Week 17: Nation-State Law

On May 1, 2018, the Knesset passed the Nation-State law (officially Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People) in its first reading. As we approach the anniversary of this passage, we as a Kumi Community want to analyze this law and what it means for Palestinians and other minorities in Israel. Here’s what you need to know and what you can do so that together we can rise up.

Topic: Nation-State Law

To understand the passage of the Nation-State Law and its implications for the future, you need to understand some context:

First, that Israel as a nation was founded with a declaration of independence, but its constitution was only developed over the time through a series of Basic Laws. The Basic Laws, passed over the course of decades, were intended to be the basis, or draft, of a future, still unwritten, constitution. Until the writing of that constitution, the Basic Laws act as a sort of de facto constitution (In 1992 the President of the Supreme Court declared them the actual constitution, making them de jure according to the Supreme Court, although many people still push for an single constitution written by the Knesset). This series of laws (between 11 and 14, prior to the Nation-State Law, depending on whether or not you count laws that have been made null and void, and the 2014 Referendum, which is not always included in lists of the Basic Laws) outlines everything from the structure of the government, to the operation of the military, the regulation of the economy, the use of public lands, employment rights, and human rights and liberties. 

Second, the goal of the Nation-State Law was to explain and codify what is meant by the phrase “Jewish and democratic state,” which occurs twice in the previous Basic Laws. The law has been in the works since at least 2011, when it was first introduced to the Knesset, and really much longer, as politicians have for years been calling on the Knesset to clarify its national character as a state, as no such statute or provision has ever been passed. 

Third, the final passage of the law was a vote of 62 in favor, 55 against, and 2 abstentions. While it is a vote that makes the law entirely legal under Israeli law, where there is no super-majority requirement to pass basic, or constitutional, laws, it is important to realize that there is not overwhelming support for the necessity of the law or what is contained in the law. 

Fourth, to understand and critique a law, you must know what is in it. The law itself is a mere three-pages long, and should be read in full.  In addition to declaring “The State of Israel is the nation state of the Jewish People,” it also defines such items as the national flag, anthem, and holidays. And it contains the following pronouncements, which have drawn the most concern:

  • “The exercise of the right to national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish People.”  
  • “Jerusalem, complete and united, is the capital of Israel.”
  • “Hebrew is the State language … The Arabic language has a special status in the State …”
  • “The State views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value …”

Proponents of the law argue that it is primarily symbolic, reiterating points made through the Basic Laws and clarifying much that is already taken for granted. We know, for example, that the name of the state is “Israel,” that the national anthem is “Hatikvah,” that the Knesset has declared Jerusalem the capitol of Israel, so on and so forth. Einat Wilf, an Israeli politician and early supporter of the law, stated in a round table discussion, “There’s nothing in the law that would explain the furor and the controversy.” And argues, “One of the key issues that really needs to be understood is how little there is in the law, and because there is so little how much people project their own biases into that, essentially, blank slate.”

However, at the same time, Chairman of the House Committee, Amir Ohana, has stated, “This is the law of all laws. It is the most important law in the history of the State of Israel” and while everyone has human rights, “national rights in Israel belong only to the Jewish people.” And Minister Yariv Levin has stated that it is “Zionism’s flagship bill” and will “put Israel back on the right track.” It, of course, can’t be both ways: it can’t be a purely symbolic law that reiterates what is already known and has no effect on Palestinians and minorities in Israel, while at the same time being an important law that will direct and invigorate the Zionist nature of Israel.  

Similarly, proponents of the law argue that the bill doesn’t do anything that other countries don’t. Eugene Kontorovich, for example, in the same panel discussion, states: 

If you look at the constitution of every Arab country, if you look at the constitution of the state of Palestine, which says it is an Arab country, it is a Palestinian country, Arabic is the language, Islam is the religion … If you look at European constitutions, if you look at constitutions around the world, every provision is going to be found there. So to say that provisions that are found in constitutions around the world—nobody says they’re racist when they’re in the Palestinian constitution, and no one says they’re racist when they’re in the Spanish constitution or the Irish constitution, but when you put it in the Jewish constitution it’s racist? That itself is an act of racism against the Jews.

