WASHINGTON: In July, the Israeli Knesset passed Israel’s Nation-State law which moves the country dramatically away from being the democracy it has long claimed to be. The new legislation formally declares that the right of self-determination, once envisioned to include all within its borders, is “unique to the Jewish people.”
Arabic has been eliminated as an official language. The law has now become what in Israel is called a “Basic Law.” This means the law has become part of Israel’s Constitution.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a promoter of Israel’s Nation-State law, says,
“This is a defining moment for the State of Israel.”
Claiming that Israel is “the nation-state of the Jewish people,” rather than a state of all its citizens, 20% of whom are not Jewish, has a number of problems. Israel, in fact, is not the ‘nation-state” of American Jews. The Zionist philosophy, to which Mr. Netanyahu and his government adheres, argues that Israel is the “homeland” of all Jews and those living elsewhere are in “exile.”
Does Israel speak for the world’s Jews
Repeatedly, the Israeli government, with no mandate to do so, speaks in the name of “the Jewish people,” the majority of whom are citizens of other countries.
The homeland of American Jews is the United States, and whatever the Knesset passes into law, is completely irrelevant to Jews in other countries.
When terrorist attacks were aimed at Jewish sites in Copenhagen, Brussels and Paris, Mr. Netanyahu urged the Jews of those countries to leave and return to their real “homeland,” Israel.
He was immediately rebuked by leading rabbis in Denmark, France and Belgium. Other national leaders are content to speak in behalf of their own citizens. Mr. Netanyahu is not.
The fact is that Zionism is a dramatic departure from Judaism.
It perceives of Judaism as a nationality, and Israel as its nation-state. In reality, Judaism is a religion of universal values. American Jews are American by nationality and Jews by religion, just as other Americans are Protestant, Catholic or Muslims.
The same is true for Jews in the United Kingdom, France, Switzerland, Italy, and other countries.
But Israel’s Nation-State law is most immediately an assault upon Israel’s non-Jewish citizens. Amman Wodehouse, leader of the Joint List Arab faction in the Knesset, said,
“Today, I will have to tell my children, along with all the children of Palestinian Arab towns in the country, that the state has declared that it does not want us here.”
Hassan Jabareen, general director of Adalah, a Palestinian human rights organization in Israel, says,
“The law features key elements of apartheid, which is not only immoral but also absolutely prohibited under international law…it constitutionally enshrined the identity of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people only—despite the 1.7 million Palestinian citizens of the state, residents of East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights—and guaranteed the exclusive ethnic-religious character of Israel as Jewish.”
Israel annexation of the West Bank
In the view of critics in Israel, this law is another step toward full annexation of the West Bank, which Israel has occupied for 51 years.
Roni Pelli, of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, says that,
“This bill is not about law or justice, it is all about normalizing the Israeli occupation and blurring the difference between Israel and the occupied territories that are under military rule. The explicit aim of the bill is to make things easier for Israeli authorities that harm Palestinians, to make it more difficult for them to achieve justice.”
Israelis used to believe that their country could be both “Jewish” and “democratic.”
Polling by the Israeli Democracy Institute indicates that this is now a minority position. Larger subsets say the country must be either Jewish first or democratic first. Those who say Israel should be Jewish first overwhelmingly belong to the political right, which, pushed through this legislation.
However, the majority of all Jews say that “crucial national decisions” like self-determination should be left to a Jewish majority.
Israeli democracy has been declining for many years, according to a respected index known as V-Dem that tracks countries across a host of metrics. In the mid-1990s, Israel scored alongside South Korea and Jamaica. Today, it is seen on par with African democracies such as Namibia and Senegal and well below Tunisia, the Middle East’s highest-scored democracy.
Rabbi Alissa Wise of Jewish Voice for Peace declares:
Apartheid in Israel was just made official and it’s devastating. This is a…racist and discriminatory move to punish and rob Palestinians of their most basic rights and freedoms. And as a Jew and a rabbi, this act runs counter to the Judaism that I love …This bill cements Israel as an apartheid state. Palestinians, no matter where they live are controlled by an Israeli government that robs them of basic rights and freedoms.”
Those in Israel who are committed to genuine democracy are dismayed and urge international intervention to deal with Israel’s clear violation of international law in establishing settlements in illegally occupied territory. In an article in The Guardian (June 28, 2018), Ilana Hammerman, a highly regarded writer and translator, and David Harel, Vice President of the Israel Academy of Sciences, call on the world to “intervene on behalf of the Palestinians.”
They write: “The State of Israel is facing a catastrophic situation which could, alarmingly soon, lead to extensive bloodshed…We represent a group of intellectuals and cultural figures central to Israeli society…We are patriotic Israeli citizens who love our country…We are horrified by the situation and fear deeply for our lives and the lives of our offspring and the lives of the 13 million Jews and Arabs who live here…Ever since 1967, not a single Israeli government has put a stop to the expansion of settlements in the occupied West Bank. Moreover, in recent years, the officially and openly stated ideological policy of the elected Israeli government has it that this land, from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River, belongs in its entirety to the Jewish people, wherever they may be.”
Hammerman and Harel argue:
“In the spirit of this ideology, the processes involving oppression, expulsion and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians living in the West Bank are broadening and deepening…Israeli courts are in the process of legitimizing the destruction of entire villages and the Knesset is passing new laws that steadily decrease the ability of the courts to have a say at all. Others legitimize the additional expropriation of private Palestinian land in favor of the settlements built on them. These acts of one sided expropriation violate those parts of international law that protect civilians of occupied territories, and some are even in violation of Israeli law.”
Fifty one years of military rule on the West Bank has seen Israel take over large quantities of land and has placed more than 600,000 Israeli citizens there in hundreds of settlements. It supplies them with roads, water and electricity and has financed their health, education and cultural institutions. It has given these settlers the same civil and political rights enjoyed by citizens living within its own sovereign territory. At the same time, Israel is squeezing the living space of Palestinian residents, who enjoy no civil or political rights.
In calling for international intervention, Hammerman and Harel declare:
“Since all the actions are being carried out in violation of international law, the resulting situation is no longer just an internal issue. The international community have taken many decisions intended to curb these actions, but none has ever been accompanied by enforcement mechanisms…And so a destructive, violent and exploitative reality is becoming the norm in these areas. We, who are located in the midst of this reality, believe the international community must help, since that community alone is responsible for enforcing compliance with its treaties…and with the decisions of its institutions…If peace is not established in this part of the world very soon…there will be no future for us and the Palestinians.”
The respected Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim, whose career has taken him to institutions such as La Scala in Milan, and led him to create, along with the late Edward Said, the West-East Divan Orchestra (WED), which brings together young musicians from throughout the Middle East, both Arab and Israeli, responded to the new Nation-State law this way:
“This racist new law makes me ashamed to be Israeli.”In articles in Haaretz and The Guardian, he characterized the law as “a very clear form of apartheid.”
Israel, he laments. has rejected the equality called for in its Declaration of Independence and “has passed a law that replaces the principle of equality and universal values with nationalism and racism.”
Clause C of Israel’s new Nation-State law declares,
“The right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.”
This clause acknowledges two classes of citizens, those to whom the state belongs and those to whom it does not. Thus, the 1.7 million non-Jewish citizens, most of whom have lived in the land for many generations longer than Jewish Israeli citizens, have no ownership and no national home in the land of their ancestors.
If the new Nation-State law is, as Prime Minister Netanyahu declares, a “defining moment” for Israel, it is, sadly, defining itself as something other than a Western-style democracy which seeks peace with its neighbors. It is turning its back of the Jewish moral and ethical tradition as well.