Does Israel need the nation state law? No

November 24, 2016 23:20

There has been a lot of wailing and hand-wringing over the "nation-state" bill which the Knesset may or may not be voting on next week.

At the heart of the furore is the claim that if the bill becomes law, it will transform Israeli Arabs into "second-class citizens".

This is very exaggerated since the chances of the bill - even if it receives a majority in its first reading in the Knesset, which is doubtful - ever emerging from the thickets of committee debates and passing all the parliamentary hurdles to become legislation are little more than zero.

Hypothetically, if it were to become law, it would change nothing. Israel's identity as the Jewish nation state is already enshrined in its Declaration of Independence, its symbols, language and traditions and its short but eventful 67-year history.

Applying the law would remain at the discretion of the courts, which are unlikely to change their rulings in accordance with the adjustments it makes. Besides, while Israel's non-Jewish citizens officially have equal rights under law, few Israelis would claim their country does not still have to go some way to ensuring full de facto equality. This law will not strip them of whatever privileges they already enjoy.

But even if it would have no effect on anyone's life in Israel, the nation-state law is highly damaging in its symbolism. There are three main reasons why Israelis and supporters of Israel abroad should be opposing the bill.

First, Israel's Jewish character has never been stronger, but the democracy in which it has justifiably taken so much pride is facing a relentless barrage of laws designed to limit it. A law that officially states that the Jewish aspect of Israel's core identity should take precedence over its democratic nature would be a blow to those who still believe Israeli democracy is worth fighting for.

Secondly, the greatest challenge to Israeli democracy is the integration of non-Jewish minorities into a Jewish state. While it is easy to argue that Israel treats its minorities infinitely better than its neighbours treat their majorities, a nation whose advocates feel the need to compare it to Egypt and Syria is not being done any favours. Israeli Arabs say that "Israel is democratic for its Jewish citizens and Jewish to all the others." This new law will only fuel the estrangement and alienation felt by a quarter of Israel's population in a period when they are already in ferment.

Finally, Israel has no constitution. Attempts at drafting one were abandoned when many of the issues proved simply too divisive. A law establishing the nation's identity is a constitutional exercise and must not be the result of haphazard political manoeuvring.

Constitutions are meant to be nation-building documents, bringing the disparate parts of society together, establishing joint identity and ensuring the security and rights of individuals and minorities.

Benjamin Netanyahu has been prime minister for nearly nine years. Until now, he has not felt the need to pass such a law, and took no part in drafting or encouraging the bill, which has been tabled by right-wing backbenchers.

The motion, however, has come at a fortuitous moment: Mr Netanyahu is anxious to rid his coalition of the two centrist parties, Yesh Atid and Hatnuah, and replace them with his more natural partners in the strictly Orthodox bloc.

A law addressing Israel's core identity should only be adopted after a wide process of consultation, not simply a result of political infighting.

November 24, 2016 23:20

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