Late last night the Knesset passed the ‘Nation-State Law’, a new ‘Basic Law’ which forms Israel’s de facto constitution.
This latest Law is dangerous and dismantles Israel’s founding status as a homeland for the Jews and a democratic state for all its citizens.
It replaces it with a singular vision of Israel as a Jewish state and sends a powerful message: non-Jews in Israel, some 20%+ of the population, are second-class citizens.
The Law also seeks to re-define Israel’s relationship to Jewish communities. This message of exclusion is resounding.
As supporters of Israel in the UK the Law creates its own challenges, both to perceptions of Israel and how we engage and motivate our community – particularly the younger generations – towards Israel.
There is nothing wrong with Israel being a state for the Jewish people but that cannot come at the expense of its non-Jewish citizens and other minorities.
This is the crux of the problem of the law – it does not address minorities whatsoever, neither their collective nor individual rights. In fact, the law makes evident to all non-Jews that they are second-class citizens in the country, in particular the Arab minority.
In effect, the law grossly violates the balance established in the accepted designation of the state as Jewish and democratic. The expression “Jewish and democratic” was completely removed from the law. There is no mention Israel as a democracy at all, nor a reference to the democratic institutions that are supposed to guarantee democracy. A commitment to human rights is equally glaringly absent.
Yet, the Law could have been even worse. NIF’s efforts and the efforts of other civil society players in opposing this bill had an impact on what could pass and what could not. The version of the law that was passed was significantly better than the original proposed bill. This includes a provision that would have instructed judges to consider Jewish law when making rulings, and one that would have allowed for exclusive communities based on religion or ethnicity.
The opposition to the law came from a broad set of voices within Israel
including President Reuven Rivlin. President Rivlin warned that parts of the bill would “harm the Jewish people, Jews throughout the world and the State of Israel.” Labour leader and incoming chairman of the Jewish Agency Isaac “Bougie” Herzog wrote that he “fully shares the grave concerns … for the damage that this bill will cause to Israeli society and Israeli democracy.” We also saw leading voices from the Diaspora expressing their concern. Perhaps most notably Jerry Silverman, the CEO of the Jewish Federations of America.
As Jews in the UK we understand, acutely, the needs and challenges of being a minority. From my work across the Jewish community through the UK Task Force I saw how schools, charities and synagogue communities have grown in their understanding of and work with Israel’s Arab citizens. This Law threatens to cut across this work by raising questions on how Israel treats its minorities. And as we have already seen in the national media, it is a story that is not framing Israel in a positive light.
There is nothing wrong with, and indeed I support, Israel being a state for the Jewish people but that cannot come at the expense of its non-Jewish citizens and other minorities.
Beginning with Israel’s Declaration of Independence, the Jewish value of human dignity and the principle of equality of all people have formed the democratic foundation of the state. This law has betrayed those values. It is a slap in the face to Arab Palestinian citizens of Israel. Legislation that identifies first- and second-class citizens has no place in a democracy.
We, who care about Israel’s future, will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Israelis who are fighting for equality. We are in it for the long-haul and that will be our lingering message to those who supported this bill today.
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