Speaking on behalf of our hundreds of thousands of leaders and supporters who love Israel and wish for its security and prosperity, J Street wants to express deep sadness, anguish and fear for the future envisioned by the Israeli Knesset through its passage of the “Nation-State Bill.”
The new law asserts the primacy of Jews in the nation at the expense of the equal status of other citizens, and it erodes the very foundation of democracy on which the country was built 70 years ago.
It declares that Hebrew is the only official language of the state — Arabic is stripped of its designation as an official language and downgraded to a language with “special status,” despite the more than 1.5 million Arab citizens that live within Israel’s borders.
The legislation asserts that “the state places national value on the development of Jewish settlement and will act to encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation.” In other words, no such value is placed on the development of minority communities. Though the term “settlement” applies to territory within the borders of Israel, it could eventually be used to justify settlement expansion in occupied territories as well.
There was no need for this legislation: Israel was already a Jewish homeland. Hebrew is unchallenged as the primary language of daily discourse in every sphere of life. And this government – along with every other government in Israel’s history – already gave preference to the development of the Jewish population. Its main purpose appears to be shoring up Prime Minister Netanyahu’s status with right-wing voters ahead of possible elections later this year or next.
Further troubling, this law takes a huge step away from the Israeli Declaration of Independence, which promised that Israel would “foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants … and ensure complete equality of social and political rights.” Notably, the words “equality” and “democracy” do not appear anywhere in the text of the new law. When applied to the ties between Israel and World Jewry, the wording could also be interpreted as downgrading the status of non-orthodox denominations.
Though much of the law’s effect may be symbolic, the overall message to the 20 percent of Israelis who are not Jewish is that they are being allowed to live in Israel on the sufferance of the majority, basically as second-class citizens in the land of their birth.
Israel’s Palestinian minority already faces job discrimination, inferior services and unfair allocations for education, health and housing. This law encourages the majority to believe that this treatment is acceptable and legal. The result will be the further alienation of Israeli Palestinians, with potentially alarming consequences in the future.
Taken together with other recent developments, we see an alarming trend: Israel is pulling back from its commitment to liberal democracy and moving in an increasingly theocratic, authoritarian and xenophobic direction.
For example, just this week police detained a conservative rabbi for performing non-orthodox weddings and a prominent Jewish-American philanthropist was subjected to security questioning at Ben-Gurion Airport after a pro-Palestinian pamphlet was found in his suitcase.
The Netanyahu government has also been working to exert more control over the news media, rein in the independence of the Supreme Court, to curb the activities of left-wing NGOs and to undermine the police amid attempts to thwart or minimize the effect of multiple corruption investigations against the prime minister.
We take a small measure of comfort in the fact that the law narrowly passed the Knesset with only 62 votes in favor, 55 against and two abstentions including Likud member Benny Begin, son of the former prime minister Menachem Begin. There was and is no consensus in Israel for this measure — which keeps alive the possibility that a future government could repeal it.
We also note that the law that passed could have been even worse. A clause stipulating that an applicant to a community could be denied acceptance, for any reason, including reasons of religion and nationality, was removed after President Reuven Rivlin and many others objected to it. Unfortunately, the language that was adopted instead could also result in negative consequences: it could easily be interpreted to allow for further, legalized discrimination in the allocation of resources between Jewish and non-Jewish communities.
This is a sad day for Israel and all who care about its democracy and its future.