However, Peter Beinart counters: 

Proponents of the law are trying to have it both ways. On the one hand you say “This is just about Jewish self determination” … but the whole point of course is that there is no state of Palestine, and that Israel does not have defined borders. So it’s one thing to say “We’re going to … pass a law about Jewish self-determination when Palestinians also have self-determination.”

But remember Israel has not defined its borders. And the vast majority of people pushing this bill do not ever want to see a Palestinian state exist … So the vast majority pushing this bill are from Likud and the right, people vehemently opposed to any existence of Palestinian national self-determination, and people who believe the borders of Israel should essentially run from the river to the sea. That’s very important to understand when you see in the bill phrases like “the right to exercise national self-determination is uniquely that of the Jewish people.” 

It’s one thing if you’re saying that inside the Green Line, it’s another thing if that’s being pushed by a whole series of politicians that believe that includes the West Bank too. Or a phrase that says “The state views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and shall encourage and promote it.” Does that include the settlements in the West Bank? For most of the people who pushed this law, absolutely it does.

Naim Ateek, in his theological analysis of of the law, echoes this point, writing: 

The Nation-State law begins with: “The Land of Israel is the historical homeland of the Jewish people in which the state of Israel was established.”

What do we mean by “the land of Israel?” Many people might not be aware of the Talmudic religious meaning of this name. According to the Talmud, the Land of Israel includes not only today’s Israel and Palestine but also the whole of Sinai, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and parts of Turkey. Furthermore, in all Talmudic interpretations, the land of Israel includes Cyprus.

By not identifying specific boundaries, it stands to reason that the writers of the law intended to keep it vague, fluid, and open to expansion. It is also clear from the wording that the Land of Israel is larger than the state of Israel.” 

And he points out that while the law defines with great specificity such details as the anthem, name, and national language of the country, it fails to define the borders of the Land of Israel, the state of Israel, and the city of Jerusalem. Ateek also points out the inherent hypocrisy between Israel’s Declaration of Independence (the basis for its admittance in the United Nations, yet a document that has never been upheld) and the Nation-State Law which, quite intentionally, leaves equal rights out of its language: 

Its Declaration of Independence … states in part: “The State of Israel … will promote the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; will be based on the precepts of liberty, justice and peace taught by the Hebrew Prophets; will uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of race, creed or sex; will guarantee full freedom of conscience, worship, education and culture; will safeguard the sanctity and inviolability of the shrines and Holy Places of all religions, and will dedicate itself to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations … we … call upon the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to return to the ways of peace and play their part in the development of the State, with full and equal citizenship and due representation in its bodies and institutions—provisional or permanent.”

Actually, Israel has never applied its Declaration of Independence; nevertheless, twice in the Declaration the words “full equality” are mentioned: “will uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens… ” Later on, in a clear reference to the Arab inhabitants of the state it reads, “… and play their part in the development of the State, with full and equal citizenship… ”

In light of these words from the Declaration of Independence, and in light of the new Nation-State law, the pertinent question is whether the new law has changed the character of the state of Israel.” 

Furthermore, it is impossible to take supporters of the law at face value and  believe that it treats minorities fairly and equitably when, first of all, several moderate politicians who had expressed early support for the bill pulled that support when it was clear that the bill would not enshrine equal rights as part of Israel’s national character and when, secondly, the Druze, who serve in the military and generally support Israeli nationalism, overwhelmingly came out against the law, upset that it renders them second-class citizens (See, for example, here).

Finally, let us not forget that even the more promising Basic Laws are often ignored or contravened when it comes to Palestinians. For example, the Human Dignity and Liberty Basic Law includes such provisions as:

  • “The purpose of this Basic Law is to protect human dignity and liberty… ”
  • “There shall be no violation of the life, body or dignity of any person as such.”
  • “There shall be no violation of the property of a person.”
  • “There shall be no deprivation or restriction of the liberty of a person by imprisonment, arrest, extradition or otherwise.”
  • “There shall be no entry into the private premises of a person who has not consented thereto.”

We need not analyze here the many ways in which Israel has failed to live up to these provisions, as examples thereof are contained throughout this book.

But it is this law, as well as the declaration of independence, that the Supreme Court had in mind when, in early 2019, it announced that it will hear arguments on the law, focusing on its legality, primarily with regard to whether it upholds the human rights guarantees. The overturning of the law by the Supreme Court would be good first step, although more ideal would be a legislative solution from the Knesset that revised the law, respecting the rights of Israel’s minorities. 

