Reasons to affirm Israel’s Jewish character

To fully understand creation of Israel's new nation-state law, you have go back to 2006-2007, writes Shoshanna Keats Jaskoll

July 26, 2018 15:53

Last week saw the passing of the nation-state law in Israel. The law formally establishes Israel as a Jewish state, and it has been dubbed racist, apartheid and undemocratic. Why? Some see spelling out the Jewish character of the state of Israel, with its Star of David flag, Hatikvah national anthem, and menorah as its symbol, as ignoring the Arab population, making them second-class citizens.

But, to fully understand its creation, one must go back to 2006-2007, when major Arab-Israeli NGOs released three significant publications — The Future Vision of the Arab Palestinians in Israel, the Democratic Constitution, and the Haifa Declaration. Each called for economic and social equality for Israeli Arabs. They also sought veto power on national issues, the right of return for Palestinian refugees, and, critically, the annulment of Israel’s Jewish character. They recommended two states not one Jewish and one Palestinian, but one, a secular bi-national state of Jews and Arabs and one exclusively Palestinian.

These publications caused a stir, and for many Jewish Israelis, fear. When taken in conjunction with new powers afforded the Supreme Court, under Justice Aharon Barak’s “constitutional revolution” demonstrating that the nature of the Jewish state had no legal definition, they put Israel’s Jewish character at risk.

Israel does not have a constitution, but it does have 12 Basic Laws, ten of which deal with its democratic nature and civil liberties. Not one affirms Israel’s Jewish character. Until last week.

Adi Arbel, former project manager at the Institute for Zionist Strategies (IZS) who was heavily involved in the nation-state bill from the beginning told me in a phone interview: “The idea behind the nation-state law was to ensure the Jewish character of the state in any constitution that would be written.”

Yoaz Hendel, chairman of the IZS and well-known Israeli social commentator, supports the law as natural Zionism. “For the first decades of the state, there was no need to define who we were. When you’re under constant threat, words are pointless. Now, we are no longer under existential threat, the country is flourishing and prosperous but the demography is changing. The danger is in the future: if we do not define who we are now, the generations to come will fight one another.”

One aspect of the law that has Arab citizens (and many Jewish citizens, including this one) upset is the removal of Arabic from its de-facto status as an official language of the state. In the new law, Arabic is given special status explicitly protected in its current use.

For many, this is not enough, and in fact, on Wednesday, Education minister Naftali Bennet announced his desire to change this decision after numerous meetings with members of the Druze community who “stand side by side with us and have been caused pain.”

The other controversial clause refers to Jewish settlement of the land. But much of the controversy is the fault of language. In English, the word “settlement” refers to settlements beyond the Green Line, or hitnachalut in Hebrew. In the law, the term used is hityashvut, which means to dwell in the land.

Hendel unabashedly defends this ideal: “The essence of the Zionist vision is Jewish living in the land. Yes, this is a national statement, not a democratic one. The Judaisation of the Negev and the Galilee is a national goal. It is okay to say that out loud.”

With Israel under attack physically and in world forums, and with many calling it an apartheid state despite guaranteed full rights for all of its citizens, some felt it was urgent to make Israel’s Jewish character official.

In doing so, the Israeli government has established one benefit for Jews that Arabs do not have: the right to move to Israel, by virtue of being at least 25 per cent Jewish. Of course, that is Israel’s raison d’etre in the world: a refuge and homeland for the Jewish people after 2,000 years of exile.

The question, then, is whether a democratic Jewish state is a legitimate thing, or whether a homeland for Jews where all Jews are welcome and all citizens are guaranteed rights, yet where Jewish tradition, holidays and symbols are celebrated nationally, and Jews are in charge of their destiny, should be replaced by a state of all her citizens devoid of Jewish majority, symbolism and authority and where Jewish people are not automatically welcome home. I leave that for you to ponder.


Shoshanna Keats Jaskoll is a writer and activist

July 26, 2018 15:53

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