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Hmm, tell me again: which is the country of the Jewish people?

Israel is now the only democratic nation-state in the world that doesn't guarantee equality for all its citizens
Ben-Gurion (left) signing Israel's Declaration of Independence held by Moshe Sharet at the Tel Aviv Museum on May 14, 1948.
Ben-Gurion (left) signing Israel's Declaration of Independence held by Moshe Sharet at the Tel Aviv Museum on May 14, 1948.

Who are you, Israel? The newly legislated Nation-State Law stipulates — are you sitting down? — that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people. It seems that the Declaration of Independence, the current Basic Laws, years of court rulings, the vast majority of Israeli citizens, and the fact that the world sees Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people are not enough.

If the law merely restates the obvious, why are people for whom the Jewishness of the state is a formative element of their being, like me, opposed to it? How come 45 Jewish Knesset members — including nationalists like Dr. Benny Begin, Tzipi Livni, and Orly Levy-Abekasis — did not support it?

In fact, the bill changes the existing legal situation. Among other things, it demotes Arabic from an official language to one with a “special status” — purely to aggravate the Arab minority. Without minimizing the importance of the other specific issues, though, the most serious damage is the bill’s infringement on the balance between the particularistic and universalist aspects of the Zionist enterprise.

The bill deals at length with one side of the equation — the Jewish identity of the state — and makes no mention of its democratic component. Its sponsors assert that the democratic aspect is already covered by other parts of the constitutional framework (Basic Laws), but that claim is misleading: Israel does not have a full Bill of Rights, and even the most basic right, that the state will act with equality towards all its citizens, is not explicitly enshrined. Therefore, a reasonable interpretation of the Nation-State bill might give the national preferences of the Jewish majority priority over fundamental human rights, thereby permitting infringement of the Arab minority’s rights by nationalistic legislation or actions by the executive branch.

The one-sided Nation-State Law contradicts what Israel promised itself and the world in the Declaration of Independence, the founding document of the State of Israel. It stipulated that Israel is the national home of the Jews, but at the same time promised that the state “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race, or sex.” In 1948, when the mere existence of Israel was under question and attacked on all sides, Israel managed to take an honorable and moral position without diminishing our national stature. Those who oppose the Nation-State Law do so because they are committed to the ideals found in the Declaration of Independence.

The Nation-State Law is incompatible with the norms of constitutions all over the world. Countries that enshrine their nation-state identity in their constitutions always accompany it with a section that balances it for the “other”: in many of them, the constitution guarantees equal treatment, prohibits discrimination on ethnic grounds, and/or stipulates that the state is also the state of its minorities. The State of Israel, which aspires to be a light unto the nations, is now the only democratic nation-state in the world that does not guarantee the equality of all its citizens.

Not only does the one-sided nature of the Nation-State Law contravene the Israeli ethos and the international consensus, it also runs counter to the basic Jewish message of the appropriate treatment of a stranger living among Jews. The Torah speaks to our generation directly: “After you enter the land I am giving you as a home … the same laws and regulations will apply to you and to the foreigner residing among you” (Num. 15:2; 16). Fair treatment of the stranger derives directly from the Jewish fundamental historical memory: “And you are to love the foreigner, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt” (Deut. 10:19).

After 70 years of resounding success in the physical aspects of Israeli existence — security, the economy, science, and more — the time has come for Israel to define its common identity in a cautious, balanced, generous, and sensitive way. This must not be done by denying all that is dear to Israel — humanity, Judaism, Israeliness, and membership in the international community.

About the Author
Yedidia Stern is vice president for research at the Israel Democracy Institute and a professor of law at Bar-Ilan University.
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