At first I thought it was no big deal. When the Nation-State law suddenly jumped from a controversial proposal to a Basic Law, my first response was to dismiss it irritably as just another example of Israeli political in-fighting. Especially since the Nation-State Law seemed to contain mostly symbolic statements that didn’t directly impact on policy, I moved past it with an unsavory shrug. It was depressing, but mostly irrelevant.
But then I found myself in a shopping mall in Carmiel, near my home, and started to notice all the fellow-shoppers and shop assistants there who happen to be Arab, Bedouin, and Druse. I started to imagine how this law must feel for them. What it must feel like when a citizen can identify with so few symbols of the State: The talit-framed Star of David flag certainly doesn’t speak to the non-Jew, and the “Jewish soul” sung of in our National Anthem is likewise non-inclusive. The only symbolic way a non-Jewish citizen of Israel could identify with Israel was the equal status of the Arabic language. And now this status had been symbolically demoted.
While half of my brain reminded myself that there would be no practical consequences to this demotion, the other half remembered that in this part of the world emotions, and symbols, and honor often have greater significance than policy. All these fellow citizens had just been kicked hardest where it hurts most: In their symbols.
All these fellow citizens had just been kicked hardest where it hurts most: In their symbols.
It suddenly struck me how terribly hurtful this law must be. I am not proud of the delay between my first analysis of the law and the second, but nor am I surprised. So much of Israeli discourse relies on limiting one’s scope of reference – life is so very complicated one cannot always consider every side of every issue – and often the Israeli Arab is the invisible aspect of every equation. Indeed, one might say that this new Basic Law merely serves to confirm that fact. It confirms that the Israeli non-Jew is peripheral.
I am happy to celebrate that Israel is the Nation State of the Jews. I am even fine with the idea of declaring that only the Jews should have national rights in this State (just so long as the borders of this State are clarified, which, in this Basic Law, they are not). Yet my pride in Israel, and I believe the pride of Jews around the world, is that Israel is the democratic Nation State of the Jews. I am proud to celebrate that Israel is a State where the Jewish People have sovereignty, while operating as a democracy with equal rights for all.
I am still stunned to learn that the government had worked so deliberately to omit the phrase “equal rights for all”. I know that some argued it was unnecessary to do so since there is already a Basic Law on Liberty and another on Democracy, but it was equally unnecessary to repeat Jerusalem’s status as Israel’s capital – fixed as a Basic Law since 1980 – but they did. These folks did not avoid the “equal rights” phrase for the sake of brevity. They were trying to make a point. A point that most painfully stabs their non-Jewish citizens.
These folks did not avoid the “equal rights” phrase for the sake of brevity. They were trying to make a point. A point that most painfully stabs their non-Jewish citizens.
Together with my wife D, we looked for a phrase from Israel’s Declaration of Independence that would make for a good Facebook profile. I took the phrase “To all its citizens with no distinction between religion, race, and sex,” and arranged it in Hebrew alongside its official Arabic translation, and slapped it up as my new Facebook profile, encouraging others to do the same.
(Then I had to alter the translation, since the official 1948 translation of “citizen, אזרח” to Arabic was something more akin to “serf,” and the English had it as “inhabitant”!)
I got a lot of likes. Lots of little red numbers on my Facebook page. It wasn’t enough. Did I really need my friends to affirm back to me those views they already knew I held? I needed to communicate to those people who didn’t know me, who hadn’t followed my posts on politics and soccer, who didn’t assume my opinions. I wanted my fellow non-Jewish citizens to know that I reject the wording of the Nation State Law, while affirming the Declaration of Independence.
But how? I work on a computer, live in a bubble community, and move around locked up in a car.
I needed a bumper sticker.
The Sticker Song by HaDag Nachash — made up of the staccato rap sounds of car bumper stickers gathered by writer David Grossman — is ancient history. That song came out some 14 years ago, and since then hardly anyone has bumper stickers. (I like to think that this is because the song made everyone self-conscious, though I fear it is more because politics in Israel have become so complex it is more and more difficult to sum up one’s opinions in one sticker.)
I needed to go retro.
The nearest open print shop was in Me’ilya, an Arab village near us. Salim took one look at my design and was immediately critical in the best way possible: “Why is the Arabic font so small? No one will be able to read it from far off.” He swiftly fixed the font for his fellow Arabic-reader, and after a short disagreement about the size — Salim feared that a large sticker would invite a right-wing trashing of one’s car — we printed out the first run of 500. He stuck one of the stickers proudly at the entrance to his shop, and I left him 50 to distribute around the village.
Unsurprisingly, the stickers have not yet changed the world. But thousands are now seeing people affirming in public what they believe Israel has always aspired to be: a state that grants Jewish national rights while guaranteeing the civil and human rights of all its citizens.
In Hebrew and in Arabic.
[If you live in Israel, and would like to help distribute no less than 10 stickers, leave a comment here, and I’ll PM you. Facebook still has some uses…]