In the last seven days, over 200 rockets fell from Gaza onto southern Israel and instability loomed at Israel’s northern border with Syria.
But in the halls of the Knesset, Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu and his coalition were focused elsewhere: ramming, despite bitter opposition, one of the most drastic reversals to the state’s character since its founding.
The “nation-state” bill, authored by extreme elements of the governing coalition, aims to legalize wholesale discrimination between types of Jews and against Arab citizens.
The bill narrowly passed its final vote. Met with fierce resistance by progressive and moderate forces alike, including Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin, a watered-down yet odious version nevertheless made it into law.
Just a week ago a version of the bill explicitly sanctioned discrimination and would have required women and LGBTQ Israelis to sacrifice their rights to accommodate religious sensibilities. An even earlier version of the bill required courts to base their decisions on Jewish religious law. Thanks to the tireless efforts of Israelis who understand the importance of democracy, those most egregious sections of the law were removed.
Yet the final law remains immensely divisive and passed narrowly. The new law encourages the state to pursue “Jewish settlement” and downgrades Arabic from an official language to a “special” one. The legal consequences will be months in determining. Meanwhile, the intended message has been sent: Arabs are not welcome here.
This new constitutional law is a black eye on Israel’s democratic character and will have uncertain implications for equality in Israel. It strengthens Israel’s critics and advocates of boycott, who say Israel is a racist state. And it incrementally inches Israel out of the camp of western democracies and into illiberal company.
Right now, populism around the world is challenging norms in many democratic countries. Many liberal democracies see worrying evidence of what is sweeping countries like Poland, Hungary, and Turkey: attacks against an independent judiciary, the media, and civil society NGOs, as well as scapegoating of minorities, immigrants, and political opponents.
Factions of Israeli society, especially the religious-nationalist and the ultra-Orthodox camps, have been bitterly opposed to the many advances that Israel has made since its founding and that make us so proud: women’s and LGBTQ rights, multiculturalism, religious freedom, and especially minority rights for Arab citizens.
Standing in the way of these illiberal elements have been Israel’s independent judiciary, vibrant media debate, a plethora of citizens’ advocacy groups, and a sizable portion of the populace devoted to Israel’s founding democratic ideals.
Now in power, illiberal forces are using their position to dismantle their chief obstacle: Israel’s constitutional protections. Enter several dozen anti-democratic laws and chief among them the nation-state law, which was intended to place everything that is “Jewish” as privileged above that which is secular or Arab.
There are many dangers that Israel faces: terrorism and nuclear proliferation, the endless Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its related occupation, and instability throughout the Middle East.
Looming also is a threat that could remake Israel from a democracy into something else. Already according to polls, a majority of teenage Israelis currently do not believe in minority rights, freedom of the press, and other bedrock tenets of a free society. If laws like the nation-state bill are barely passed today, what will pass in the Knesset in five, 10, 15 years?
Luckily, it is not too late. These bills meet fierce opposition from Israelis who recognize the dangers to themselves and spoke out loudly the past weeks: women, Mizrahim, Ethiopians, modern Orthodox, liberal streams of Judaism, and moderates from all sectors.
But they cannot stand against these threats alone. Globally, progressives are realizing that populist illiberalism is a phenomenon that we must face together.
Those of us who care for Israel’s long-term future must act for the country’s democratic health. That means broaching uncomfortable topics, embracing bold new ways to engage with Israel, and partnering with Israelis who seek our help. Indeed, Israel’s future survival depends as much on the security of its democratic principles as where its borders are ultimately drawn.