(/sites/default/files/uploads/2014/12/1202-israel-nationality-law_standard_600x400.jpg)Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired last week two key ministers, Yair Lapid, Minister of Finance and leader of the Yesh Atid Party, and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, chairwoman of the Tenuah Party. He also called for new elections, most likely to be held in March 2015. The Nationality Law Netanyahu is determined to pass was the “straw that broke the camel’s back.” Netanyahu at a press conference pointed out that the government could not function with opposition from within. Still, a majority of 14 – 6 in the Netanyahu cabinet approved the proposed nationality bill. The law would simply provide legal fortification to the notion that Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people. The bill in the Knesset is intended to prevent any future attempt to erode the Jewish and democratic character of Israel. The new legislation seeks to enshrine these principles as a Basic Law, Israel’s de facto constitution.
The political left in Israel, as expected, is fiercely opposed to the bill. Lapid and Livni opposed the bill approved by the cabinet majority. MK Zahava Gal-On, chairwomen of the leftist Meretz Party, accused Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition partners of committing a “crime against Israeli democracy.” Gal-On charged that even a tamer version of the bill approved by the cabinet would undermine the principle of equality and turn Israel’s Arab population into second-class citizens. PM Netanyahu argued that “enshrining Israel’s Jewish character in the constitution was necessary because of continued efforts to delegitimize it.” Netanyahu added, “There are many who are challenging Israel’s character as the nation state of the Jewish people. Apart from the Palestinians’ refusal to recognize (Israel) as a Jewish state, there was also an opposition from within.”
The debate in Israel over the Nationality Law provided the Palestinian leadership with ammunition to reinforce their unwillingness to recognize Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. Arab News (November 25, 2014) reported that the Palestine Liberation Organization’s (P.L.O.) executive committee issued a statement that expressed “strong condemnation and rejection of this law.” The P.L.O., which dominates the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority, stated that, “The law aims to kill the two-state solution by imposing the project of ‘Greater Israel’ as well as the Jewishness of the state upon the historical land of Palestine.”
The P.L.O. and its chairman, Mahmoud Abbas, must know better than to use such shaky arguments as accusing Israel’s Nationality Law of imposing “Greater Israel” and the “Jewishness of the State.” For one thing, the Muslim and Arab worlds are replete with states that identify themselves as Muslim states. Many Muslim states have Islamic law as part of their legal systems. A number of Muslim states have declared Islam to be their state religion in their constitutions. Countries such as Afghanistan, Iran, Mauritania, Pakistan, and Yemen are Islamic republics and the Arab Gulf states including Saudi Arabia are Islamic monarchies. In Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Libya, and Somalia, to name a few, Islam is the official religion. Unlike Israel however, none of the above mentioned Muslim states can be considered democratic under any criteria.
While Christians and Jews are second-class citizens in the Arab and Muslim world, and unequal under Islamic law, Israeli Arabs enjoy equal rights under Israeli law. According to PM Netanyahu, the Nationality Law also “affirms 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 and identity for every resident of Israel, irrespective of their religion, race or ethnicity.” Speaking at the onset of the cabinet meeting on Sunday (November 23, 2014), Netanyahu added that, “There are those who want the democratic element to take precedence over the Jewish, and there are those who want the Jewish element to take precedent over the democratic. And the principle of the law that we are proposing here today – both of these values equally.”
Additionally, Israel’s founding document – the Declaration of Independence – has never been institutionalized as the law of the land. It has thus enabled the judicial authorities, including Israel’s High Court, to co-opt politically the founding document, and alter the essential Jewish character of the State. The High Court has attempted to circumvent the will of the people through its Knesset representatives, by voiding the “illegal refugee law,” which sought to prevent the infiltration into Israel of Sudanese job seekers, all in the name of judicial universalism and multiculturalism.
Other recent rulings of Israel’s High Court, based on the current formulation of the Basic Laws, which conform to “Post-Zionist” thinking, requires new legal framework that reasserts Israel’s national interest as a fundamental principle alongside that of universal rights. Furthermore, the lack of a stronger definition of Israel’s national identity strengthens the hands of those who seek to turn Israel into a “bi-national state.” And, external criticism of Israel’s Jewish character demands legislation that would prevent those who seek to cancel the right of the Jewish people to have a national home on its land.
Professor Ruth Gavison, recipient of Israel’s Prize for Law and Justice, wrote in Azure (2003) a piece titled “The Jews’ Right to Statehood: A Defense.” She pointed out the clear need for legislative compromise, which transforms the inherent tension between Jewish and democratic values and interests. “The more democracy represents values of equality and neutrality, the less compatible it will be with particularistic foundations on the State level. And the more Jewish frames the contours of policymaking, the less compatible resulting policy will be with neutral and democratic values.”
The Israeli debate on the merits and demerits of the Nationality Law notwithstanding, the political left in Israel has forgotten that the external enemy is also tuned in to the debate, and using the words of Knesset members Zahava Gal-On to demonize Israel. Utilizing such expressions as “racist” and “discriminatory” to describe the cabinet’s proposed legislation, Gal-On is aiding and abetting Israel’s enemies. Moreover, given that her accusations are unfounded, her charges are preposterous. David Ben Gurion himself, one of the founding Fathers of modern Israel, called for a Jewish state in the land of Israel. Reading the Declaration of Independence on May 14, 1948, Ben Gurion stated, “This recognition by the UN of the right of the Jewish People to establish their own state is irrevocable…The right is a natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign state…We hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz-Israel.”
In fact, while the Declaration of Independence is replete with references to a “Jewish State,” there is no mention of the words “democratic state.” Yet, the Declaration also states that “The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and the ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice, and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all of its inhabitants, irrespective of religion, race, or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the UN.”
Those European states who rushed to recognize a Palestinian state but oppose the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state know too well that Palestine will be another Islamist authoritarian state, governed by Islamic law. This hypocrisy alone merits Israel’s proposed Nationality Law.
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