Amir Fuchs

The nation-state law, one year later: What has changed?

The Basic Law: Israel the Nation-State of the Jewish People turned one. What, if anything, has changed in that time?

From a practical standpoint, the law’s ramifications are not yet clear.  Neither its opponents nor its supporters ever claimed that it would immediately create a totally new situation in Israel. By its nature, a constitutional amendment of this sort, at the vaguest and most general level possible of the definition of the state, years will go by before all its provisions have been interpreted and before they trickle down to substantive changes on the ground. Note that the appeal against the law submitted to the Supreme Court has yet to be heard. Still, despite the vehement protests among some social circles with regard to the very fact that such a hearing can even take place, there is no real chance that the court will strike down the Nation-State Basic Law, just as it has never overturned any Basic Law. This “unconventional weapon” will be held in reserve, and will be wielded — if at all, only for use against amendments to Basic Laws that strike a deeper blow to the roots of Israeli democracy. It is likely, however, that the Court’s decision will “corroborate” many “on record” statements made in the course of the legislative process, as well as the remarks of others including the Prime Minister, since its passage: stating that the law is not intended to infringe on the minority’s right to equality, and consequently does not contradict the other Basic Laws.

But even if such a ruling is handed down, and even if we can trust that it will be fully implemented (which we cannot) by all organs of the state, we must remember that a constitution has a broader role than merely defining rights and powers. A constitution, and especially its preamble sections, which define the state, its values, and its character, plays an important role on additional levels — symbolic, educational, and expressive. The Nation-State Law is intended to define the state, to influence its character, and to reflect its values and its very essence.

Unlike the constitutions of every other nation-state, and in contrast to how Israel is defined in its Declaration of Independence, the Nation-State Law defines the state in a distorted fashion. It focuses exclusively on defining Israel as a “Jewish state” — but ignores and even dismisses the fact — that it is also a democracy. There is no contradiction between Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people and its granting of equal rights to minorities, as is the norm in all countries, including in every nation-state. This distorted message, with a one-sided and biased definition of the state, conveys a message of the Jews’ superiority to the country’s minorities. This is a dangerous message that registers very deeply — first of all with non-Jews (Arabs, Druze) who are made to feel that they are second-class citizens, and also with the Jews.

What is happening in places like the city of Afula, which added a loyalty oath to Afula as “a Jewish city” to the oath of office taken by city councilors, is only a harbinger of things to come. For when the state defines itself as Jewish, who can complain that a municipality wants to do the same? The Nation-State Law provides a tailwind to radical and racist ideas that exclude Arabs. What is more, it also provides the Arabs, some of whom already felt discriminated against, the proof that this is indeed the reality. The expectation that they will continue to find their place in Israeli society has become almost absurd.

In addition, the law gives BDS activists and their allies a powerful new weapon in their war against Israel, and provides support for their false assertion that Israel is an apartheid state.

The current situation, in which the definition of the state does not include equality before the law and recognition of the equal rights of minorities, must not be allowed to continue. We must not become accustomed to it. We must continue to raise our voices in protest and demand that the Knesset amend the law so that it reflects the true values of Zionism, as expressed in the Declaration of Independence: Israel as a Jewish nation-state which grants full equality to all its citizens.

About the Author
Dr. Amir Fuchs is head of the Defending Democratic Values project at the Israel Democracy Institute.
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