On July 18, Israel passed its controversial Nation-State bill, with just 62 of its 120 MKs voting in favour. Upon its passing, pandemonium erupted in the Knesset, with Arab MKs tearing up copies of the bill and being escorted out by security. While frustrated Arab MKs were being dragged out of the Knesset, Israel’s right wing lawmakers celebrated their long-awaited achievement, with said celebration culminating in a braggadocious selfie that was taken by the Likud party’s most repugnant MK, Oren Hazan (who would immediately take to Twitter to inform any Arabs who didn’t like the new bill that “there is the sea water of Gaza” that they’re “welcome to drink to its saturation”).
Perhaps the most notable (and comically patronizing) altercation in the Knesset was between Arab MK Ahmad Tibi and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Tibi brashly scolded Netanyahu, shouting “you passed an apartheid law, a racist law!” To which Netanyahu thunderously replied “how dare you talk this way about the only democracy in the Middle East!” Thank God Prime Minister Netanyahu was there to let that “unappreciative Arab” know just how lucky he was to have his voice entirely disregarded in Israel instead of in Lebanon or Jordan!
Sarcasm aside, outrage and condemnation for the Nation State Bill has been pouring in from left wing Jewish organizations and minority rights groups in both Israel and the Diaspora. In response to the angry mob, defenders of the bill say that the criticism is largely overblown and that the bill’s greatest detractors haven’t actually read the legislation. While I agree that some (if not most) of the rhetoric pertaining to the bill is somewhat over the top, I actually have read the bill myself and will gladly point out its myriad flaws. But first, I’ll present the bill’s provisions neutrally for the reader.
The bill that was actually passed is quite brief. It states that: Israel is the unique homeland of the Jewish people, who have the unique right of national determination. The flag and the menorah are the national symbols of Israel and Hatikvah is the national anthem. Jerusalem is the united capital of Israel. Hebrew is the official language of Israel, Arabic will have a “special status.” Israel will be open to Jewish Aliyah. Israel will work to ensure the safety of the Diaspora and will work to preserve the cultural, historical and religious heritage of Diaspora Jewry. The state views Jewish settlement as a national value and will labor to encourage and promote its establishment and development. The Hebrew calendar is the official calendar of the state but the Gregorian calendar will have official status as well. Independence Day is an official holiday and both Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) and Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day) will serve as official remembrance days. Lastly, the Sabbath and Israeli holidays are days of rest and non-Jews have the right to days of rest on their holidays.
In the eyes of Israel’s most vocal opponents, this bill has been used as a form of confirmation bias that Israel is an apartheid state in all of its territory. For those individuals, the “need for BDS” only strengthens as a result of this bill. However, for those on the far right, like Jewish Home MK Bezalel Smotrich, the bill actually doesn’t go far enough, with the lawmaker whining that “it does not mention the name of God” and bemoaning the fact that the bill doesn’t even have “a settlement clause with real practical significance.”
In his own bizarre way, MK Smotrich has unwittingly identified the problems with this bill: its pointlessness, redundancy, intentional vagueness, blaring omissions and hurtful subliminal messaging. Before I explain these problems in depth, it’s important to give a quick history of the Nation State bill.
The Nation State bill that was actually passed was not the Nation State bill that was originally proposed. Indeed, for the past seven years there have been murmurings amongst the Israeli right that a bill of some kind was required to enshrine the Jewish character of the state and one was even proposed during the last government. However, it was so contentious that it practically brought down the government and new elections were held, with the Nation State bill being temporarily placed on the backburner. However, with the election of what’s been widely observed to be the most right wing government in Israel’s history, new life was breathed into the Nation State bill and a new one was finally proposed.
Indeed, the Nation State bill that was passed a few days ago was a largely watered down version of the bill that was originally proposed earlier this year. To begin, the original bill would have allowed the establishment of ethnically/religiously homogenous communities in Israel (picture signs that read “no Arabs allowed” with the State’s blessing) and would have pushed Israel closer towards a theocracy by allowing judges to rule on matters using Jewish law if there was no legal precedent already established on that particular matter in Israeli courts; these provisions would have placed the state’s Jewish character over its democratic character. Indeed, these matters were so contentious that Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, a typically neutral figurehead of the state, broke his silence and pleaded with Israeli lawmakers not to allow such provisions into the bill as they would endanger the Zionist vision and give fuel to the enemies of Israel to delegitimize the state.
This brings me to the criticism of the bill in its current form. While most of what the bill states is already a longstanding reality in Israel (particularly the clauses about holidays, state symbols and the law of return for Jews making Aliyah) some parts remain a tongue in cheek reference to former iterations of the Nation State bill.
For instance, while the provision allowing religiously/ethnically homogenous communities has been removed, it has been replaced with the vague clause that states that “the state views Jewish settlement as a national value and will labor to encourage and promote its establishment and development.” This harkens back memories of the controversy surrounding Donald Trump’s “Muslim ban” and its eventual upholding by the US Supreme Court.
President Trump made it exceptionally clear both on the campaign trail and when he was sworn in as president, that the purpose of his immigration restrictions were to prevent Muslims from entering the United States. However, due to how the executive order itself was worded, the Supreme Court ruled that it was just vague enough to remain constitutional, as they could not adduce discriminatory intent from the wording of the provision. So too, this clause in the Nation State bill operates in a similar fashion. The Netanyahu Government couldn’t pass the blatantly discriminatory provision in its first form, so they clawed it back so that the provision would be just vague enough to pass through the Knesset. But don’t worry, the audience that the bill intends to reach understands this provision loud and clear. You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.
Another criticism of the bill is the needless symbolic downgrading of Arabic. For 70 years both Hebrew and Arabic were the official languages of Israel, now Arabic has lost its place on the pedestal and only receives “special status.” The Nation State bill makes it quite clear that there are no real, practical changes to Arabic, which begs the question why they downgraded Arabic in the first place. Indeed, it would appear that the middle finger that the Netanyahu Government just gave Israel’s Arab citizens (who make up 20% of its population) was not an “official” middle finger, but one of “special status”, given to them in a short burst of ultra nationalist fervor.
Imagine being an Israeli Arab and reading this bill. How would you feel? While the hasbara pamphlets distributed on university campuses have long touted Israel’s Arab minority as beloved and cherished, those who actually live there don’t feel particularly beloved or cherished right now. This bill makes them feel like a minority that’s unwanted and uncared for by the majority.
However, on top of being unnecessary for Jews and insulting to Arabs, the bill also omits a key clause surrounding the importance of minority rights that would have gone a long way. But forget about a whole clause, it doesn’t even mention the word “equality.”
Unlike Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which proudly and boldly enshrines equality for its minority population (through guaranteeing “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex”), this shoddy legislation does no such thing. Through the sin of omission, it even appears to contradict the very principles that Theodor Herzl set out in his vision of what a Jewish state should be: that the State is to be no more Jewish than democratic and no more democratic than Jewish. This bill is essentially one loud and continuous dog whistle, and the ears of extremists and xenophobes have perked up in delight at its call.
Rest assured, this bill changes very little in terms of the facts on the ground. Life will go on in Israel as it always has. However, one group will be living their life constantly looking over their shoulder, wondering just how wanted they truly are (a feeling that is ironically, quite familiar to the Jewish people) and pondering whether this will set the gears in motion for something much more concerning in the future.
One thing is clear though, the day Israel formally chooses to be more Jewish than democratic (or vice-versa), is the day the Zionist vision comes crashing down, and sadly, it looks like that day is moving closer and closer.