Word on the Street: The Nation-State Bill

July 31, 2018

Around the world, it’s become increasingly clear that liberal democracy is under attack from the forces of ultra-nationalism, authoritarianism and bigotry.

We see it here in the US, where the Trump administration is doing all it can to demonize minorities, immigrants and the free press.

And we see it in Israel, where last week the Netanyahu government passed major legislation designed to minimize the rights of minorities and undercut the country’s status as a “state for all its citizens.”

The so-called “Nation-State Bill” asserts the primacy of Jews and Jewish rights in Israel, while ignoring and downgrading the rights of other citizens. It strips Arabic of its status as an official state language. And it completely undercuts critical commitments made in the Israeli Declaration of Independence 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.”

Nowhere in this new law do the words “democracy” or “equality” appear. It sends a message to the 20 percent of Israelis who are not Jewish that they are, at best, second-class citizens in the land of their birth.

For all of us who care about these values, this moment must serve as an urgent wake-up call. In Israel, here in the US and around the world, liberal democracy will only survive if we mobilize to fight for it.

This shocking bill is just part of a wave of recent Israeli legislation taking aim at democratic principles and institutions.

One such law aims to stop anti-occupation, human rights groups like Breaking the Silence and B’tselem from addressing students in schools. Another prevents Palestinians in the West Bank from directly petitioning the Israeli Supreme Court about their land ownership claims, adding another level of judicial review in the district courts in a way that buys time for the settlement movement to advance its campaign of creeping annexation.

With their actions, Netanyahu and his right-wing allies are betraying the vision of Israel’s founding fathers and discarding the traditional Jewish commitment to tolerance, equality and justice.

Since Israel’s founding, our shared commitment to democracy has been at the heart of the US-Israel relationship — and a tremendous point of pride for American Jews. Our connection to the Jewish homeland is rooted in the democratic values that are now under dire threat.

For all of us who care about these values, this moment must serve as an urgent wake-up call. In Israel, here in the US and around the world, liberal democracy will only survive if we mobilize to fight for it.

We can fight by condemning these new Israeli laws in the strongest terms possible — and urging others in the Jewish community to do the same. Already, we’ve seen a wide range of groups speaking out — not only among the progressive community, but also from the the Reform and Conservative movements, from centrist groups like ADL, AJC, JFNA and from Jewish organizations in Europe. That needs to continue.

We can fight by forging even deeper ties and partnerships with progressive Israeli allies who are battling to change the direction of their country, to end the occupation and reverse the tide of ultra-nationalism.

We can fight by standing in solidarity with the immigrants, refugees and minority groups that have been targeted here at home by the Trump administration’s bigoted and inhumane policies.

We can fight by doing everything we can to make a massive impact on this fall’s crucial midterm elections — electing a new congressional majority that will act as a powerful constitutional check on the president’s most dangerous anti-democratic actions and impulses. We can support US lawmakers who will challenge and critique the dangerous agenda of the Netanyahu government instead of tacitly enabling it.

This fight is a difficult one. But, as pro-Israel advocates, it’s one of the most important fights of our time. Throwing up our hands and walking away is simply not an option.

The forces of discrimination and tribalism may currently have the upper hand in the US and Israeli governments — but those right-wing leaders do not represent the majority. We do. And it is incumbent on us to stand up and speak out about our values and our vision for Israel and its relationship with both the United States and Jews the world over.

Working together, all of us who believe in democracy, peace and coexistence can and must win out.