Democratic and Jewish, in Accordance with the Principles of Israel’s Declaration of Independence

Jews and non-Jews can reach full consensus regarding the character of the state as Jewish and democratic, without derogating in any way from the state’s uniqueness as the nation state of the Jewish people, and without derogating in any way from the full equality of all of the state’s citizens.

1948 – The Declaration of Independence establishes the democratic and Jewish identity of the State of Israel.

2018 – The Nation State Law establishes the Jewish identity of Israel while disregarding the state’s democratic character.

I was born in the village of Isfiya on Mount Carmel, seven years after Israeli independence was declared, and I became a proud Israeli. I was raised by parents who were born in Eretz Israel-Palestine before the founding of the state. I volunteered for the Paratroopers Brigade and served in the Israel Defense Forces for 26 years, in the full range of command roles. I was proud to be discharged with the rank of brigadier general.

Over the years, I trained and taught generations of combat soldiers and commanders to love the land and the state – a Jewish and democratic state. Twenty years after I left the army, a new law came into the world, the Basic Law: Israel as the Nation State of the Jewish People. The Law was a slap in the face for me and my fellow Druze, and led me, for the first time, at the age of 65, to doubt the full and absolute Israeliness that until then had shaped my life.

The Nation State Law redefined Israel’s identity. Instead of affirming the state’s identity and character as both Jewish and democratic, as defined in the Declaration of Independence, it defined Israel’s character as Jewish, while blatantly disregarding its democratic-egalitarian character. When we compare the Nation State Law to the Declaration of Independence, we clearly see the dangers embodied in this law, both in terms of how Israel’s identity and character are defined, and in terms of the formal existence of a functioning democratic regime.

In my estimation, the Nation State Law represents the legislature’s intention to do away with the egalitarian-democratic framework in which Israel’s egalitarian-constitutional approach to its non-Jewish minority had been embedded. Recent years have, unfortunately, witnessed a growing trend toward anti-democratic legislation, and the Nation State Law is one of its major manifestations. Laws and legislative initiatives at various stages of the process clearly aim to shrink the democratic space; these initiatives include legislation detrimental to minorities, blows to human rights organizations, restrictions on the Supreme Court’s powers, and attempts to undermine freedom of speech and artistic freedom. The current subversion of the value of equality as reflected in the Nation State Law is trampling underfoot the delicate equilibrium between “Judaism” and “democracy” in Israel’s defined identity.

The complexity of a Jewish-democratic state is represented and defined in the Declaration of Independence. The most meaningful “Jewish” characteristic of the state is expressed in the affirmation that “The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles.” The automatic right to citizenship for Jews is a basic tenet of Zionism, and although its formal legal meaning (the Law of Return) refers to the privileging of Jews who are not Israeli citizens, it is also an obviously non-egalitarian attribute of the state.

But alongside this non-egalitarian Jewish characteristic, the same clause of the declaration affirms the principle of equality, that is, the civil-secular democratic foundation of the state. According to this principle, Israel “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.”

The fact that the principle of equality is affirmed in the same context as the Jewish-Zionist principle of Jewish immigration, and as an inseparable part of Israeli citizenship, regardless of ethnicity, religion, or nationality – these are the elements that create integration and balance between a state that privileges Diaspora Jews and a state that provides an egalitarian-democratic framework for all its citizens.

In the face of this masterpiece of integration and balance that is the Declaration of Independence – balance between the Jewish and the universal, and between the religious-national and the secular-civil – a nationalist law has now burst rudely forth, one that purports to redefine the State of Israel’s identity while completely disregarding the democratic principles of equality and minority rights. This is a law that represents an extremist nationalist outlook leaving no room for equitable coexistence with those of other nationalities: this is a state of the Jewish people and of no one else.

Under a democratic regime, the link between equality and citizenship cannot be severed. If there is no equality among all citizens, there is no democracy. There is no partial equality, no greater equality or lesser equality – not in mathematics and not in civics. One cannot say that all citizens are equal but that some citizens are more (or less) equal than others. That exists only in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, and we don’t want to go there. We are fighting not to go there.

The recognition of equality dictates most of the principles that undergird a democratic regime. Even the basic tenets of rule of the people (the literal meaning of “democracy”) and majority rule rest on the idea that we are all equal – since otherwise it would be necessary to take opinions into account and not just tally up votes. Other democratic principles are also rooted in the recognition of equality, including pluralism, tolerance, and the safeguarding of minority, human, and civil rights. All these things are closely tied to the recognition of the basic principle of equality.

