Lately, I have found myself listening to Israeli music. Some of what I listen to may be considered corny. But I like it. I lived in Israel once upon a time, and unable to find a way back there since, my longing for returning to the country has grown. There’s this one song I haven’t gotten tired of, with its ferocious and beautiful, crisp Hebrew (I wish I spoke better). It’s a YouTube video of Israeli singer Meital Trabelsi singing Ho Rav Chovel, a song which the famous Naomi Shemer translated from American poet Walt Whitman’s “Oh Captain”, which was written after the assassination of President Lincoln. Trabelsi is performing on a small set in 1996, with Leah Rabin defiantly gazing on. Of course, her husband, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had recently been assassinated by a right-winged radical Israeli Jew in 1995. Trabelsi is performing for the one year anniversary of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination. Prime Minister Rabin shepherded through a rough peace process in order to achieve the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords, thought to be a first (big) step towards the direction of a lasting peace.
One of the last lines in the song is צונח קר ומת, sonech kar ve-met, fallen cold and dead. Without the political courage that Rabin could offer, the peace process began to peter out. By 2001, with Israel now in the midst of a second bloody and violent Palestinian Intifada, the peace process that Rabin worked so hard for, was widely considered over. Hope for peace, lost. Fallen cold and dead.
Thursday, the Knesset passed a bill that officially defines Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish people and asserts that “the realization of the right to national self-determination in Israel is unique to the Jewish people.” The bill also places extra value on Jewish settlement, saying that “the state sees the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment.” Arabic has been downgraded from an official language to a language deemed to have “special status.”
Since Israel has no constitution, there are a set of “basic laws”, which act as constitutional laws. This nation state bill is now one of them. Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which promised to “… ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex;… will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture” has been overtaken, or at least put in to question. Now, religion is a guiding principle to ensure who exactly gets treated fairly. Gone is any notion of true equality for all. Now, it’s Jews first, and Arabs can take a hike. Any hope of Israel maintaining its status as a true democracy for all are vanquished, at least for the foreseeable future.
One of Israel’s core founding values, to be a beacon of light for human dignity and a place for all peoples, has been stabbed in the back. Betrayed. Replaced with tribalism and small mindedness. Israel, at its founding, was meant to be internally different, a light unto the nations, and externally normal, accepted on the international stage. Needless to say, this nation-state law identifies first- and second-class citizens. This law firmly puts Israel into the ever growing category of nations which ought to be considered illiberal. Restricting freedom of thought or behavior, reactionary, and narrow-minded. Just look at two examples of what’s happened in the country in the last couple of weeks.
A rather well known Jewish-American philanthropist, Meyer Koplow (according to Haaretz, he has donated to the AMIT school network, as well as the Shaare Zedek Medical Center and Hebrew U), while attempting to fly to New York from Ben Gurion, was almost not allowed to fly. After he had already been initially cleared by security, he was called back. Going through an already checked bag of a man who was at his gate, security found something deemed to be dangerous and suspicious. Something that deserved to be questioned. The thing that alerted security was a pamphlet. A pamphlet about tourism in the Palestinian territories. Koplow had been on a four day program with Encounter, a group that aims to teach Jewish Americans about the daily lives of Palestinians in the West Bank. When a tourism pamphlet, with nothing but pictures and harmless words, is considered a security risk, then one must begin to question why security felt so compelled to deem that a risk. This episode makes clear that the values of openness, questioning, learning, and empathy are all becoming increasingly more difficult to find in Israel.
Just this week, Israeli police detained a Conservative rabbi in Haifa, Dov Haiyun, who officiated weddings that were not under the strict and watchful eye of the Orthodox rabbinate. This is the first time that the law forbidding marriage outside the Rabbinate has actually been enforced. Haiyun says he officiates all of his weddings in accordance with Jewish law.
For awhile, there has been a great debate brewing on how, if it is possible, for Israel to be both Democratic and Jewish. Whenever I have tried to answer these questions, my head began to hurt. It was pretty even, I always concluded. No more. This nation state law will make it easy to know that Israel is first and foremost a Jewish state. Even the usually apolitical President, Reuven Rivlin, made his distaste for the bill well known. Rivlin said this state bill would “harm the Jewish people, Jews throughout the world and the State of Israel.” Deputy Attorney General Raz Nizri agreed, saying that the bill would “not accomplish anything while causing only damage to Israel as both a Jewish and democratic state.”
A nation which proudly, defiantly claims it has so many enemies and yet still exists as a country, has made one more enemy. It’s own Arab citizens. With this bill having passed, Israel is telling its Arab citizens, who have given so much to the country, what they think of them. And it’s not love. Israel, stupidly, has given credence to those wishing to destroy or delegitimize it by saying its an apartheid state, akin to South Africa. It will only get harder and harder to defend Israel against its obtuse and bad faithed naysayers. The mental gymnastics (thanks, Noa) necessary in order to convince yourself that Israel is, in fact, a true democracy for all have gotten ever more daunting.
Israel, a country proud to be lauded as the sole democracy in the Middle East, is now headed in the same direction as the Arab countries which they’ve so derided, as an illiberal democracy that holds contempt for its own citizens. As Arab Joint List MK Ahmed Tibi said to Bibi: “Why are you afraid of the Arabic language?”, with Bibi responding “How dare you talk this way about the only democracy in the Middle East?”
The far-right of Israeli politics, with their unabridged nationalism, distaste for reason, contempt for American or less religious or liberal Jews, and unabashed fear and hatred of Arabs has slowly plundered Israel’s foundation as being a country of love and fairness and democracy for awhile. But even amidst this slow plundering, there was always a flicker of hope. That one day, inshallah, Israelis and Diaspora Jews would awaken and see how Israel has changed. How it had become a place lacking in hope, in promise, in fairness. How Israel was unequivocally hurting its long term future. How the miracle and dream of Israel as a Jewish Democratic state had never finished being built. That the miracle and dream of Israel as a Jewish Democratic state needed to be tended to. Made better. Moved forward, for if it wasn’t, the degradation of Israel as a Jewish Democratic state would be imminent.
But, truth be told, that is gone. The diaspora can only push so much. Israel is no longer trying. With the passage of this bill, any inclination or pretense of an Israel committed to human rights, equality for all, democracy, and being a light unto the nations is gone. Fallen cold and dead.