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Israel’s Nationality Law Should Be Amended

Israel’s discriminatory Nation State Law, or Nationality Law, needs to be drastically amended or replaced with equitable legislation that pays due respect to its Arab and Druze citizens, who comprise one-fifth of its population.

Passed in July 2018 at the initiation of Israel’s former prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, this controversial law is weighed heavily in favor of Jews and barely acknowledges the presence of Muslims and Christians in Israeli society.

It states that Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people and that only Jewish Israelis have a unique right to exercise self-determination. It formalizes the status of statehood symbols like the Magen David flag and the national anthem, Hatikva. It establishes “Jewish settlements as a national value.” And it recognizes Hebrew as Israel’s sole official language and downgrades Arabic to a “special status.”

To Israel’s Arab and Druze citizens, the law is an insulting slap in the face. For good reason, the Israel Democracy Institute has described it as “jingoistic” and “divisive.” The law calls into question whether Israel can be a Jewish state and a liberal democracy that protects the rights of minorities.

This burning question has surfaced again now that the Israeli army has published the name and photograph of a 41-year-old high-ranking officer who was killed by friendly fire in a covert operation in the Gaza Strip in 2018. The late soldier in question is Colonel Mahmoud Kheir el-Din. A Druze, he was awarded a medal posthumously on the recommendation of the chief of staff, General Aviv Kohavi.

On May 16, a day after this information was released, Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman, the leader of the Israel Beitenu Party, called for the amendment of the law.

Liberman, who supported its passage four years ago, said in a tweet, “There is a clear contradiction between the Nationality Law in its current iteration and all the praise for Israeli hero Mahmoud Kheir el-Din and many others like him who gave their lives for the country. We now have an opportunity to amend the (law) …”

He called on the opposition and members of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s coalition government to “come up with a new path forward.”

As expected, Netanyahu blasted Liberman’s proposal. “We will not let them amend or repeal the Nationality Law,” he said. “We will not concede on that.”

Right-wing members of the government oppose it as well. After denouncing it, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, a member of Bennett’s far-right Yamina Party, said, “It would be better to focus on the economic and security challenges facing us.”

While Minister of Justice Gideon Saar endorsed the principle of equality, he insisted that the Nationality Law should remain intact.

Cabinet ministers to the left of Saar and Shaked have rallied behind Liberman.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, the leader of the Yesh Atid Party, tweeted, “I agree with every word of this.”

Defence Minister Benny Gantz, the head of the Blue and White Party, said he intends to introduce the Equality Law, which would supplant the Nationality Law. Under its terms, the rights of a person would not be compromised by race, religion or gender.

Ayman Odeh, the head of the Arab Joint List, has urged the government to pass the Equality Law.

Sheikh Mowafaq Tarif, one of the leaders of the Druze community, is ready to live with the Nationality Law if it is amended to include the principles of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which enshrines full and equal citizenship rights for all.

“I want to believe that Israel’s elected officials and political leaders from the right, the center and the left will rise to the challenge and institute the necessary amendments in order to heal this open wound,” said Tarif, whose community has proven its loyalty to Israel time and time again.

What needs to be done is clear.

Arabic should be restored as one of Israel’s official languages. The national anthem should be modified to include references to non-Jews. Israel should be seen as the homeland of all its citizens, regardless of religion.

Israel cannot live up to its democratic ideals unless Jews, Arabs and Druze are treated absolutely equally. The Nationality Law, as presently constituted, is at odds with this sacrosanct idea.

About the Author
Sheldon Kirshner is a journalist in Toronto. He writes at his online journal, SheldonKirshner.com
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