comes out of the Knesset, the law is a compromise and has been passed for political reasons. The belief of those passing the law is that they will receive more votes in the next election because the majority of Israelis wanted such a law.
Minorities aren’t happy about the bill, especially the much-loved Druze. If even they are feeling hard done by, that is a signal that there is a problem, either with the law or the way it was implemented. Belatedly, the government is moving to try to placate the Druze with economic measures that were promised long ago but never completed. But it may not be enough to resolve hurt feelings, the fires of which are being fanned by politicians opposed to this coalition government, and many of Israel’s enemies.
The hurt feelings arise from the dominance of the Jewish aspects of the law. Hebrew is now the country’s sole official language. Despite the law guaranteeing that Arabic use will be protected at, feelings were hurt. This, plus the reference to Jewish settlement is simply a reminder that the state was established for Jews – a reminder of the facts but still difficult to accept when you are not Jewish.
There was also a major “miss.” Absent from the law is a reference to the equality of all citizens, which would have responded to the reasonable concerns of Israel’s minorities. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s response – that the right to equality is already present in the Declaration of Independence and at least one other Basic Law – is correct.
But if the right of equality already existed, why not include it in the newest Basic Law, in order to make this nation-state law more palatable to a minority that already feels uncomfortable?
Finally, for the left in the Diaspora, this is seen as ”more of the same,” coming as it does on the heels of the decision to reverse the negotiated Western Wall settlement, the dismissive comments of the chief rabbinate and the politically inspired detention of several activists, upon their entrance into Israel.
But Israel continues to be a Jewish state as well as a democratic state. In fact, the passing of any law by an elected Knesset, whether basic or not, is democratic by definition. But this is also politics, both within Israel, and at an international level – this law was passed by a government that is not liked or appreciated by Israeli minorities and certain commitments to at least some of those minorities have not been fully met. Add to that insufficient communication with a key minority group, the Druze, and the failure to include reference to equality in this Basic Law, and the result is quite predictable: Israeli Arabs, along with those on the left, whether Israeli or not, who are already negative on the Likud-led coalition, were offered a golden opportunity to raise a ruckus (although, interestingly, the extent of the response has been muted on the part of the Israeli Arabs).
Of course, the Israeli government must continue to fulfill its commitments to its non-Jewish citizens to provide equal economic and social support. But that was true before this law was passed. This law is not going to be a difference-maker in the lives of Israeli minorities. In fact, it has helped somewhat by calling attention to commitments not yet completed for some of them. The clumsy way in which it was implemented is unfortunate, because it has offered our enemies more fodder for their attacks on Israel. But the fact remains that Israel was, and remains, the nation state of the Jewish people – a state that is clearly needed, given goings-on around the world.