The debate currently roiling Israel’s Cabinet over proposals to pass a law ensuring that it is a “Jewish state” is being roundly denounced by many of the country’s friends as well as its critics. The U.S. government responded in a high-handed manner to the discussion by demanding that Israel protect the rights of non-Jewish Israelis. The Anti-Defamation League says it is well meaning but unnecessary and some of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s coalition allies are threatening to break up the government and send the country to new elections because of their disagreement with it. But as much as one can argue that Israel won’t be any more or less a Jewish state whether or not any such bill passes the Knesset, critics of the measure should understand that the demand for this measure is not frivolous. Those criticizing it are largely missing the point.
As Haviv Rettig Gur explained in an excellent Times of Israel article, the claims by both sides in the argument are largely unfounded. Israel is already a Jewish state, albeit one in which the rights of every citizen to equal treatment under the law are guaranteed. Nor is it true, as Netanyahu’s unhappy coalition partners Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid charged, that the proposed drafts approved by the Cabinet would elevate the Jewish state concept over that of the democratic nature of that state.
What it would do is to incorporate into the country’s basic laws, which serve as an informal and entirely insufficient constitution, a basic truth about its founding that could actually serve as an important counter-balance to the proposed Palestinian state that peace negotiators seek to create alongside Israel. Though that state will be primarily racial and exclusive—Jews will not be welcomed or allowed to live there, let alone have equality under the law—but where Israel’s flag flies, democracy will prevail even as the rights of the Jewish people to their ancient homeland will be protected. Indeed, as Gur notes in his piece, the origins of the bills under discussion can be traced to efforts to make peace palatable to Israelis, not the fevered imaginations of right-wingers bent on excluding or expelling Arabs.
As Gur writes in reference to the charge that the Cabinet approved an extreme bill that undermined democracy:
But the cabinet decision on which the ministers voted did not “pass” the right-wing bills, as much of the Israeli media reported. It actually voted to subsume them, and thus de facto to replace them, with a larger government bill based on the prime minister’s 14 principles. And in principle 2-D of the decision, one reads, “The State of Israel is a democratic state, established on the foundations of liberty, justice and peace envisioned by the prophets of Israel, and which fulfills the personal rights of all its citizens, under law.”
There is no hedging, no distinction between what Israel simply “is” and what its “form of government” might be.
That said the critics have a point when they say this feeds into the anti-Zionist narrative being increasingly heard in the international media that seeks to falsely brand Israel as an “apartheid” or racist state. If even Israeli Cabinet members are capable of the sort of hyperbole that would brand it as a threat to democracy, you don’t have to have much imagination to realize what anti-Semitic foes of the country will make of it. Seen in that light, the push for the bill can be seen as, at best unnecessary, and at worst a needless provocation that could do harm.
But even if we factor into our thinking the danger posed by these libels, it does Israel no harm to remind the world that it has no intention of giving up its basic identity. Israel has not only a right but a duty to make it clear that as much as it is a democracy, it is also the “nation state of the Jewish people” whose rights must be protected as vigorously as those of any other people or country.
For far too long, those who have spoken up for Israel in international or media forums have downplayed the question of the rights of the Jews in the conflict and instead spoke only of the nation’s security needs. But when placed against Palestinian claims of their rights to the same country—when Hamas talks about resistance to the “occupation” they are referring to Israel within its pre-1967 borders—such talk inevitably seems inadequate. Friends of Israel are right to seek to promote the idea of a nation state for the Jews not so much because Israel’s laws need to be altered but because Zionism is itself under attack and must be vigorously defended.
Lastly, those who consider this some kind of colossal blunder on the part of Netanyahu don’t understand what is going on here. If Livni and Lapid blow up the government and force new elections, it is likely that both of them will lose ground while Netanyahu—who has no viable rival for the role of prime minister—is likely to emerge even stronger in a Knesset where the right-wing parties may be even more dominant and so-called moderates are marginalized.
Livni and Lapid would do well to lower the rhetoric and back down if they want to avoid going into an election having repudiated a measure that is, in the context of a country that is already a Jewish state, an anodyne proposal.
Israel won’t be any more Jewish or less democratic no matter whether or not this bill eventually becomes one of the country’s basic laws. But those casually weighing in on this debate from afar need to understand that at a time when the legitimacy of a Jewish state is increasingly under attack, Israelis are within their rights to make it clear they won’t give up this right.