Israel as a Jewish State

Is one Jewish state too many?

Were you as surprised as I was to discover that there is no actual law enshrining Israel’s status as a Jewish state and the homeland of the Jewish People?

This is the background to the latest political kerfuffle in Israeli politics: the the discussions and debates, and finally the political push that led the Cabinet to vote to define Israel as the Jewish State.

The cabinet decision stipulated 14 “principles” that would guide the drafting of the new law. The final bill …  seeks to “define the identity of the State of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, and to anchor the values of the state of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state in the spirit of the principles of the Declaration of the Independence,” according to the cabinet decision.

The new Basic Law would enshrine many of the defining characteristics of the Jewish state in a constitutional framework, asserting that “the right to express national self-determination within the State of Israel is [reserved] only to the Jewish people.”

According to Netanyahu, the law would also affirm Israel’s democratic nature, stipulating equality in civic and personal rights for all its citizens, including affirming a right to “the preservation of one’s culture, heritage, language and identity” for “every resident of Israel, irrespective of their religion, race or ethnicity,” in the words of the cabinet decision.

Israel “has equal individual rights for every citizen and we insist on this. But only the Jewish people have national rights: a flag, anthem, the right of every Jew to immigrate to the country, and other national symbols. These are granted only to our people, in its one and only state,” Netanyahu said at the start of the cabinet meeting.

“There are those who want the democratic (element) to take precedence over the Jewish, and there are those that want the Jewish (element) to take precedence over the democratic. And the principle of the law that we are proposing here today — both of these values are equal and we must consider them equally,” he said, according to a statement from his office.

This being the Knesset, the vote did not pass without a fight:

Lapid did not agree. “The nationality law being presented to the government is a bad law that was only drafted for the sake of Likud primaries,” the finance minister insisted. “This is a law that [David] Ben-Gurion, [Ze’ev] Jabotinsky and [Menachem] Begin would oppose.”

Added Lapid: “This morning I spoke with the family of Zidan Saif, [the Druze policeman] who was killed protecting Jewish worshipers during the terror attack on the synagogue in Jerusalem. What can we say to this family? That he is a second-class citizen?”

Netanyahu lashed out at Livni, blaming her refusal to advance a similar measure in the Minister Committee for Legislation last week for his decision to advance the measure in the cabinet.

“We wouldn’t have gotten here if Livni acted differently,” he said, according to Ynet.

Livni had agreed to draft an agreed-upon version of the bill in June, but a committee that was meant to meet to draft the bill has yet to meet, critics charge.

Peri spoke out against the timing of the proposed legislation. “I don’t understand the rush for the bill now in this sensitive time,” said the former Shin Bet head, a member of Yesh Atid.

Netanyahu reportedly responded in a raised voice, charging that Israeli Arabs “are creating a state within a state.”

The Netanyahu version is aimed at giving equal weight to the principles of Israel as a democracy and as a Jewish state, the Prime Minister’s Office said Sunday.

Another opponent of the bill is Dan Meridor, former Justice Minister:

 In an interview with Israel Radio, Meridor took issue with the bill’s treatment of the country’s Arab minority, and accused its proponents of seeking political gain at the expense of Israel’s integrity as a democratic country.

As expected, the draft law, which meanwhile has been delayed for a week, has drawn criticism from many sources, to which Netanyahu responded:

All three versions of the bill reinforce “Hatikva” as the national anthem, the state symbols, use of the Hebrew calendar and the Law of Return, and call to grant freedom of access to holy places and protect them.

“People ask, Who needs this bill? We have managed 66 years without it,” Netanyahu said ahead of the meeting. “And I ask, who needs the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty? We managed 45 years without it. We need both.

This law was needed at this time because many people are challenging the idea that Israel is the national homeland of the Jewish people, the prime minister said.

”The Palestinians refuse to recognize this, and there is also opposition from within – there are those who want to establish autonomy in the Galilee and the Negev, and who deny our national rights,” he said. “I also don’t understand those who call for two states for two peoples, but at the same time oppose anchoring that in law. They are quick to recognize a Palestinian national home, but adamantly oppose a Jewish national home.”

“I brought the principles of the law in which I believe, the principles that appear in the Independence Scroll,” Netanyahu stated.

Netanyahu banged on the table and said “it cannot be that Arabs can live in Jewish towns, but Jews can’t live in Arab towns. A country within a country is developing.”

In addition, Bennett posited that the “Jewish state bill” will “save the residents of south Tel Aviv from infiltrators,” because the High Court of Justice will have to keep it in mind when ruling on the legality of laws to curb illegal migration and not only Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty.

Opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Labor) compared the “Jewish state bill” to holding a cabinet meeting on the Temple Mount, saying it is provocative, irresponsible and unnecessary at a sensitive time.

In response to the demand to know what was the point of the whole “Jewish State Law” exercise, Yoram Hazony explains Why we need the Jewish State law:

On the face of it, Israel should not need a Jewish State Law. Until recently, Israel’s status as the state of the Jewish people had never been seriously been questioned. The idea of Israel as a “Jewish State” has a continuous history going back to Theodor Herzl, father of modern Zionism, who had given this title to his 1896 tract calling for Jewish national independence. In proposals subsequently submitted to the British government, Herzl asked the empire’s assistance in establishing a territory “which shall be Jewish in character,” “founded under laws and regulations adopted for the well-being of the Jewish people,” with a Jewish name and a Jewish flag.

This concept was later incorporated into British and UN proposals for the establishment of a Jewish State in Palestine, culminating in the partition plan adopted by the UN in 1947.

But history has not been kind to the idea of national self-determination. Beginning in the 1960s, Western elites turned sharply against national particularism of any kind (at least as far as first-world nations are concerned), citing Nazi Germany as proof that drawing national and religious distinctions is the root of virtually all political evil. [ … ]

This new disdain for the principle of national self-determination has proved devastating for Israel. Both in America and Europe, the movement to brand Zionism a form of racism continues to gather steam. In Israel, too, “post-Zionism” became the buzzword of fashionable opinion in the 1990s. In this context, Israel’s Chief Justice declared the country’s Jewish character to be “in tension” with democracy, and the Court embarked on a series of decisions aimed at gradually eroding Israel’s legal status as a Jewish State.

Of course, equality has always been a crucial value in Israel. But the disappearance of Jewish national self-determination from the Court’s list of the legitimate aims of Israeli policy called into question many of the most basic aims for which the state had been founded. Would it soon be illegal to send Israel’s security services to protect Jewish communities in other countries? To maintain a Law of Return offering automatic citizenship to Jews from other lands? To teach Judaism in the public schools? These and similar concerns are what stand behind Netanyahu’s present “Jewish State Law” — whose purpose is to re-establish the previous status quo on issues of Jewish national self-determination.

Read the whole article. It puts the whole “Jewish State” question into perspective in the context of the wider Middle East and the upheavals engulfing the region.

For a clear, concise explanation of the necessity for the Jewish State law, read Abu Yehuda’s take: “Who’s afraid of admitting it’s a Jewish State?”:

Some Israeli leaders, for example Naftali Bennett, are concerned that the ‘democratic’ part will be legislated in such a way as to preclude the ‘Jewish’ part, resulting in a “state of its citizens” — a secular, democratic state. In such a state, it would be wrong to have a Law of Return that treats Jews differently than Arabs. … [Here is a Hebrew video in which Bennett explains his position].

The opponents of the new Basic Law (the Left and Arab parties) claim the opposite, that it is anti-democracy.

PM Netanyahu has said that he supports the law, but wants further consideration of details. I think this is a reasonable position.

I understand that the Arabs and the extreme anti-Zionist Left are opposed. But I would say this to those opponents (like Tzipi Livni) who consider themselves Zionists:

We know what you think democracy is. But please explain exactly what you mean by Zionism.

Similarly Haim Shine in Israel Hayom brings us A reminder: Israel is the Jewish state:

…  A small, yet very influential, cadre of Israelis — on the Supreme Court, in the media, and in the left-wing academia — are on one side of this debate. The other side comprises the silent Israeli majority.

The first group says Israel is not an ethnocentric democracy. This may be a noble and very attractive ideal, but it has inflicted significant damage on the Jewish character of our state and compromised its various functions.

The highest court of the land has treated the Basic Laws as a de facto constitution — a move that has no legal precedent in any other country. Moreover, the justices have routinely ignored the Basic Laws’ provisions, which define Israel as a Jewish state and as a democracy. The court has consistently favored the latter part over the former. This bill would restore the equilibrium that has been shattered by a court bent on obliterating Israel’s Jewishness.

As the various negotiations have shown, the Palestinians are unwilling to recognize Israel as the Jewish people’s nation state. They know why. They would like to devoid this country of its Jewish-nationalist underpinnings so that they could propagate their nationalist aspirations, which would naturally include the so-called right of return. That is why it is important to make it abundantly clear — for those who may have forgotten — that they are wrong. Our neighbors and the rest of the world should come to terms with the fact that the Jews have returned home and established their own nation state. They are not subletting the land; nor are they the modern iteration of the Crusaders, who stayed here for an hour in history.