Thus, when we, members of the Druze community, undertook to oppose the Nation State Law, we did so in order to defend Israeli democracy and the ideal of equality for all, since equality cannot be just for “some,” or merely partial. And when we fight for the granting of constitutional validity to the Declaration of Independence, we are fighting for the sole possible means of balancing equality and nationalism, and for the sole practical solution to the difficulty of combining “Jewish and democratic” in Israel’s identity definition.

We feel the full force of the insult and the blow struck by the Nation State Law, which undercuts our connection, that of the Druze, to the State of Israel. We have therefore taken it upon ourselves to lead the charge, as Israel is our home and our country, and we dedicate our lives to its protection. We are not guests, nor will we be mercenaries; we are defending our country and our homeland just as every Israeli is supposed to do.

But the demand to annul the Nation State Law and to give constitutional validity to the Declaration of Independence is not a struggle for Druze rights. It should be the struggle of all who believe in democracy and in equality. The demand to annul the Nation State Law in its current form is one that transcends boundaries – between right and left, between religious and secular, between Jews, Druze, Muslims, and Christians. This demand stops only at the threshold of the racism that it combats. Thus, we are not called upon to complete the task, but neither are we free to desist from it. I call upon every citizen of conscience who believes in egalitarian democracy to join the camp of those who demand the Nation State Law’s annulment and the conferral of constitutional validity on the Declaration of Independence. Together we will seek to restore the true Israeliness of all of us, and we will work together to ensure the future of a democratic, egalitarian, and just Israel. That is the secret of the state’s resilience and the pride of all its citizens.

I was privileged to be numbered among a distinguished group of people, including some of Israel’s leading legal scholars, who together drafted an amendment and extension proposal for the Nation State Law. In our estimation, this proposal will be acceptable to all reasonable people to whom Israel is dear – Jews and non-Jews alike.[1] Following are explanatory notes on the proposal:

We, the undersigned, believe with complete faith that the State of Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people. However, we believe that this Basic Law, which establishes the Jewish character of the state, must also give expression to the state’s democratic character, and should therefore be amended. We feel that it would be appropriate for democratic values, first and foremost the value of equality – which is not explicitly mentioned in the State of Israel’s Basic Laws – to be given expression in this Basic Law.

Civil equality for all citizens is the soul of democracy. It is enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, in Halacha, and in the Jewish ethos.

Sensitivity to minority groups exists in all democracies and especially in ethnic nation states, which promise equal rights to all citizens in their constitutions. We feel that the Basic Laws of the state of the Jewish people, who were an oppressed national minority for thousands of years, should display special sensitivity to Israel’s minority groups. This is particularly true with regard to the Nation State Law, which constitutes an important part of the state’s “moral identity card.” It would therefore be appropriate to give the over 20% of the Israeli populace that is not Jewish a sense of partnership in the state. These things, in our view, accord with the duty of fairness and with common sense.

It should be noted that the amendment we propose in no way derogates from or reduces the state’s Jewish-national character. The proposed amendment to the Basic Law is meant to ensure the protection of individual civil equality, not national equality.

We fear that leaving the Basic Law in its present form will have serious consequences in Israel and outside it. The proposed amendment to the Basic Law will not only strengthen the nation state of the Jewish people, but also reinforce the solidarity, social resilience, and stability of Israeli society and of the state.

We call upon the Government of Israel and the Knesset to adopt this proposal.

The proposal notes that the purpose of the law is “to safeguard Israel’s status as the nation state of the Jewish people, in order to anchor in a Basic Law, the State of Israel’s values as a Jewish and democratic state, in the spirit of the principles set forth in the declaration of the establishment of the State of Israel.

The proposal’s main innovation is that it adds to the foundational principles enshrined in the existing law – those referring solely to Jews – the principle of equality for all citizens, formulated thus: “The State of Israel constitutes a home, and upholds equal rights, for all of its citizens.”

It is also proposed that both Hebrew and Arabic be official languages of the state of Israel.

Thus, Jews and non-Jews can reach full consensus regarding the character of the state as Jewish and democratic, without derogating in any way from the state’s uniqueness as the nation state of the Jewish people, and without derogating in any way from the full equality of all of the state’s citizens. All that is required is that we give full and formal expression to what is promised in the Declaration of Independence – a state that is both democratic and Jewish.

Amal Assad is an Israeli Druze Brigadier General (ret.).

[1]The “Legal Scholars’ Proposal to Amend/Extend the Nation State Law” was drafted jointly by the legal scholars Elyakim Rubinstein, Shahar Lifshitz, Amichai Cohen, and Suzie Navot, and by the present author. It was submitted to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2019. Copies were sent to all government minsters and Knesset members.