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Myths and Facts about Israel’s controversial new Nation-State law

Aug 3, 2018 | Colin Rubenstein

Israel

Jakarta Post – August 1

 

Israel’s new Jewish Nation-State law, passed in the Knesset on July 19, has been greeted with widespread condemnation abroad. Yet upon closer examination much of the criticism appears to be based upon misinterpretations and assumptions that go beyond the actual wording of the law.

The law, it must be stressed outright, is purely declarative in nature and carries with it no practical impact on Israeli life. Rather, it is an overwhelmingly symbolic reaction to those who object to the continued existence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

Principally among them is the Palestinian leadership, who have vehemently rejected Israel’s reasonable demand to be accepted and recognised as a Jewish homeland in any future peace agreement, just as Palestine will be the Palestinian homeland.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu made this clear in his response to the law’s passage. “Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people, which respects the individual rights of all its citizens,” Netanyahu said. “In recent years there have been some who have attempted to put this in doubt, to undercut the core of our being. Today we made it law: This is our nation, language and flag.”

The law simply enshrines among Israel’s Basic Laws the foundational sentiment embodied within Israel’s Declaration of Independence, namely, that Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people, where the Jewish people exercise their right to national self-determination. It then goes on to provide elevated constitutional status to existing laws regarding Israel’s flag, national holidays, use of the Jewish calendar, and the Hebrew language.

Similar constitutional provisions emphasising national self-determination and cultural expression can be found in numerous countries in Europe and elsewhere.

Claims that the law harms the prospects for a two-state peace outcome are simply bizarre – since 1947, partition has always been discussed in terms of a Jewish state existing alongside an Arab state.

Allegations that the law is racist or harms the status of minorities in Israel are also baseless.

While certainly controversial, the law also does not even necessarily “downgrade” the status of Arabic in the country – it explicitly states that the clause identifying Hebrew as the official language of Israel “does not change the status given to the Arabic language before the Basic Law was created” and also insists Arabic services must be available for all government business.

A passage in the law that commends “Jewish settlement as a national value” also created controversy, primarily because the term “settlement” is inevitably associated with Jewish towns in the disputed West Bank. Yet the law’s phrasing in Hebrew simply mimics language of the pre-state Zionist movement regarding the national goal of rebuilding and restoring Jewish life in the land of Israel and it does not necessarily have any other connotations.

To be sure, radically anti-Zionist Arab lawmakers from the far-left Joint List party were always going to vehemently oppose any law of this kind – they object to any characterisation of Israel as a Jewish homeland, even though Israel has been explicitly such a homeland since 1948.

Even so, the offence voiced over the matter by Druze and Arab leaders does suggest mistakes in the drafting, debate, and execution of the legislation, something even some top government ministers have acknowledged and vowed to address.

These missteps are lamentable, because the controversy risks setting back hard-fought and sustained achievements by successive Israeli governments in recent years towards empowering and integrating Israel’s minorities and addressing both the discrimination and social gaps which affect them.

Thabet Abu Rass, co-director of the Israeli coexistence NGO Abraham Fund, told the Jerusalem Post earlier this year that the Israeli Arab community is “more integrated” and has “more mobility” in Israeli society than ever, with a record number studying in Israeli universities, producing more Arab doctors, nurses and pharmacists than ever before. Abu Rass noted, for example, that four out of 11 players on Israel’s national soccer team are Arab, while the Netanyahu Government had delivered on a 2015 promise to invest 15 billion shekels ($4.1b) into Israeli Arab communities – an infusion “unprecedented in scope”.

Veteran lawmaker Benny Begin of the ruling Likud party, son of the late Israeli PM Menachem Begin, who notably abstained on the vote over the law, told the Knesset it would have been both wiser and more constitutionally sound if the Basic Law had included a specific clause asserting that its provisions do not in any way diminish the legal, social, political or civil rights and equality of Israel’s non-Jewish minority.

Opposition politicians, such as new parliament opposition leader Tzipi Livni, have said the same thing, with Livni suggesting she and her party would likely have supported the law if such a clause had been included in it.

Such a clause would have been advisable even though the new law does not supersede earlier Israeli basic laws which already guarantee these equal rights.

Yet whatever missteps there may have been in creating this law, some perspective is in order. The ongoing national project that is Israel, Jewish and democratic, which existed before the passage of the law, continues unchanged. The partnership between Israel’s Jewish and Zionist majority and its non-Jewish and/or non-Zionist minorities will endure – a necessity for both populations, destined to live together in forging a common future.

Dr. Colin Rubenstein is Executive Director of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC) in Melbourne, Australia. Previously, he taught Middle East Politics at Monash University for many years.

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