External opposition to passage of the law has emanated from the usual suspects: The PLO (aka the Palestinian Authority) has declared that passage of the law will end the “Two State Solution”. Personally I can’t think of a better reason to pass the law, but it is ironic that it is the Palestinians themselves, led by their unelected President Abbas, who have brought about and end to the Two  State Solution by their violence and their unreasonable demands:

Let’s recall that a little more than six months ago, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were meeting with Secretary Kerry and his team in a serious effort, started in July 2013, to reach a permanent two-state peace agreement. The man who torpedoed those negotiations, who refused to extend them, was none other than Abbas. Six days before the April 30 deadline for concluding the talks, Abbas announced a Palestinian unity government with the Gaza-based terrorist organization Hamas, which refuses to even consider recognizing Israel and spews vile anti-Semitism.

Hamas too feels it has a right to interfere in Israel’s democratic process, threatening “Holy War” if the law is passed. However since Hamas’s entire raison d’être is “holy war”, this threat doesn’t really make much difference to the status quo.

Naftali Bennett, head of the Bayit Yehudi party, chided the American Administration who also felt it behooved them to interfere in Israel’s internal affairs once again:

“I say to the Americans that the affairs of the State of Israel – we will manage [ourselves],” Bennett stated, speaking on IDF Radio‘s “Good Morning Israel” show Tuesday morning. “We have to deal with the implications of [the law and] what kind of country we want.”

“At the end it is our problem,” he added. “This is an internal issue and I think that no one has the right to intervene with it.”

Bennett’s remarks surface after a statement from the US State Department implied that the “Jewish State Law” would undermine Israel’s dedication to equal rights.

“Israel is a Jewish and democratic state and all its citizens should enjoy equal rights,” spokesman Jeff Rathke stated Monday. “We expect Israel to stick to its democratic principles.”

How many times does Netanyahu have to insist that the “Jewish State” bill is not going to abolish Israeli democracy? Why can’t foreign officials – as well as Israeli politicians and opinion-makers – not simply read the draft bill and use their reading comprehension skills?

In the final account this might all end as a storm in a teacup, a political exercise which may or may not have the desired effect. Certainly the wisdom of the bill’s presentation and its timing can be called into question. But its intentions seem clear and benign enough to anyone who isn’t determined to impute the worst possible motives to Israel.

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9 Responses to Israel as a Jewish State

  1. Marjorie Stamm Rosenfeld says:

    Anne, I like what you’re doing. But in your article on Israel as a Jewish State, you have a passage that reads: “This concept was later incorporated into British and UN proposals for the establishment of a Jewish State in Palestine, culminating in the partition plan adopted by the UN in 1947.”

    The partition plan was embodied only in a resolution by the U.N. General Assembly, which cannot make binding resolutions and thus UNGA resolutions function only as recommendations. (Only the Security Council can make binding resolutions–and even then, only under Chapter VII.) The only way for the partition resolution to become binding would have been if both affected parties, Jews and Arabs, agreed to it.

    The Jews accepted and established their state, ending up with slightly more than the partition resolution allotted them but with much less than what the 1920 San Remo Resolution, the 1922 Palestine Mandate, and the 1924 Anglo-American Treaty had designated for them, which was all of Western Palestine. As we know, the Arabs violently rejected partition and started attacking Jews as soon as passage of the partition resolution was announced in November of 1947, killing almost 2,000 Jews in the ensuing 6 months.

    The 1967 War with Egypt, Jordan, and Syria liberated the rest of the territory designated for the Jews. Even today, the Eastern border of Israel as described in the 1994 Peace Treaty with Jordan is the middle of the Jordan River.

    I think we should avoid writing anything that makes it sound as if the U.N. partitioned Western Palestine into two parts, one for a Jewish State and one for an Arab State. This is a common misimpression that has led to the accusation that Israel is stealing Palestinian Arab land.

    • anneinpt says:

      Marjorie, thank you for your thoughtful comment and welcome to my blog. You make a very good point which I had never really considered before. It’s just ingrained in all of us that Resolution 181 partitioned Palestine. I hadn’t given proper thought to the fact that it was only a UNGA resolution and not UNSC.

      I was anyway quoting Yoram Hazony, himself no left-winger, although as I said, I don’t know if I would have worded it any differently.

      People who want to think of Israel as a land thief will never change their minds, no matter how many facts we “confuse” them with. The truth is definitely out there, as for example this Wikipedia entry on Res. 181.

