As usual, the opposition to the bill currently before the Knesset, Basic Law: Israel – the National State of the Jewish People is overblown. As usual, opposition to a right wing-sponsored bill appears to be little more than a desire to poke right-wing MKs and voters in the eye. Once again we are treated to hysteria about “the end of democracy in Israel” and “one giant step for theocracy” if this bill is voted into law.
In reality, the current bill will have no impact on liberties guaranteed by the Declaration of Independence. The bill itself stresses fealty to “the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state in the spirit of the principles of the Declaration of Independence” – nearly direct quotes from the Declaration. The current legislation emphasises “foundations of freedom, justice and peace in light of the visions of the prophets of Israel, and upholds the individual rights of all its citizens according to law” – very much in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence. The bill provides protection for Holy Places and freedom of religion for all, and would prohibit any infringement “on freedom of access by worshippers to the places that are holy to them or on their feelings toward those places.” – hardly has the makings of the racist theocracy that opponents propose.
But do the commitments of the Declaration of Independence – which speaks of “the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State” and the declaration “of a Jewish state in Eretz Israel” – not make the provisions of the current legislation clear to all? What is to be gained by this restatement of those principles? Does the lofty phrase “Eretz Yisrael was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped” not indicate for all that the nascent state would be the national state of the Jewish People? And if so, is the current bill not superfluous?
More importantly: Is it not clear that Israel has indeed achieved the goal of a Jewish state? For whatever the (legitimate) comments about Israel’s democracy, is it not clear that Israel is a Jewish country, both in population and culture? Nearly four-fifths of Israelis are Jewish; the national language is Hebrew. The country runs according to the Jewish calendar. What does the new legislation propose to add to this reality?
The State of Israel is also recognised around the world as a source of strength and pride for Diaspora Jews, both for those who dream of making aliya and for those who merely take deep fraternal pride in Israel’s accomplishments. Jewish anti-Zionists (Orthodox and academic alike) not withstanding, and not withstanding the drop in support for Israel amongst unaffiliated Jews in recent years, millions of Diaspora Jews continue to identify with Israel and to draw spiritual nourishment from the country. Birthright is thriving. A post-high school year in Israel has become de regeur for graduates of Jewish day schools, yeshivot and seminaries. Is there really a need to enshrine all this in law? Is there even a meaning to doing so?
Ultimately, ironically, this bill raises a bitter question, not for what it says, but rather for what it implies: Have right-wing politicians and activists along the lines of MKs Zeev Elkin and Ayelet Shaked lost touch with these realities? Is the reality of a Jewish state so insignificant to them that they need more and more confirmation that this is so? Could it be that the international boycott, divestment, sanctions (BDS) campaign – vocal on the international stage, but ultimately ineffectual and marginal to Israel’s wellbeing – has, ironically, left its mark on the very folks who profess the highest allegiance to the ideals of Jewish Israel – the right? Israel is a Jewish state, whether or not the Palestinians, the Arab world or the international community recognise that fact. What, exactly, will the current proposed legislation change?
None of which is to exempt the left, which has in too many instances made Israel’s Jewish character a poor sister to the democratic state – the inverse sin of their primary accusation against the right. Here, the Golden Mean is defined by Professor Ruth Gavison, who has spoken clearly and at length of the necessary partnership between Jewish and democracy in Israel. Gavison believes the Zionist movement won support from the international community for a Jewish state only on condition that the new country would emerge as a democracy. At the same time, the only way in the current climate (or in any imaginable climate) to ensure the democracy of Israel is to ensure the state’s Jewish character. Any other definition, says Gavison, will lead to anti-democratic measures against Jews.
Ultimately, the Jewish nature of Israel is clear – to Palestinians, I believe, as much as to Israelis. There is little real question that early Zionist settlers and pre-state Haganah and Etzel fighters devoted their lives (and often lost them) in service of creating a Jewish state. To argue otherwise is simply intellectually dishonest.
But it is unclear how the proposal Basic Law: Israel – the National State of the Jewish People contributes to this goal. In the best case scenario, the bill does little than preach to an already converted choir of Israelis about the need for Israel to remain Jewish. In the worst case, it seems to be an unnecessary poke in the eye to Arab Israelis who already feel themselves to be something less than fully equal citizens of the “only democracy in the Middle East”.