There are some good reasons why Israel’s Knesset should not have passed the controversial nation-state law.
The offense taken to it by the country’s non-Jewish minorities created an unnecessary argument with people whom the country should be seeking to befriend rather than antagonize.
The new law will also put more wind in the sails of anti-Zionists who continue to spread the smear that Israel is an “apartheid state.” By not also mentioning that Israel is a democratic country that guarantees equal rights for all its citizens, the new law appears to downgrade democracy to something less important than reaffirming the state’s Jewish identity.
Yet both of those points remind us that arguments against the legislation seem mainly to revolve around a desire to avoid the discussion about whether Israel is or has the right to be the nation state of a particular group rather than the state of all its citizens. Though most of the law’s Jewish critics say they have no problem with Israel being an openly Jewish state, they still appear to view this avowal with some trepidation.
The nation-state bill changes nothing about the way Israel is governed. Nor does it take away the rights of any of its citizens. That’s because Israel has been a Jewish state since the moment of its birth when David Ben-Gurion read the country’s Declaration of Independence and declared “the establishment of a Jewish state in the land of Israel, to be known as the State of Israel.”
The Declaration guaranteed equality and democracy. But the omission of those words from the nation-state bill doesn’t mean that they are forgotten, since other basic laws maintain that promise. To criticize this law for not saying what other laws do is like blasting one article of the U.S. Constitution for not defending rights enumerated elsewhere in the
The parts of the nation-state law that discuss issues like holidays, symbols, the flag, and the right of Jews to settle in their ancient homeland are not by themselves especially controversial. What is so troublesome about it is that it reminds us of the crux of the century-old conflict over
A country that is not solely the state of its citizens but the patrimony of an ethno-religious community strikes some in the West as inherently racist. But Israel is hardly alone in seeing itself as a nation whose primary purpose is to allow one people to express its national identity. The only thing that is unique about the country is that it is the only Jewish state on a planet with dozens that are avowedly Muslim, Christian, or associated with another faith.
There is nothing offensive about that unless you happen to think the Jews deserve to be denied basic rights of settlement, sovereignty, and self-defense in their own country — rights that no one would think of denying to anyone else. That is why anti-Zionist bias is indistinguishable from anti-Semitism.
The State of Israel already treated all the provisions of the nation-state bill as both custom and law before it was passed. They remain points of contention only because the country’s foes — including a BDS movement dedicated to its destruction — continue to argue against the existence of a Jewish state. Those inside or outside Israel who think Zionism is racism or apartheid have no more ammunition today than they did before the bill was passed. If many Israelis believed the law was necessary, it’s because the law is linked to the refusal of the Palestinians and their foreign enablers to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter how its borders were drawn.
The new law may not help burnish Israel’s image among those who have no sympathy for expressions of nationalism — no matter how closely tied they might be to a nation that is the only democracy in the Middle East — or the rights of a small people that suffered exile and persecution for two millennia. But the desire of so many to deny Israel the right to express its Jewish identity is exactly why a majority of the Knesset thought they should reaffirm that their country is and will always be the nation-state of the Jewish people. That is a right decent people everywhere should support.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS.org and a contributor to National Review. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.