Israel's crumbling pillars

November 24, 2016 23:20

Like the opening of an old joke, I've got good news and bad news. Both come from Israel. I'll assume that, like me, you prefer to get the bad news out of the way first. So here goes.

Last weekend, the Israeli cabinet approved a bill that will officially define Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. The session was said to be rancorous, a third of the cabinet voting against the new law.

Why the controversy, given that surely everyone already thinks of Israel as a Jewish state? Because those opponents understand that this bill - intended to become part of Israel's Basic Law, its de facto constitution - will change something fundamental.

While the Declaration of Independ-ence affirmed Israel as both Jewish and democratic, with each attribute equal to the other, this new measure would place one above the other.

From now on, Israel would be Jewish before it would be democratic, the former officially more important than the latter.

National rights would be enjoyed by Jews alone

That is no abstract concern. It would have an immediate and practical impact, not least on the one fifth of Israeli citizens who are not Jewish.

Indeed, the bill - and Benjamin Netanyahu - are explicit on this point. The Prime Minister said that, while under the new legislation everyone would continue to enjoy equal civil rights, "national rights" would be allowed to Jews alone. Lest there be any doubt, the new bill would demote Arabic from its current status as an official language of Israel.

Such a move could have been designed to antagonise Israel's Arab minority, who have long endured discrimination. Those who fear a third intifada is coming often predict that the difference next time will be the involvement of Israel's Palestinian minority, turning on the state of which they are citizens. This latest step makes that bleak scenario more likely.

And, of course, Netanyahu's decision will be seized on as vindication by those opponents of Zionism who have always said a Jewish, democratic state is an oxymoronic, logical impossibility, that Israel can either be one or the other but not both. By its vote, the Israeli cabinet has sided with anti-Zionists, agreeing that, yes, these two goals - enshrined and entwined so inseparably in the Declaration of Independence - are indeed at odds and one has to come first.

So what's the good news? It lies in the forces of opposition to this bill. They are not the usual suspects. One is Abraham Foxman of America's Anti-Defamation League, who as a diaspora Jew perhaps hears the obvious echo when a government declares that one minority is to be denied the full rights granted to everyone else.

The other, and much more important, is the new President of the State of Israel, Ruvi Rivlin. A Likud veteran, he has emerged as an improbable opponent of the racism and bigotry currently staining too much of Israeli public life.

He made an unprecedented visit recently to the village of Kfar Kassim, to apologise for the 1956 massacre there of 48 Palestinians, including children. He also denounced the surging mood of aggressive intolerance by telling a Jerusalem conference, "It is time to honestly admit that Israel is sick, and it is our duty to treat this illness."

In a stirring speech on Tuesday, Rivlin slammed the new bill. Israel's Jewishness and democracy were not at odds, he said. On the contrary, respecting the dignity of all human beings was the greatest Jewish value. He insisted that Israel rests on the twin pillars of nationhood and democracy: "The removal of one will bring the whole building down."

That warning is gloomy. The only crumb of comfort is that Israel currently has a president wise enough and brave enough to issue it.

November 24, 2016 23:20

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