Article Library / Opinion Articles

Two Identity Cards

In 1948, the Israeli identity card was drafted—that is, the Declaration of Independence. Only three years had passed since the end of World War II and the Holocaust, which destroyed a third of the Jewish people. Only six months had passed since the UN declaration on the division of Palestine into two states: Jewish and Arab. On the very same day, the British Mandate for Palestine came to an end, and seven Arab armies attacked the country. At the time, the Jewish community in Israel numbered only 600,000, making up one third of the country’s population. Fierce internal controversy broke out between different factions, almost leading to a civil war. And yet, despite the very challenging circumstances, the founding fathers were able to come to an agreement on the contents of the Declaration which later became a canonical document; a sacred text—to the extent that a secular document can be.

The Declaration of Independence is not a binding legal document. It is a tool to solidify Israeli identity, with educational and cultural value. It constitutes the common denominator and the consensus from which Israelis conduct their struggles over the definition of the State’s identity, and to which they return. So, on the day of the State’s establishment, the rival camps – today we call them “the tribes” – knew full well that their visions of the new state differed and were even contradictory. But they rose above these controversies and managed to stand together in support of a content-rich and inspiring text. They set an example for future generations by demonstrating the possibility of creating an agreed-upon common denominator that contains within it—preferences for different values and identities regarding even what is most precious to each one of them.

Exactly two years ago, the Knesset mobilized to continue conducting the project of defining Israeli identity, and this time—by means of a binding legal document with quasi-constitutional status: Basic Law: Israel, the Nation-State of the Jewish people. Conditions today are immeasurably better than those at the time of Ben-Gurion and his contemporaries: the fragile, one-day-old Israel has been replaced by a well-established, strong, seventy-year-old state. While disputes over Israel’s identity continue to burn bright, we might have expected that in the context of this legislative effort, the generation of today would succeed in repeating the achievement of the Founding Fathers; that it too, would rise above the well-known controversies, in order to make it possible to formulate a legislative identity card that even if, as is generally the case with compromise agreements, it is not the ultimate realization of anyone’s dream, it is also not the realization of anyone’s nightmare. The top driving force for consensus should have been a significant improvement of the situation from everyone’s perspective, while ensuring that the “soul bird” of any one identity group would not be wounded.

Anchoring the state’s identity in legislation which emphasizes that Israel is a Jewish nation-state, is most fitting. The bulk of the sections of the law enjoy widespread agreement. Nevertheless, the passage of the law generated fierce controversy that undermined its educational value. Resentment was greatest on what was perceived by some as the law’s disregard for the obligation of a Jewish nation-state to guarantee equal treatment of non-Jews. Such disregard is in contradiction with the commitment to this obligation in the Declaration of Independence, common practice in all Western nation-states, and Jewish ethics. It should be emphasized: this is not about the majority “doing the minority a favor”, but rather—gives meaning to the identity of the majority—that is, its commitment to equality.

And here’s the good news: A recent survey conducted by the Guttmann Center in the Israel Democracy Institute revealed that less than a quarter of all Israelis (23%) believe that the Nation-State Law should be left as is. A lower percentage (18%) believe that it should be abolished, and the majority (40%) believe that it should be amended to ensure equality – whether directly, by adding an equality clause, or indirectly, by adding a legislative obligation to act in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence, which as noted—guarantees equality for Israel’s national minority. It is fascinating — and for me, encouraging – to discover that those who support leaving the law as is, are a minority among voters for all political parties. Thus, this is the case not only among voters for left-wing voters parties (Meretz and Labor—5%), the Center Party (Blue and White—8%) and the Arab party (the Joint List—16%), but also in right-wing parties (Likud—34%; Yisrael Beiteinu—26%).

The unity government must be attuned to the will of the overwhelming majority of the people and amend the Nation State Law by adding the obligation and moral imperative to act in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence. This is how our two identity cards will be fused: the Jewish and democratic components of our identity as well as the historical and the legislative. All that is required of Knesset members is to put day-to-day politics aside and rise to the unique occasion and opportunity provided to us by this constitutional moment. 

The article was published in the Jerusalem Post.