Israel’s “Jewish State” Debate Plays Politics with Essence of Israeli Democracy

November 25, 2014

In recent days, Israel’s Cabinet has engaged in an unedifying debate over a proposed new Basic Law to enshrine Israel’s character as a nation-state of the Jewish people. As Israel lacks a Constitution, Basic Laws are given more weight than other legislation.

J Street is deeply disturbed by reports that some of the proposals appear to make Israel’s democratic character subservient to its Jewish identity. Merely the fact that the Cabinet saw fit to discuss and endorse these drafts sends a damaging message to Israeli citizens, particularly its non-Jewish ones. It tarnishes Israel’s international status and serves those who want to delegitimize Israel by presenting it as racist and nationalistic.

For example, one of the two proposals endorsed by the Cabinet on Sunday – to its shame – would strip Arabic of its status as an officially-recognized language. In other drafts adopted by the Cabinet, democracy does not constitute part of the state’s identity but merely “its form of government.”

We understand that these proposals will probably not make it into law – but they should never have been entertained at all. Just by discussing these ideas, the Cabinet gave them a veneer of legitimacy. We have no doubt that those who proposed them will take encouragement from this and bring them back at some later date.

As people deeply committed and connected to Israel as our Jewish homeland, we understand the challenges that Israel has faced since its establishment in balancing different interpretations of the state’s vision as a democratic and Jewish state. We believe that Israel’s democratic nature is at the core of its success in dealing with such challenges through open dialogue between different sectors.

Furthermore, it is precisely because of our commitment to Israel as a Jewish homeland that we are working to bring about a two-state solution, which is the only way to safeguard Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

Sadly, this bill has become a political football ahead of anticipated elections next year. The basic character and fundamental nature of the State of Israel is much too important to be reduced to sloganeering by politicians seeking a temporary edge in pre-election maneuvering.

We will ultimately judge any law that passes against our own core beliefs – prominently including that democracy is fundamental to the nature of Israel and cannot be compromised.

It is not clear why Israel needs this legislation at all. Its Declaration of Independence states that “the State of Israel 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 its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.”

Why go beyond this? Is there any doubt about Israel’s character as a predominantly but not exclusively Jewish country? Does anyone question its dominant language, religion or culture? Moreover, Israel declared its independence in 1948 based on a resolution of the United Nations that recognized the right of the Jewish people to a homeland. The Law of Return, giving automatic citizenship of Israel to any Jew who seeks it, further enshrines that principle.

In short, this proposed law is unnecessary, ill-judged and damaging to democracy and should be set aside.