The Basic Law of Zionism: Jewish and Democratic

Predictably, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s support for a new Basic Law stating that Israel is “the nation-state of one people – the Jewish people – and no other” has aroused strong feelings – for and against. Absent a constitution, Israel’s Basic Laws have a quasi-constitutional power, essentially undergirding the guiding principles of the state.

Although Netanyahu has stressed that “It will define the national right of the Jewish people to the state of Israel, without infringing on the individual rights of any citizen of Israel”, Tzipi Livni and others have protested that the new law would prioritize Israel’s ‘Jewish’ status over its ‘democratic’ character.

Livni has some cause for concern, as the starting point for this legislation is an earlier version proposed by MKs Yariv Levin and Ayelet Shaked. Levin is part of the young guard of the Likud that now dominates the party, and has moved it a considerable distance away from the enlightened liberal nationalism of its first leader Menachem Begin and his teacher Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Both Levin and Shaked (from Bayit Yehudi) espouse a narrow, often chauvinistic, Jewish nationalism and it’s not surprising that one of “Livni’s people” warned recently that “if it turns out to be a Yariv Levin-type of bill, Livni will block it in the Ministerial Committee for Legislation”.

Netanyahu is right to claim that at the heart of the Israel-Palestinian conflict has always been the refusal of the Palestinians to accept that the Jews have any right to sovereignty in their historic homeland – or indeed, any connection to the Land of Israel. However, was this new law the best of the various options available to the Prime Minister?

The Levi-Shaked proposal was not the only suggested model for a new Basic Law. Livni had secured the services of Professor Ruth Gavison, asking her to research and prepare a draft Basic Law which would definitively proclaim Israel a Jewish and democratic state. Gavison is a noted lawyer and campaigner for the partnering of Zionism and democratic values, and has already produced the most thoughtful and far-reaching manifesto for religious-secular relations in Israel, in partnership with Rabbi Yaacov Meidan. Livni could not have made a better choice.

Another idea was far simpler and, particularly at this time of year, is worth another look. Yesh Atid MK Ruth Calderon, proposed that Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which David Ben-Gurion read out to the newly established Jewish state 66 years ago last week, be formalized into a Basic Law. This is a clear improvement on the Levin-Shaked proposal because not only does the Declaration firmly proclaim the state’s Jewish character and, indeed, it’s Jewish raison d’etre:

The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained statehood…

The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles”

But it goes on to address the liberal democratic character of the state, in no less categorical terms:

“it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture…”

Netanyahu and others have argued that there is no need for the new Basic Law to stress Israel’s democratic nature as this has already been covered by previous legislation – presumably referring to Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty which does indeed specifically refer to Israel as “a Jewish and democratic state”. However the purpose of that law is to set out certain liberties and rights to be enshrined in the legal system; it is not a law purporting to define, once-and-for-all, the character of the state. That is the aim of the new Basic Law.

So, should this final, constitutional definition be: “the State of Israel is the state of the Jewish people”, or: “the State of Israel is the democratic state of the Jewish people”?

One way to answer the question is to examine the history of Zionism. The wording of the Declaration of Independence tells us that the founders of the state were committed to a state imbued with the values of religious, racial and gender equality now associated with western liberal democracies (and lest we forget, the Declaration was signed by representatives from a cross the spectrum of the Zionist movement, not just the dominant socialists). But what of the founders of the Zionist movement itself? What of the earlier thinkers and theorists from Herzl onward?

The answer is unarguable. Delegates at the pre-state Zionist congresses were democratically elected. What’s more, women had full equality as voters and representatives at a time before women had the vote in the vast majority of the democratic states of the time. (The US, for example, did not introduce women’s suffrage until 1920 – the first Zionist Congress was in 1897.) Herzl’s 1902 utopian novel Altneuland features a national election in the Jewish state in which all citizens have the vote regardless of gender, race or religion. The plot has a liberal candidate, running on a platform of equal rights for all citizens, defeating a far-right racist who believes non-Jews should be denied the right to vote.

Ironically, it is the self-proclaimed defenders of Zionism on the jingoistic Israeli Right that have drifted the furthest from the values of the Zionist forefathers. What’s more, it was specifically their forefather, Revisionist founder Jabotinsky, who was the most consistent and passionate advocate of a liberal Jewish state that would give full equality to its non-Jewish citizens.

One of Jabotinsky’s most prominent contemporary disciples Is Dan Meridor, who was pushed out of the Likud by the young guard, precisely because of his continued adherence to those liberal nationalist principles. In the debate around this new Basic Law, it’s worth recalling Meridor’s response to one of the illiberal pieces of legislation put forward in the last Knesset by Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu:

…from the moment a Jewish state was established… we are obliged to show compassion toward our minorities – the way we have always yearned to be treated by others… Lately there has been suggestion, after suggestion, after suggestion meant to send messages to the Arab public – ‘this is not yours, this is not your country,’ and there are even those who say ‘we will soon transfer you to a Palestinian state.’ The Arab citizens are constantly reminded that they do not belong, and yet we demand loyalty from them.

Israel’s leaders should loudly and proudly declare the right of the Jewish people to a state, especially in the face of the persistent rejection of that right by our purported peace partners. But to anchor in Israel’s de facto constitution a definition of the Jewish State, which implies a clear emphasis on Israel’s Jewish status, over and above its democratic character, plays into the hands of the most bigoted elements of the Israeli Right. More fundamentally, it is a betrayal of Zionism’s legacy as a profoundly progressive movement.

About the Author
Before moving to Israel from the UK, Paul worked at the Embassy of Israel to the UK in the Public Affairs department, and as the Ambassador's speechwriter. He has a Masters degree in Middle East Politics from the University of London. He is currently a Senior Fellow at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem - though he writes this blog in a personal capacity. He has lectured to a variety of groups on Israeli history and politics and his articles have been published in a variety of media outlets in Israel, the UK, the US and Canada.