Israel’s new Nation State Law has provoked controversy both inside and outside Israel. Both critics and supporters have misinterpreted the text and its implications. They have also missed what may be the most important motive for the legislation – fear of the demographic threat to Israel’s future.
First, we can quickly dispense with the hysteria over the law’s implication for equality and democracy in Israel. Critics have complained the law does not mention the word equality; however, equality is guaranteed by other laws, judicial decisions and the Declaration of Independence. As others have noted, the word equality does not appear in every article of the U.S. constitution and yet no one questions whether the law, in principle, provides that guarantee.
Second, the notion the law is not democratic turns that word on its head. The law was adopted after years of deliberation and a vote by the democratically elected representatives of the people. Furthermore, a vote by the majority of the Knesset can amend, revise or revoke the law. This is how democracy is supposed to work. It does not mean everyone must be happy with the outcome.
Third, proponents of the law are fooling themselves if they believe it does not create the impression of discriminating against minorities. Many Israelis and friends of Israel abroad have interpreted the law this way and warned it will damage Israel’s image. The reaction of Israeli Arabs leaves no doubt about their feelings regardless of the fact that their civil rights have not been weakened or withdrawn. The framers may not have been concerned with insulting most Arabs, but some now realize it was a mistake to anger the Druze, who are loyal citizens, who serve in the military and who accept the raison d’ê·tre of the state.
Fourth, it is true that the overwhelming majority of nations have a single national language and it is the one spoken by the majority of the population. On that basis, declaring Hebrew the sole official language is justified. The problem, however, is that the debate was not over whether to add Arabic as a new official language; the law downgraded it from one of the three official languages to having some amorphous “special status.”
To appreciate the import of this decision, consider the idea that Spanish should become the second official language of the United States given the large and growing number of Hispanics. Today, people who speak Spanish do not feel discriminated against because English has always been the de facto official language. Imagine, however, what the reaction would be if Spanish had been an official language since the American Revolution and Congress voted to make English the sole official language and assign Spanish “special status.” Does anyone seriously believe there would not be an uproar across America and that Spanish speakers would feel their country had slapped them in the face?
Fifth, Israel wants to play all sides of the relationship with the Diaspora. Israel sees itself as the representative of the entire Jewish people. This implies that all Jews have a stake in the country and should have some say in decisions affecting the Jewish people; however, Israelis expect Diaspora Jews to give their financial, political and moral support to Israel without any expectation of influencing Israeli policy. Israelis have a stronger case against Diaspora Jews deciding matters of peace and security since they do not have to live with the consequences of those decisions or send their children to fight to implement them.
Sixth, the law does not say Israel is the nation state of Orthodox Jewry. That means a few ultra-Orthodox rabbis should not be allowed to decide for the nation who is a Jew, how and where they should pray, who should officiate at weddings or any other issue related to the practice of Judaism outside their own communities.
Seventh, the necessity for the law, proponents say, was that the Jewish nature of the state was not adequately reflected or enshrined in law. This has been true for the last 70 years; why did it suddenly become urgent to write into law that Hatikvah will be the national anthem and what the flag of Israel should look like?
Supporters admit the law was a response to the actions of Israel’s Supreme Court. Much like conservatives in America, many Israelis on the political right have grown angry and frustrated with the Court because they believe that it has been legislating rather than adjudicating, and that its decisions have been undermining certain values and beliefs they hold dear.
The law also sends a message to the Palestinians and the advocates of boycotting Israel. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas refuses to acknowledge that Israel is the state of the Jewish people and the law reinforces the fact that it is. The law also responds to the BDS campaign’s effort to delegitimize Israel and deny the Jewish people’s right to self-determination in their homeland.
The political reason for adopting the law now is that Prime Minister Netanyahu is expected to call a new election in the next few months and the law caters to the base of his party and its coalition partners. Opposition to the law from abroad or Israeli Arabs will not prevent his reelection.
With the exception of the section relating to the Diaspora, every other clause in the Nation State Law is designed to protect the Jewish nature of the state in the future. Though politicians may deny it, the unspoken explanation for the law is the right-wing’s fear of the demographic threat to Israel remaining a Jewish state. Despite creative statistical analyses that argue the Palestinian population is vastly overestimated, and wishful thinking about Palestinian emigration and Jewish immigration, the ruling parties, especially the Likud, understand that creating “Greater Israel” will result in the oft-stated conundrum of how to remain a Jewish and democratic state after absorbing millions of Palestinians.
This dilemma has prevented all the so-called right-wing Israeli prime ministers from pursuing the dream of a Jewish state from the river to the sea. It is why the Likud’s Ehud Olmert was prepared to unilaterally evacuate the West Bank and later offered to withdraw from nearly all of it in talks with Abbas. Similarly, it is why a super hawk like Ariel Sharon disengaged from Gaza.
Today, few Israelis challenge the symbols of the state or question that it is a Jewish state. Tomorrow, however, the foundations of the state could be threatened if Israel swallows the West Bank (and would be worse if it annexed Gaza as well) and the percentage of the Arab population grows from 21% to 40%, 50% or more. Representatives of Israeli Arabs already form the third largest party in the Knesset; imagine if they became the largest faction.
All but the most extreme right-wingers realize that if Israel annexes the West Bank, they cannot prevent Palestinian citizens of Israel from voting without ceasing to be a democracy. Therefore, they hope that by enshrining the Jewish raison d’ê·tre of the state in law they can forestall a Palestinian majority or coalition from denuding the nation of its Zionist underpinnings.
Dr. Mitchell Bard is Executive Director of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise and author/editor of 23 books including The Arab Lobby and the novel After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.