Our Nation-State Dilemma – an Age Old Identity Crisis

Previous amendments to Israel’s Basic Laws have specified that the State of Israel is both Jewish and democratic. The controversial Nation-State law passed on July 19th 2018 reaffirms our Jewish identity, but deliberately omits the assumed democratic character of the state.

For many Israeli Arabs, the new law adds insult to injury as inequality between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel was obvious long before the law was passed. The Israeli Arab sector, comprising some 21% of the population, doesn’t receive its fair share of the national budget for health, education or municipal services and has a disproportionate amount of Israeli citizens living under the poverty line. Moreover, our inclination to maintain Jewish majority rule effectively exclude the Arab parties from joining government coalitions. After every election it is almost a given that the Arab bloc is heading to the opposition as the religious and Haredi parties jockey for key positions in the newly forming government, often with notions of turning democratic Israel into a theocracy.

For many Israeli Jews, the issue of equality for non-Jewish minorities has long been a bone of contention, sparking debates between those who fashion themselves as “religious nationalist” and “secular democratic” Israelis.

Indeed, our struggle to come to terms with our national identity has been going on since the birth of the state. The new law is a flawed attempt to resolve the issue with a Jewish-first approach, which only shows that some Israelis have forgotten what democracy stands for. It is not just about voting in free elections or impressing our friends from America with political aphorisms like “Israel is the only Democracy in the Middle East.” It is one thing to present ourselves to the world as a democracy. To prove it, we must first give legal sanction to equal rights and equal opportunity for all, before we can actually achieve these goals. The new Nation-State Law doesn’t even mention equality, signaling that our Jewish cause supersedes the democratic ideal.

Our Declaration of Independence states: “…the first Zionist Congress, inspired by Theodore Herzl’s vision of a Jewish state, proclaimed the right of the Jewish people to a national revival in their own country.” If this statement calls for legal authorization, than so does the part of our Declaration that the Nation-State Law ignores, namely: “The State of Israel will… ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.”

Skeptics view the Nation-State Law as a wrong turn on the road to Apartheid. While there are still glaring differences between Israel and that old white supremacist regime in South Africa, we have just taken one big step closer to Jewish supremacy.

Last Saturday night I was at the rally in Rabin Square against the half-baked Nation-State law. The demonstration was initiated by the Druze minority, who serve proudly in the IDF, have proven their loyalty to the state time and again and now feel threatened by the same type of nationalist government they traditionally support. All those who attended, Druze, Arabs and Jews, i.e. Israeli citizens of different ethnic backgrounds and political affiliations, feel threatened by the shameful Nation-State law. The loudest cheers of the evening were sounded when various speakers called for the law’s reversal or cancellation.

The message they are sending is clear: If Israel needs a Nation-State Law it must stand by the democratic better half of our Declaration of Independence. It is time to give legal expression to the egalitarian values that our Zionist founders dreamed about when they first conceived the modern State of Israel.

And while some Israelis are making emotional arguments like: “Why can’t we just state proudly that we’re a Jewish state? – maybe they should stop and think how American Jews, African Americans, Latin Americans and other minorities would react if Congress would pass a law stating that the USA is a country “exclusive for white Caucasian Christians.”

What’s more: Before we can define the Jewish part of a Basic law, maybe we should take a step back and look at the blatant lack of equality between our Ashkenazi and Mizrachi sectors. And maybe we should once and for all resolve our embarrassing “Who is a Jew?” problem before we toot our horn about our Jewish character.

About the Author
Avi Shamir is a freelance writer, editor, translator and the author of "Saving the Game," a novel about baseball. A Brooklyn College graduate with a BA in English, Avi has contributed to the Jerusalem Post, The Nation, Israel Scene, In English and The World Zionist Press Service.
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