Zionist history this is not

The Knesset Menorah, symbol of Israel, in Jerusalem. Photo by Jason Harris.
The Knesset Menorah, symbol of Israel, in Jerusalem. Photo by Jason Harris.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says that the recent nation-state law “is a pivotal moment in the history of Zionism and the State of Israel.” He’s wrong. The law fails to make explicit the foundational principles of Israel’s Jewish democracy, and Netanyahu misrepresented its historic significance.

A plain text reading of the “Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People” is a reasonable recitation of the purpose of Zionism and the creation of Israel. Israel is and should be the “historic homeland of the Jewish people” as well as the “national home of the Jewish people.” As the Zionist founders recognized, the Jewish people needed a place to live in this world where they could make their own fate, govern themselves, and live rich Jewish lives without fear of persecution.

Itemizing, in section 6, Israel’s commitment to the entire Jewish People — including those who live even beyond the state’s boundaries — is one of the unique aspects of Zionism that makes me proud to call myself a Zionist: I, an American Jew, am still the concern of the Jewish State on the other side of the world. To my fellow Jews there I matter, I belong, I will never be a refugee, I will always have a home.

But the Basic Law is also deeply flawed. In its failure to explicitly uphold the democratic tradition of Israel, Netanyahu’s coalition, far from exalting Zionist history, instead reflects the exigencies of political expediency.

The legislation’s failure to mention Israel’s democracy ignores an essential element of Zionism. From its beginnings in the late 1890s, the Zionist Movement adopted a democratic process for decision making, where diverse streams of Jewish life were represented, and individuals, including women, had a vote and a role in governance.

Although Theodore Herzl worried that direct democracy was too extreme (it created what he called “that objectionable class of men — professional politicians”), he envisioned the future Jewish State as one of equal rights for all citizens. That principle was upheld in Israel’s 1948 Declaration of Independence. The State, “…will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex…”, and Arab inhabitants are called on to help build the State “…on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation…”.

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On the right and the left, in the Supreme Court and in the halls of the Knesset, democracy has been the governing principle of the State of Israel since even before its founding. Zionism viewed democracy as its essential partner in not only creating a safe haven for the Jewish People, but also in building the kind of state and society in which justice, equality, and free expression would reign supreme.

The Basic Law’s supporters have argued that the law simply codifies intents and practices already in place, from describing the Israeli flag to identifying the national anthem to stating Israel’s purpose with respect to its relationship with the Jewish People. But that can’t be true, for if it were it would suggest that Netanyahu’s coalition no longer considers democracy a necessary feature of the Jewish State. Rather than being a “pivotal moment” in Zionist history, such a stance would be a profound break from that history.

Having myself written legislation when I worked in the United States Congress, I know that legislation of this nature is not simply a matter of lofty purpose, but also of political will. That’s why it doesn’t hold up as a pivotal moment in Zionist history. This Basic Law reads, in the current political climate, as exclusionary and illiberal. It plays politics with Jewish identity to score narrow political points.

As David Horovitz points out, “the law smacks of narrow political interest outweighing the national good.” It is designed as a wedge issue to set up Netanyahu and his coalition as the patriotic Jews defending the Jewish State, and his political opponents as, well, not. In purposefully leaving out specific references to the democratic nature of Israel, such as the equality of all citizens regardless of religion, and by singling out Arabic as a language of “special status,” the law suggests (in optics if not in language) an Us, a Them, and, perversely, a Less Than. Netanyahu and his Knesset supporters cannot be surprised that Israel’s non-Jewish population (who make up 20% of the population) feel that this law relegates them to second-class status; and that many Israel Jews recoil at the notion that Israel’s citizens would be made to feel this way.

Israel’s Declaration of Independence specifies the equal status and equal treatment of Israel’s non-Jewish minorities, a goal not always achieved in practice, but backed by law, purpose, and an explicit commitment to democracy. That this month’s Basic Law specifically does not is worrisome, and contrary to the loftiest ideals of Zionism as articulated by Theodore Herzl, Chaim Weizmann, David Ben-Gurion, and other cardinal leaders.

To lay claim on making Zionist history, a law would have to reflect the highest principles of Israel’s founding message: a national home for the Jewish People to return to and a democratic state for all the people who live within its borders. Today’s Basic Law reminds us only of the expediency of politics. That’s not pivotal history. That’s current events.

About the Author
Jason Harris is the host and producer of Jew Oughta Know, a podcast that tells the story of the Jewish People from Genesis to modern Israel. He has taken hundreds of young adults on trips to Israel, and holds master's degrees in Jewish studies from Brandeis University. Prior to his work in the Jewish community he served as a senior staffer to a U.S. Member of Congress. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.
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