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Harmful Revolution: The Nation-State Bill’s Assault on Equality

The Declaration of Independence, Israel’s founding document, states that the country is a “Jewish state.” This is not merely a description of a demographic reality, but a fundamental assertion of identity: a state which expresses the unique characteristics of the Jewish people. Indeed, a Jewish demographic majority exists in both Brooklyn and Beverly Hills, but the Jews in those cities are organized only along familial and communal lines; they do not function as a sovereign group that bears collective responsibility for its actions.

This is why I am an Israeli: I am not satisfied with living in exile, in a neutral space, even if it is inhabited by Jews. I thus aspire to live in a uniquely Jewish space, a nation-state, in which the Jewish people realize their desire for self-determination.

Nevertheless, I object to the harmful bill currently being debated in the Knesset – “Basic Law: Israel – The Nation-State of the Jewish People.” Should it pass, the bill will become the most important piece of legislation in the entire canon of Israeli law, on both a symbolic and practical level. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, who is pushing for the bill’s passage, declared that it is nothing less than a moral and political revolution.

This begs a couple of questions: Why is this bill so important? At whom or toward what is it directed? A survey conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute shows that 80 percent of Israeli Jews believe that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people. It is hard to find another issue that generates such consensus among Jewish Israelis. As such, not only is the bill far from revolutionary, it’s utterly unnecessary.

However, this bill does have one far-reaching purpose. According to existing Basic Laws, the identity of the state is twofold: “Jewish and democratic,” with each of these two components, the particular and universal, equal to the other. If passed, the bill would constitute a breach of this equality, and effectively create an unprecedented hierarchy between Israel’s Jewish and democratic characteristics. In this pecking order, Israel’s Jewish character will be superior to the democratic character of the state.

According to the proposal, Israel’s commitment to democratic values, which has always been clear and unambiguous, is to be pushed aside, to the margins, whenever a conflict between these values and Jewish national values arise. The priority of Jewish values is expressed in dramatic fashion by the bill’s determination that the entire corpus of Israeli law will henceforth be interpreted through the prism of the state’s Jewish character.

The implications of this matter are thus far-reaching and profound. First and foremost, this is a revolution against the Declaration of Independence. As is well known, alongside the statement that Israel is a Jewish state, the country’s founding document asserts that “the state will maintain complete social and political equality for all its citizens regardless of religion, race or gender.” The founding fathers thus promised the entire world that the Jewish national home would behave in accordance with the best, most enlightened aspects of the democratic liberal tradition, committed to equality among all citizens. The current bill is a gross violation of this promise.

As is well known, Israel does not have an American-style Bill of Rights enshrining equality as a constitutional value. Therefore, a reasonable interpretation of this one-sided nation-state bill is that it will make the citizens of Israel, and especially the country’s Arab national minority, vulnerable to equal rights violations as the result of nationalistic legislation.

Second, the proposed bill would be a revolution against the most basic and widely accepted international norms. Many states around the world are nation-states within which reside national minorities. Without exception, these nations assert in their respective constitutions that citizens who do not belong to the dominant nationality will be treated equally. Indeed, the very justification for the existence of the nation-state depends on not discriminating against citizens of other nationalities. The nation-state bill, which does not include any reference to equality, is thus a monumental exception. Should it pass into law, it will undermine the world’s trust in Israel’s democratic form of government and blacken Israel’s reputation in the international community. Last but not least, a nation-state law would serve to oil the gears that make the international BDS movement run.

In 1948, when the very existence of the state was in danger, the Jews of Israel, from across the ideological spectrum, united around the Declaration of Independence and the delicate balance it strikes. We can only hope that the present generation will also be able to unite around a balanced arrangement, one that asserts that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people that guarantees equality for all its citizens.

Yedidia Z. Stern is vice president of the Israel Democracy Institute and a professor of law at Bar-Ilan University

This piece was originally published in the Jerusalem Report.