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Last month, Israeli legislators approved a preliminary reading of the “Jewish Nation-State Bill”. It passed a reading by the Knesset’s Plenum by a vote of 48 to 41. If ultimately approved, the bill will define Israel as exclusively the state of the “Jewish nation”. It is the latest in a series of measures being spearheaded by the ruling Nationalist Camp that seeks to legally and authoritatively define Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.
In August 2011, member of Knesset (MK) Avi Dichter, a former director of the Israeli Intelligence Services, along with Likud party MK Ze’ev Elkin first proposed the draft ‘Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People’. The version was drafted by the far-right Institute for Zionist Strategy associated with extreme right-wing Jewish movements. The bill was backed by 40 Knesset members, coming from a wide spectrum of the mainstream Israeli political landscape. At the time, however, the law faced strong opposition in the knesset, including from the parliament’s own legal adviser. In his rare intervention, the adviser had emphasised that the proposed bill would upset the delicate balance between the Jewish and democratic identities of the state. He argued that the bill sought to advance the Jewish nature of the state at the expense of democracy, calling for an in-depth dialogue around the law before the then-leader of the Kadima party, former Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni impressed upon Dichter to withdraw the draft.
With time, the entire Israeli political landscape was polarised along the lines of this bill. While members of the ruling “National Camp” pushed for its approval in the Knesset, centrist and left-wing Zionist parties objected to its provisions and demanded that the draft legislation be amended to establish a balance between Jewishness and democracy. In 2014, a previous Israeli government — at the time also headed by current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but under a different coalition — approved a number of National Law proposals submitted by Knesset members, including Ze’ev Elkin, Ayelet Shaked and Benjamin Netanyahu himself, but it was unable to submit any of these bills to the Knesset legislative authority, because of the strong opposition of Tzipi Livni, who was then Minister of Justice.
In 2015, however, Netanyahu returned as head of government — but this time, under a much more ideologically rigid coalition centred exclusively on the “National Camp”. The terms that governed the formation of the present ruling coalition explicitly demanded that the prime minister establish a committee, drawn from parties which took part in the government, to draft a “Basic Law” on the “Jewish Nation”. The Ministerial Committee on Legislation approved the Bill on May 7, 2017. It passed a preliminary reading in parliament on May 10. The Jewish Nation-State Bill must pass through a further three readings and be approved by an outright majority of 61 members of the Knesset.
Although there were slight differences between the different proposals of the National Law, they all essentially reflect many of the ideological fallacies inherent in Zionism, such as treating the followers of the Jewish religion in Israel and the world as one nation, irrespective of borders, continents, languages, and nationalities. It also manufactures the Israeli right of self-determination based on their “historical and cultural heritage”, thus fabricating a link to Palestine although none of the 37 signatories of the Israeli Declaration of Independence were born in Palestine, nor had ancestral links to the country. Furthermore, the Bill disregards the fact that Israel could not have been created without the dispossession and displacement of the Palestinian people from their legitimate homeland.
The Jewish Nation-state Bill may seek to resolve the structural contradictions that exist in the phrase “Jewish and Democratic state”, a formula found in the preambles of all other basic laws; yet, it in fact favours the “Jewish” nature of the state over its democratic aspects. It would make the far-right’s racist ideology sacrosanct, helping to derail any efforts at the creation of a “civil” state for all its citizens. It would turn the Israeli state’s policy of discrimination against Arab Israelis into a form of legal warfare, effectively placing a hard, upper limit on their aspirations and their ability to take part in the game of Israeli democracy.
Purely for reasons of foreign consumption, the Israeli government will have to amend the law before it can be enacted. Specifically, the Netanyahu government must protect its country’s reputation from being tarred with the brush of racism in western public opinion. Clearly, however, what was once an unspoken code of racism prevalent throughout Israel is undeniably, if painstakingly, codified into written law.
Dr Marwan Kabalan is a Syrian academic and writer.