Is the New Basic Law in Israel Discriminatory?

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region

July 29, 2018

Last week the Israeli Knesset approved a controversial law changing the country’s Basic Law to recognize Israel as the “nation-state of the Jewish People.” In Israel many have criticized the law for being antidemocratic and for undermining the state’s founding ideals of equality and the protection of minorities. The law also refers to Jerusalem as the undivided capital of the state of Israel, further diminishing Palestinian hopes for an independent nation with East Jerusalem as their capital. On the other side, many have celebrated the law – wryly or not – for acknowledging the “truth” of the state of Israel.

One criticism of the law comes from Time of Israel’s Noah Efron, who, in a recent op-ed, characterized “[t]he Judaism of the ‘Nation-State Bill’ [as] a shallow and mean thing, reduced to a flag, an anthem, a star on a map marking Jerusalem as our capital, and a sour insistence that Hebrew is Israel’s only official language, and the Jewish holidays its only official holidays. Criticisms of the law generally made the case that it reflected too shallow a notion of democracy in a Jewish State. That’s true, but it may be that what bothered me most about the law was its too-shallow notion of Judaism in a Jewish State, which it summed up as a bunch of symbols, a plot of land, and ability to muffle non-Jews. There has got to be more to it than that.”

However, Arutz Sheva’s Giulio Meotti believes that Israeli symbols, including the flag and the national anthem, were worth protecting by enshrining them into law: “Without a Nationality Law, the ‘law of return’ (a tenet of Zionism which guarantees automatic immigration rights to Jews, for example to the French Jews now under Islamist attack) could one day be overthrown as ‘discriminatory’, as well as the anthem of Israel (which expresses the faithfulness of two millennia of Jews to their land), the flag (another Jewish symbol with the Star of David) could be challenged in court for ignoring the rights of the Arab minority and the Menorah (the Knesset symbol also engraved on the Arch of Titus in Rome) could be considered ‘racist’. The law protects all these.”

But many remain unconvinced. Yedidia Z. Stern, in an op-ed for Yedioth Ahronoth, takes aim at the new law’s “infringement on the balance between the particularistic and universalist aspects of the Zionist enterprise…. The one-sided Nation-State Law contradicts what Israel promised itself and the world in the Declaration of Independence, the founding document of the State of Israel…. The State of Israel, which aspires to be a light unto the nations, is now the only democratic nation-state in the world that does not guarantee the equality of all its citizens. Not only does the one-sided nature of the Nation-State Law contravene the Israeli ethos and the international consensus, it also runs counter to the basic Jewish message of the appropriate treatment of a stranger living among Jews.”

The tension between the liberal aspirations of some in Israel and illiberal contents of the law is also manifest in this Jerusalem Post op-ed by Susan Rolef, who turns her attention to the domestic implications of the law, concluding on a cautiously optimistic note: “The law also ignores the great rift that is occurring between the State of Israel and large sections of world Jewry against the background of the illiberal policies of Israel’s current government, and its continued discrimination of the non-Orthodox Jewish streams. Nevertheless, though the new Basic Law is now part and parcel of the Israeli law book, this is not necessarily the end of the story. As long as Israel remains a democracy, the possibility exists that someday in the future there will be a majority in the Knesset that will seek to amend, replace or abolish this awful law. Sooner or later that day will come.”

It is telling, perhaps, that for so many Israeli commentators and observers the main concern with the new law has been about the ideals and image of the state of Israel. Yet as Maan News’s Ramzy Baroud points out, for the non-Jewish minorities living in Israel and the Palestinian people more broadly, the Nationality Law only formalizes their daily discrimination suffered at the hands of the state of Israel: “70 years of Israeli Jewish supremacy, genocide, ethnic cleansing, wars, sieges, mass incarceration, numerous discriminatory laws, all aimed at the very destruction of the Palestinian people should have given enough clues that Israel was never a democracy, to begin with. The Jewish Nation-state Law is merely the icing on the cake. It simply gave those who argued, all along, that Israel’s attempt at combining democracy with ethnic supremacy was racism masquerading as democracy, the munition they needed to further illustrate the point…. The rest of the world must now make its choice as well, hopefully the right one: standing on the right side of history – against Israeli Jewish Apartheid and for Palestinian rights.”

Writing for Gulf News, James Zogby makes a similar argument, calling out the hypocrisy of those who have refused to recognize the suffering of the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories: “What is confounding, however, is why liberals are suddenly concerned as Israel has written into law what they have been doing for decades with nary a protest…. In this regard, the clarity that this ‘Jewish Nation-State’ Bill provides may be a blessing. It rips the mask off the facade behind which Israel has hidden for years. What is exposed is the cruel apartheid system that is being implemented in Israel and Occupied Territories. The time has come for an end to hypocrisy and moral blindness. Israeli practices must be challenged and people of good will must work together to demand equality, justice and human rights.”

Finally, the new law has caused concern outside the borders of Israel. For example, the Jordan Times editorial staff argues that the new law is likely to make Palestinian statehood even harder, concluding that such drastic changes in the status quo could have only been made with the approval of the White House: “This Israeli basic law has simply changed irrevocably the landscape of Israeli-Palestinian relations and has put it a new framework that can only make the resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict a distant dream….  These regressive developments take the Palestinians many steps backward in their quest for a homeland with East Jerusalem its capital. One wonders who gave Israel the green light to go ahead and adopt such a provocative law, but all hypotheses suggest that it can be only US President Donald Trump.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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