Enshrining Inequality In Israel

Last Sunday, Israel’s cabinet advanced a controversial bill that would amend the country’s Basic Laws to define it explicitly as “the national state of the Jewish people”:

According to many critics, the new wording would weaken the wording of Israel’s declaration of independence, which states that the new state would “be based on the principles of liberty, justice and freedom expressed by the prophets of Israel [and] affirm complete social and political equality for all its citizens, regardless of religion, race or gender”. … Netanyahu argued that the law was necessary because people were challenging the notion of Israel as a Jewish homeland.

For my part, I see it as a natural evolution of Israel’s settler policies and the end of any pretense at aiming for a two-state solution. The claim on the West Bank is a religious and racial claim – and that identity is far deeper at this point than any commitment to Western ideas of democracy, and deepening by the day. It’s also a way, of course, to ensure that the slow annexation of the West Bank can continue, because it all but ends any hope of negotiation with the Palestinian leadership. It comes at a time when the Knesset is also considering a proposal (unlikely to pass) that would enshrine punitive home demolitions in Israeli counterterrorism policy, strip citizenship from anyone who expresses support for terrorism, and have anyone brandishing a Palestinian flag arrested for “incitement”. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman openly wants to pay Arab Israelis to leave the country. In such a climate, what can prevent a further weakening of Israeli democracy in favor of racial and religious fundamentalism?

Dahlia Scheindlin nonetheless thinks such a law would be very bad for the Jewish state:

Some insist that it is hypocritical and maybe even anti-Semitic to protest a simple law of national self-definition, when ‘France is for the French people,’ or ‘Germany is the land of the German people.’ Can we lay this argument to rest already? In those examples citizenship overlaps with nationhood. Yes, France is for the French. But what makes someone French is not birth or ethnicity alone, but citizenship. This proposed basic law would codify and demarcate the State of Israel as something that belongs only to a subset of its citizens.

State rights will not overlap with citizenship; they privilege a subset of citizens. Non-Jewish citizens have no route to sharing in the privileged national group. Being Israeli won’t be enough to live equally in this country. In fact, the state has consistently rejected the very idea that there is an Israeli nationality. The true comparison is simple: the law says Israel is for the Jews, just as America once said America is for whites.

The Guardian’s editors come out against it:

Arab citizens of Israel, who make up at least 20% of the population, would be granted civil rights as individuals, but denied “national rights” as a people. This is not a charge levelled by critics. Prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who voted for the bill, unabashedly admits that, should it become law – and it still faces parliamentary obstacles – only Jews would be granted national rights. An immediate manifestation of the change could be the downgrading of Arabic from its current status as an official language of Israel.

For nearly half a century, Israel’s defenders have insisted that – whatever the world’s misgivings about the 47-year occupation of lands gained in the 1967 war — the country itself, Israel-proper, is a full-blooded democracy, with Palestinian citizens of the country enjoying full equality. This would render that claim false. The basic laws would enshrine inequality, ensuring Jews had fuller rights than Arabs.

Gershon Baskin also opposes the bill:

How could the State of Israel be less to Muhammad who was born in Kafr Kara, whose father, grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather were born in Kafr Kara, than it is to me, who was born in the United States and immigrated here 36 years ago? How could Israel belong more to Svetlana who arrived here a few years ago than to Samira whose family has been living in Haifa for 50 generations? Israel demands loyalty from its Palestinian citizens. Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman even wanted them to take a loyalty oath. What are they expected to be loyal to? Israel continues to discriminate against its Palestinian citizens. There is absolutely no excuse for discrimination on national or religious grounds in Israel after more than 65 years of statehood. The proposed law for the Jewish state would push us in the exact opposite direction.

But Haviv Rettig Gur downplays the controversy, noting that the idea of a “Jewish nation-state law” has been kicking around for years and emerged from the political center, not the far right:

In the summer of 2009, [Institute for Zionist Strategies] staff working on the bill met with former Shin Bet head and then-Kadima MK Avi Dichter, who adopted the initiative eagerly. Dichter is known as a political centrist, a critic of the far-right and an advocate of separation from the Palestinians.

In fact, in explaining his own support for the bill, he described it as an end-run around Netanyahu’s demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people – a demand Netanyahu saw as a litmus test for the Palestinian willingness to end the conflict. By defining Israel as the Jewish nation-state in its own constitution, simple recognition of Israel, which moderate Palestinian leaders have been willing to do, would necessarily constitute acceptance of the state’s constitutional identification with the Jewish nation, Dichter reasoned. It would remove a small but significant obstacle on the road to peace.

That sounds like whistling past the graveyard of democracy to me. What road to peace? And doesn’t this law all but make Palestinian engagement a dead letter?