Neither a state of the Jews nor a state of the Israelis
“Will we then have a theocracy? No: faith makes us united, science makes us free. We will by no means allow the theocratic ambitions of some of our rabbis to take hold: we will be able to keep them tightly closed in their temples, just as we will lock up our professional army in barracks. Army and clergy are to be so highly honored as their fine functions demand and deserve; in the State, which treats them with particular respect, they must not speak, otherwise they would cause external and internal difficulties” (Theodor Herzl, The State of the Jews, pp. 129-130, my own translation).
In 2018 the Knesset approved the controversial “law of the nation”, a fundamental law with a quasi-constitutional status, which in fact sanctioned the transition of Israel from a “Jewish and democratic state” – an oxymoron according to some; a partially successful attempt according to others to reconcile the “state of the Jews” conceived by Herzl and other founding fathers of Zionism, i.e. a state where Jews could self-determine in a nation, with the principle of a democracy for all its citizens – to a “Jewish state”. The law violated the spirit of the 1948 Declaration of Independence which prescribes “… complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants without distinction of religion, race or sex”. With Israel defined by law as the “nation-state of the Jewish people,” the right to self-determine is restricted to Jews. This means disregarding the fact that there is another nation or ethnicity in Israel which can say nothing about the character of the state of which its members – the Arabs – enjoy the legal status of equal citizens. Equal individual rights yes, but not the collective rights of a national minority, which should be able to achieve a status no less than that of Israeli Jews through legislative instruments and concrete acts.
The law reflected the onslaught of right-wing radicalism, with provisions aimed at limiting freedom of expression – especially in the sphere of NGOs and movements dedicated to the defense of human rights -, the independence of the judiciary, in particular the powers of the Supreme Court, freedom of expression, in a society in which large sections of public opinion appear indifferent or even hostile to the constraints of the rule of law and intolerant of dissent.
The dualism between “Jewish” and “democratic” has existed since the birth of the state with the Law of Return a prime example allowing the Jews of the world to become citizens of Israel by emigrating to the country. That Israel is a “Jewish” state, not only because it is a place of refuge from persecution for a dispersed people, but because the country’s collective identity is imbued with Jewish culture (language, holidays, calendar, public symbols) is certainly legitimate. But it is not acceptable for the state to favor the Jewish group over other ethnicities. The law has codified this discrimination. In addition, how can a state that does not have certain and recognized borders be defined? If the Palestinian territories were annexed, what would Israel look like as the nation-state of the Jewish people? This would also formally lead to a binational state, but not egalitarian, not democratic, with full rights only for Jews.
With the new government , in which the weight of the two ultra-Orthodox parties and the fundamentalists of “religious Zionism” is decisive, with strong impulses towards tribalism and intolerance, Israel will no longer be the “state of the Jews”, in the sense of Herzl’s liberal Zionism or of the socialist pioneers, nor even less the “state of the Israelis”, a full and egalitarian democracy for all its citizens. It will become a “Jewish state,” at the hands of a militant minority .
What are the most significant steps if the coalition agreements between Likud and the other parties are implemented? They compulsively insist on the “Jewish” identity of the country. Agencies and parts of ministries dedicated to this purpose are invented, in particular an “ Authority for Jewish identity” and oversight over relations between schools and civil society both entrusted to Maoz, leader of Noam, a homophobic and fundamentalist party. The prohibition of egalitarian spaces for prayer at the Wailing Wall is reaffirmed contrary to previously negotiated agreements .
A modification of the Law of Return is proposed aimed at abolishing the clause stating that a Jewish grandfather is sufficient for the right to Aliyah and Israeli citizenship. Similarly conversions as a path to citizenship celebrated by non-Orthodox rabbis in Israel or by Orthodox rabbis not subject to central rabbinate control would be refused, contrary to a ruling by the High Court in 2021. The founding fathers had made sure to write in the Declaration of independence that their State would be “open to the immigration of the Jews from all the countries where they are dispersed“, avoiding to define what a Jew was. Members of the new Knesset majority demand a revision of this law in order to deny many immigrants (and immigrants already settled in Israel) their Jewish identity. They would also like to enact legislation to allow separation of men and women at publicly funded events, which would effectively prohibit gender diversity in much of the public space. If these projects were approved, they would lead to an irreversible divide between Israel and the Diaspora, calling into question the very foundation of the Zionist project at the origin of the country.
Israel belongs to all its citizens. But the Jews of the Diaspora, who are, like us European Jews committed to the existence and the security of the state, may also and must express concern about its future, if such anti-democratic abuses challenging its identity were to be enforced. They would truly endanger the future of the country. This is why we support the citizens and movements of civil society starting to mobilize in Israel.