The New “Nationality Law” Defines Israel as a Jewish State. What Could be Wrong with That?

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Rabbi Neal Gold

Rabbi Neal Gold is Director of Program & Content for ARZA.

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On Sunday, May 7, a Knesset committee approved a long-gestating “Nationality Bill” that would certify as a Basic Law that Israel is, indeed, the world’s Jewish State. Why would any Zionist oppose a law that is such a no-brainer?

Israel is a democracy without a constitution. David Ben Gurion originally intended to organize a constitutional committee after Israel declared independence, but the early days of the state called for different priorities—including fighting the War of Independence. In 1950, the Harari Decision determined that in lieu of a constitution, Basic Laws would be agreed upon that would serve as the foundational legal principles of the state; in essence, they would write a constitution chapter-by-chapter. 

The new Nationality Bill (in Hebrew: hok ha-le’om) was approved unanimously by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called for the Knesset to pass it within 60 days.  The bill would legislate aspects of the Jewish character of Israel:

  1. It establishes national symbols including the Israeli flag and Hatikvah as the national anthem;

  2. It asserts the Jewish right of return, and recognizes Jewish holy sites and the Hebrew calendar.

  3. It asserts that Hebrew is the country’s official language, and would demote Arabic to “special status.”

  4. It calls for the government to strengthen ties between Israel and Diaspora Jewry.

  5. Anticipating critics, it declares “every resident of Israel, without distinction of religion or national origin, is entitled to work to preserve his culture, heritage, language, and identity.”

It certainly sounds like a reasonable assertion of matters that are already widely agreed upon in the Zionist community. So what could be wrong?

Politicians love laws that assert “obvious” values, but these laws often have subversive intent. Consider in America how, periodically, an anti-flag burning amendment to the Constitution is proposed. Such legislation typically enjoys the embrace of politicians who want to establish their patriotic bona fides. After all—many Americans feel a pang in the heart upon seeing the stars and stripes being desecrated, a disturbance in the Force that makes us say, “There ought to be a law!” Unbridled emotions are a potent political force, and savvy politicians love to manipulate them. Therefore, legislation like flag-burning amendments is a great tool to obfuscate more controversial agendas, or to shore up support for political figures (who may be facing scandal).

Consider the Nationality Bill in this light. Of course as Zionists we love Hatikvah, the Israeli flag, and the Hebrew language. Of course Israel is our Jewish home. Of course we celebrate the Right of Return and Israel as a sanctuary for oppressed Jews anywhere.

But we have to ask:  why now? Why is this legislation, which has been delayed in committee for years, surfacing at this moment?

Likud MK Avi Dichter said, “The Nationality Law is critical in a time like this, when elements from within and without are trying to reject the Jewish people’s right to a national home in its country and the recognition of the State of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.” In other words, even though Israel’s Jewish character is self-evident, we have to pass this law because of what our enemies say about us.

But are Israel’s institutions—and its self-image—so fragile that they need this psychological self-inflation? Since when does the Palestinian Authority have the power to shape Israel’s identity?

In truth, this bill is the latest of a series of legislative assaults against Israel’s democratic character. In recent months, Israel has passed a “protestor ban” which would bar entry to those (including some Jewish community leaders, such as the former CEO of the San Francisco Jewish Federation) who have criticized the government or the settlements, and an NGO law that would forcefully restrain human rights organizations that receive a majority of their funding from overseas. These laws may have appealing aspects for some, but the cumulative effect is an assault against dissent and free speech, the hallmarks of a democratic society.

In the meantime, the Chief Rabbinate and Haredi political parties continue to deny fundamental religious freedoms to Israel’s non-Orthodox Jewish majority and to assault the democratic institutions of the state. For those who worry about the unrestrained power of religious fundamentalists—and the overwhelming majority of Israelis believe that the Chief Rabbinate has far too much power and drives Jews away from Judaism—there is much to be concerned about. The Nationality Bill, which asserts that the State is Jewish and urges strengthening ties with the Diaspora, does not take up the issue of Jewish pluralism. Is Israel to be an Orthodox Jewish State—or a state for all the Jewish people? 

The denigration of Arabic functions in a similar way. Arabic has been accorded official status since the earliest days of the state; Israel’s road signs, food labels, and messages on, for instance, danger zones or hazardous chemicals have all included Arabic.  It is the day-to-day language of Israel’s 1.8 million Arab citizens, 20.8% of the population (as well as the mother tongue of Israeli Jews who came from Iraq, Morocco, Yemen, or other parts of the Arab world). It is easy to see how the “demotion” of Arabic from official status is another message to Israel’s Arabs that they are second-class citizens.

The democratic institutions of Israel should be a great pride to the Jewish people who just celebrated the 69th anniversary of the State of Israel. However, the democratic institutions of the state—which guarantee civil liberties to all its citizens, especially its minorities—remain vulnerable to extremists, and need to be preserved at all costs.

The Knesset should oppose the Nationality Bill. Israel would be far better served by enacting Basic Laws reaffirming its commitments to civil liberties and to the democratic freedoms of the press, assembly, gender equality, and religious expression.