Unnecessary and Provocative: Israel’s Nation-State Law

Jewish Light Editorial

It is highly regrettable that the Israeli Parliament approved the controversial Nation-State bill as a Basic Law, which gives it a constitutional status. The bill contains some established Zionistic features which are at best superfluous and some troubling clauses that undermine Israel’s pluralist and democratic character.

Adoption of the measure as one of Israel’s “Basic Laws” — the system that guides the nation instead of a written constitution — enshrines in statute the principle that Israel was created as the nation-state of the Jewish people. It establishes Hebrew as the nation’s official language and asserts Jewish settlement as a national value.

Because the law also downgrades Arabic to a language with “special status,” even though a sizable part of the Israeli population speaks Arabic, it has prompted criticism from the left and the right; it has also won praise from a wide spectrum of opinion among Jewish organizations.

The National Council of Jewish Women called the law “an affront to human dignity and decency.” It explains that view this way:

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“As Jews, and as staunch supporters of Israel, we strongly decry the wrong-headed passage of the nation-state law in Israel. The passage of this unnecessary bill—now enshrined as a Basic Law— is part of a dangerous trend we must, and will, turn around both in the United States and in Israel—the devaluation of fundamental democratic principles that assure the safeguarding and dignity of all people.”

On the opposite side from the NCJW and various other liberal-leaning groups, like the Union for Reform Judaism, is Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America. He warmly welcomed passage of the bill, with this rationale:

“This law enshrines 2,000 years of Jewish prayers and the noble Zionist mission of re-establishing Israel as the Jewish homeland—a haven where Jews can defend themselves from centuries of horrific violent anti-Semitic attacks in European and Arab nations—and live as a free people in their own, indigenous, G-d-given and U.N. given—legally designated land. The law merely reflects the raison d’etre of Israel.”

An op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal last week by Eugene Kontorovich, a scholar at the Kohelet Policy Forum, supported the bill from a governmental standpoint saying:

“There is nothing anti-democratic or even unusual about this. Among European states, seven have similar “nationhood” constitutional provisions.”

The Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis issued a statement that brings together the various positions, for and against the controversial bill. It encourages members of the Jewish community and other supporters of Israel to read the official text of the bill. It also points to official statements issued by other organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League, which notes that there are positive provisions in the nation-state bill and others that are more problematic.

Those who label the new law as unnecessary are right on target. Most of the reasonable clauses in the bill simply codify as Basic Law common-sense Zionist principles—nationhood for the Jewish people, making “Hatikvah” the official national anthem, and designating Jerusalem as its official capital and its status as the “national home of the Jewish people.”

Such provisions were already part of Israel’s eloquent Proclamation of Independence and can be traced back to the Balfour Declaration of 1917. Under that doctrine, the United Kingdom, which then headed the Mandate government of Palestine, recognized the right of the Jewish people to establish a Jewish National Home in Palestine, which would assure rights to the non-Jewish inhabitants of the land, the Arabs.

We question why supporters of the divisive Nation-State bill pushed it through at a time when Jewish unity with Israel is more important than ever, and more difficult to attain. By now, everyone knows that Israel is a Jewish State. Why stir up a pot of outrage that hardly needs more stirring?

Besides, as Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a think tank in Tel Aviv, told The Wall Street Journal, the broad language in the law is not likely to result in any real changes any time soon. “So far it has mainly symbolic effect,” he said. Still, he added, it could “drive a wedge between the State of Israel and its non-Jewish citizens.’”

The current situation hardly needs any more wedges. Now that the bill has become a Basic Law, the Israel High Court and appropriate Knesset committees should review it and remove unnecessarily provocative language. The whole controversy could have been averted if the nation-state bill had been withdrawn. Since it was not, we hope it gets the close scrutiny—and modification— it needs in its present poorly drafted form, to limit the ill will that it is certain to cause.