The Legitimacy of Israel's Nationality Law

Why it's fair.

Upon passing the Nationality Law in Israel’s Knesset (Parliament) by a vote of 62 to 55, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took to the podium and declared, “One hundred and twenty-two years after Theodore Herzl published his vision we have enshrined into the law the basic principle of our existence.”  He added, “This is our country, the state of the Jews.  But in recent years there have been some people who have been trying to undermine that, and by so doing, to undermine the foundations of our existence and rights. Well, today we etched into the rock of law: this is our country, this is our language, this is our national anthem, and this is our flag.  Long live the state of Israel.”

Netanyahu, in defending the Nationality Bill pointed out that “When Ben Gurion declared the establishment of the state, he didn’t see the need to legislate Basic Laws to ensure its Jewish and democratic character…now there are those that challenge the state of Israel’s Jewish character…” Netanyahu’s reference had in mind Mahmoud Abbas’ refusal to recognize Israel as the “nation-state of the Jewish people.” Netanyahu also made the point that Israel is the only state in the Middle East that honors equal rights.

Isaac Herzog, the Opposition leader, told the plenum, that "it's a little sad to me that the last speech I make will be against this kind of backdrop. The question is whether the law will harm or benefit Israel. History will determine. I really hope that we won't find the fine balance between a Jewish and democratic state to be hurt."

Yariv Levin, Israel’s Minister of Tourism, was one of the sponsors of the Nationality Law.  Speaking prior to the vote, he appealed to the opposition by saying, “I ask you my friends from the Zionist Union, (a left-of-center Zionist party) to reply honestly to the question of what is in the law that you oppose.  It is a law that expresses the deepest foundations of Zionism and the foundation on which the State of Israel was built. It states the obvious: The State of Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people,”

Arab members of the Knesset, always ready to scream “apartheid” did it vociferously, and demonstratively tore a copy of the Nationality Bill.  Ayman Odeh, leader of the Arab Joint List waved a black flag. His colleague, Yousef Jabareen, said according to Irish News that the Bill was “not only discriminatory against Arabs, who make up 20 percent of Israel’s 9 million population, but racist.” They used the same mantra Palestinian Authority (PA) leader Mahmoud Abbas has often used, particularly when asked to recognize Israel as the ‘nation-state of the Jewish people.’  On a visit to Cairo in July, 2013, Mahmoud Abbas, according to Reuters, declared that in the future Palestinian state he envisioned that, “In the final resolution, we would not see the presence of a single Israeli Jew, civilian or soldier on our lands.”  In short, Abbas has called for a “Judenrein” Palestine.

In a new Pew Research Center analysis, more than 80 countries favor a specific religion, either as an official, government-endorsed religion or by affording preferential treatment of one religion over other faiths.  Islam is the most common government-endorsed faith, with 27 countries (including most in the Middle East - North Africa region) officially enshrining Islam as their state religion.  By comparison, just 13 countries, including nine European countries designate Christianity or a particular denomination as their state religion.  That alone shows the hypocrisy of those criticizing Israel’s passing of the Nationality law. 

In most of the Arab counties that have Islam as their government-designated religion, there are large non-Muslim minorities.  In Egypt, at least 10 percent of the population is Christian (mostly Coptic).  In Europe, Britain has a large Muslim presence and other minorities, but Christianity, and more specifically the Church of England or Anglicanism is the government-designated state religion. In Scotland, it is the Presbyterian Church.  In Denmark, Iceland and Norway, Lutheranism is their state religion.  Orthodox Christianity is the case in Greece and Armenia.  In the Republic of Georgia, the constitution states: “The State shall declare absolute freedom of belief and religion.  At the same time, the State shall recognize the outstanding role the Apostolic Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Georgia in the history of Georgia…” In Georgia, the Orthodox Church of Georgia and the State have a concordat, or constitutional agreement that regulates the relationship between them.

In Jordan, Islam is the state religion, and converts from Islam to Christianity are questioned and scrutinized by the security forces.  Non-Muslim religious groups must register to be able to own land and administer rites such as marriage.  The Islamic Affairs Ministry subsidizes mosque sponsored activities, which non-Muslim religious groups do not receive.

In the Islamic Republic of Iran, all laws and regulations must be based on “Islamic criteria,” and the official interpretation of sharia law.  Christians and Jews are recognized religious minority groups but they are not allowed public religious expression and persuasion.  Converting Muslims by Christians and Jews is punishable by death, and activities by Christians and Jews are closely monitored.

Saudi Arabia’s basic law designates Islam as the official religion, and conversion from Islam is grounds for charges of apostasy, which is punishable by death.  Jews are not allowed to live permanently in the Kingdom, much less become citizens.  All citizens must be Muslims. The worship of non-Muslim faiths is prohibited.  One is not allowed to bring a Bible into Saudi Arabia, and non-Muslim religious meetings are forbidden, and those caught are arrested or deported.

The Pew Research forum asserted that, “In some cases, state religions have roles that are largely ceremonial.  But often the distinction comes with tangible advantages in terms of legal or tax status, ownership of real estate or other property, and access to financial support from the state.  In addition, countries with state-endorsed faiths tend to more severely regulate religious practice, including placing restrictions or bans on minority religious groups.” In the Arab states and the Palestinian territories, the latter condition of restrictions and bans on non-Muslims exists.  In Israel, Muslim and Christian religious institutions are treated equally with their Jewish equivalent. 

As usual, the Jewish state was singled out for criticism, especially in the West.  To mollify its critics who considered the Law “undemocratic,” Israel removed most of the disputed provisions.  The Nationality Law does not infringe on the individual rights of Arab citizens of Israel.  The Jewish state has had basic laws on individual equal rights but not on a fundamental law that defined the identity and purpose of the state. Without the Nationality Law, the bedrock of Israel’s Zionist expression – the ‘Law of Return,’ would one day be considered discriminatory.

The law makes Hebrew the official language of Israel just as French is the official language of France.  Yet, Arabic is guaranteed a special status in Israel.  One must remember that Israel is no longer under the British Mandatory law, which proclaimed English, Arabic and Hebrew as the official languages of Palestine.  Israel is an independent state of the Jewish people, whether critics like it or not.

The Nationality law is not unique to Israel. In fact, it places Israel along with other multi-ethnic and multi-lingual European nations.  The only unique difference is the hypocrisy when dealing with the Jewish State.

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