Through the week, Kumi Now will publish essays and stories from different organizations and writers further exploring these implications of the Nation-State Law and highlighting what they are doing to fight it.

Story: “Israel Doesn’t Want to Be My State” by Sayed Kashua

We were driving our rental car out of Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv. “Dad,” my oldest daughter said as we listened to the radio, “what’s the Nationality Law?”

“It’s a law that says Israel is a Jewish state,” I replied.

“But wasn’t it always that way?” she wondered, and rightly so.

“Yes. Bottom line, it’s always been that way.”

“I don’t get it,” my middle son said. “I thought you said we were citizens.”

“We are,” I answered.

“But we’re not Jewish, right?”

“No, we’re not.”

“Then I don’t get it,” my youngest son complained.

“It’s a little complicated,” I tried to explain. And it really was complicated to explain the law that Israel’s Parliament passed earlier this month without using terms like “racial segregation,” “discrimination,” and “supremacy.” How was I going to explain to a 12-year-old that he is a citizen of a state that holds that he is inferior because of his non-Jewish origins? “Not everyone in the country is Jewish,” I said. “At least 20 percent of the citizens are not. But it’s a country where Jews enjoy rights that others don’t have. Meaning, non-Jews are less equal than Jews.”

“Can’t we be Jewish then?” my youngest son asked, as if he’d instantly solved the inequality problem.

“Sorry,” I told him, “that’s not up to me. According to Israeli law, in order to be Jewish you have to have a Jewish mother. So it’s not my fault; it’s your mom’s.”

“Great,” my wife protested, “now you’re shouldering me with your children’s inequality?”

Sayed Kashua is a Palestinian writer from Israel. He has written such books as Native: Dispatches from an Israeli-Palestinian Life and Second Person Singular, while his novel Dancing Arabs was adapted for a film. He used to be a columnist for Haaretz. This story is excerpted from the article “Israel Doesn’t Want to Be My State,” published in the New York Times.

Kumi Action

It is not too late to enshrine the equality of all Israeli citizens within its basic laws. And yet, members of the Knesset have been barred from even considering the possibility. The proposed “Basic Law: State of all its Citizens” would do just this, but the Knesset rule makers have decided just a bill would challenge the belief that Israel is a state for the Jewish people. You can read more about the proposed bill here.

Then, post this question on social media: Why does Israel continue to reject passing the law called Basic Law: State of all its Citizens which calls for Israel to treat all its citizens equally? You could also quote the “outrageous” ideas contained in the bill, such as 

  • “The State is a state for all its citizens, and its government is a democratic government.”
  • “The State respects the individual and collective identity of Its citizens on an egalitarian basis, without discrimination on grounds of nationality, race, religion, gender, language, color, political outlook, ethnic origin or social status.”
  • “Citizenship in the state is based on the principle of equality and the prohibition of discrimination”
  • “The Arabic language and the Hebrew language are the official languages of the State.”

Include a link to this page of the Kumi Now website along with the hashtags #KumiNow and #Kumi17.

Literature: “Apartheid in the Holy Land” by Desmond Tutu

On one of my visits to the Holy Land I drove to a church with the Anglican bishop in Jerusalem. I could hear tears in his voice as he pointed to Jewish settlements. I thought of the desire of Israelis for security. But what of the Palestinians who have lost their land and homes?…

My heart aches. I say why are our memories so short. Have our Jewish sisters and brothers forgotten their humiliation? Have they forgotten the collective punishment, the home demolitions, in their own history so soon? Have they turned their backs on their profound and noble religious traditions? Have they forgotten that God cares deeply about the downtrodden?

Israel will never get true security and safety through oppressing another people. A true peace can ultimately be built only on justice. We condemn the violence of suicide bombers, and we condemn the corruption of young minds taught hatred; but we also condemn the violence of military incursions in the occupied lands, and the inhumanity that won’t let ambulances reach the injured.

The Nobel Peace Prize recipient, the Most Reverend Desmond Tutu, is a South African Anglican cleric and theologian known for his work as an anti-apartheid and human rights activist. From “Apartheid in the Holy Land,” published in the Guardian.

Additional Resources

We have a YouTube playlist with videos about the Nation-State Law.

Image Credits

Coming soon