Who’s Afraid of the Jewish Nation?

The recently passed Nation-State law seeks to enshrine Israel’s current national status as part of Israel’s so-called Basic Laws.  I would suggest that the government did so because it is deeply insecure about the future and because it doesn’t trust its own citizens to know their own minds.  Only an insecure government with little trust in its people would pass something like the Nation-State law.

The 1947 UN Partition Resolution talked about dividing Palestine into Arab and Jewish states.  The Israeli Declaration of Independence proclaimed: “By virtue of our natural and historic right and on the basis of the Resolution of the United Nations General Assembly, [we] hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz-Israel, to be known as the State of Israel.”  So why the need to affirm now, more than 70 years later, that “A. The land of Israel is the historical homeland of the Jewish people, in which the State of Israel was established; B. The State of Israel is the national home of the Jewish people, in which it fulfills its natural, cultural, religious and historical right to self-determination; and C. The right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.”  No one can legitimately dispute these principles, so why the need to reiterate them now?

Only an insecure government with little trust in its people would pass something like the Nation-State law.

Why affirm that the Israeli flag is what it is?  It was the flag of the Zionist movement before there was the state and it’s been the national flag for 70 years, honored in most of the world today.  That isn’t going to change unless the people want it to.

Only an insecure government with little trust in its people would pass something like the Nation-State law.

Why affirm that Israel’s anthem is HaTikvah when the song, which celebrates Zionist hopes and dreams, was sung for decades prior to Israel’s birth?  Was there ever any question that it is Israel’s national anthem?  And if the people want to modify the lyrics so that they embrace all of Israel’s citizens, shouldn’t that be their right?

Only an insecure government with little trust in its people would pass something like the Nation-State law.

Don’t all the citizens of Israel already know that Hebrew is the lingua franca of the land, that it is essential for the conduct of business and government? And aren’t they aware that the days, months and years are also counted according to the Hebrew calendar? Why declare Hebrew the sole official language of Israel and demote Arabic, which is spoken by 25% of Israel’s population, to “special” rather than an “official” status?  (French-speaking Canadians comprise but 20.6% of the Canadian population yet Canada is officially a bilingual state and it has managed to survive 150 years so far.)

Only an insecure government with little trust in its people would pass something like the Nation-State law.

The fact is that nations evolve and their states along with them.  Before Israel was created, the Jewish nation comprised, at least in the minds of many of its Ashkenazi founders, Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews; and some perhaps grudgingly added in Mizrahi Jews. Today, it also includes Ethiopian Jews, Indian Jews, Chinese Jews and a host of others, some halachically Jewish and some not, and some not even Jewish at all.  The nation is changing before our eyes as its members mix and multiply.  And the Jewish nation’s relations with Israel’s other citizens will evolve too.  If the government wants the state’s non-Jewish citizens to feel “Israeli” then it should take more concrete steps to promote equality and equal rights.  Either way, who can say what Israel’s citizens will want 25 or 50 years down the road?

But this is precisely what the current government is afraid of.  And rather than trust the people and their elected officials to do whatever they think best, the government is attempting to codify the status quo permanently lest future generations dare tinker with their own present.

It would be far better to work towards building modern Israel on a solid foundation that cherishes all its citizens, where none are disadvantaged because of their nationality, race or religion, where people value their national symbols, their national languages and so on, not because of some government mandate but because they freely choose to do so.

Don’t fear the future. Trust the people.  Revoke this law.

About the Author
Rabbi Anson Laytner of Seattle is currently president of the Sino-Judaic Institute and longtime editor of its journal Points East. Before retiring, he taught at Seattle University and worked with the American Jewish Committee and the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle.
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