      But you are right and I shall try to be more careful in future about my wording.

  2. Brian Goldfarb says:

    I’m not quite sure what my position on this issue is, which is, to say the least, a matter of some controversy. Allied to that is the question as to whether designating Israel as “the Jewish state” will in any way change the essential realpolitik of the Middle East. That is, will it make any allies in the region (however lukewarm or covert they may be) change their actual stance towards Israel or will it make any opponents less opposed?

    We have a cousin, a young man, Israeli, who, having completed his national service, has just started his second year in political science at University. His take on this issue is that, assuming or presuming a satisfactory solution (and here I show my personal biases) to the “problem” of the “occupied territories” (and I use that phrase as a descriptor, not in any political sense, which is why it is in italics) that leaves Israel in a secure and safe position, the State of Israel is going to remain one in which about 80% of its population are Jewish and likely to remain so. Given that, why, he argues, does it need to go further and specifically label itself in this way?

    After all, outside the Middle East, there are few, if any, states that, in practice, label themselves in religious terms (whatever the religious authorities in their countries might wish). The UK may be, officially a Christian country, even have an established church, but given that barely 15% of the adult population attend church on a regular basis (even allowing for that being 15% of the 90% who are, at least nominally, Christian), is it possible to label the UK anything other than a Christian country?

    Similarly, in France, the state is officially atheistic, and yet, despite the noisy Moslem minority, France is clearly a nominally Catholic country. Even the USA, with its fiercely and constitutionally enforced separation between church and state, is recognisably a Christian country.

    So, why bother?

    Answers in a publishable form, please!

    • anneinpt says:

      I’ll try to answer your questions in order, though my answers might come out muddled. That’s because it’s such a muddled issue.

      the question as to whether designating Israel as “the Jewish state” will in any way change the essential realpolitik of the Middle East. That is, will it make any allies in the region (however lukewarm or covert they may be) change their actual stance towards Israel or will it make any opponents less opposed?

      It shouldn’t make any difference. Israel has been the Jewish State since its inception and even before. I get the strong impression our enemies and allies are jumping on the bandwagon in order to make a political point and pressurize Israel. This new proposal has given them all plenty of ammunition.

      We have a cousin, a young man, Israeli, … His take on this issue is that, assuming or presuming a satisfactory solution … to the “problem” of the “occupied territories” … that leaves Israel in a secure and safe position, the State of Israel is going to remain one in which about 80% of its population are Jewish and likely to remain so. Given that, why, he argues, does it need to go further and specifically label itself in this way?

      A lot of people have been asking that question. It’s a matter of domestic politics and policies. As explained in my post, the judiciary have been giving more weight to “democracy” over and above Israel’s Jewish character. Thus for example we have thousands of illegal infiltrators being given full rights, and if we complain that they will upset the demographic balance we are called racist and undemocratic. But there’s nothing wrong with upholding the national character of a country. And Israel’s character is Jewish. Democracy is an extra descriptor but it is not the essence of Israel.

      Since Israel’s Jewish character is “accepted”, but not actually enshrined in a Basic Law, and since our judges give more weight lately to Basic Laws rather than the Declaration of Independence, Bibi thought it wise to enshrined it in law. I’m sure this is also local politics towards the next election as well.

      After all, outside the Middle East, there are few, if any, states that, in practice, label themselves in religious term

      So, why bother?

      For the very reasons I mention above. It’s irrelevant what is done outside or even within the Middle East. Israel is a stand-alone case and should be allowed to define itself how it wishes without the rest of the world jumping down its throat, especially as Bibi has been declaring until he’s blue in the face that the new law will preserve democracy and minority rights.

      But even if Israel should declare itself non-democratic, what business is it of anyone else? One can hardly call any other country in the rest of the Middle East democratic yet they are all accepted into the family of nations.

      Israel is the sole exception no matter what it does.

      That speaks volumes to me.

    • anneinpt says:

      Following on from my answer above, here is a clear balanced article about the law, with pros and cons and background:

      • Brian Goldfarb says:

        Actually, on reflection, I guess my objection is why create problems and dissension (or, maybe, further dissension) within Israel when you don’t have to? Israel is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t – whatever the “it” is. The main objection appears increasingly to be the further split within Israel over this issue (or so it seems from the outside),not what the rest of the world thinks (I’ll requote my late mother: they can “gey in dredd” – go to the hot place – for all I care).

        That is, the last thing Israel needs is even more splits within the country. And if Bibi thinks that this will assure his re-election, it might just have the opposite reaction.

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