By Paul Epland
FFRF Editorial Intern
Israel’s newest law exposes the crack in its founding vision, marking a moment when the most fundamentalist factions in the country have succeeded.
This past Thursday, Israel’s legislative body, the Knesset, passed the long-looming “nation-state bill” (an English translation of the legislation is available here, via the Jerusalem Post). The bill, which has been circulating around the Knesset for six years, declares Israel the “nation-state of the Jewish people.” The “Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People”, the full title of the bill, passed through the Knesset by a 62-55 vote with two abstentions. Its classification as a “Basic Law” elevates it to constitutional amendment-like status within Israeli law, guiding Israel’s legal system and becoming more difficult to repeal.
The law stipulates that “[t]he actualization of the right of national self-determination in the state of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.” This sentence, which was tepidly critiqued by major news outlets (The New York Times loves and leans heavily on the word “controversial”), amounts to nothing less than a total erasure of the central tenet of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which states that 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.”
Since Israel has no constitution, its legal system relies on the Basic Laws to enumerate the rights of citizens. This particular Basic Law, however, makes no attempt at maintaining even the illusion of equality under the law, specifying that “the right of national self-determination” is reserved for and “unique to the Jewish people.” Unfortunately, this is not the only part of this new Basic Law that expresses an open hostility toward Israel’s non-Jewish population, which is about 25 percent (over 2 million individuals) of Israel’s citizenry.
In accordance with Israel’s most fundamentalist and racist tendencies, the “nation-state bill” directs its non-democratic thrust at the nearly 2 million non-Jewish Arab citizens of Israel and disregards the rights (and basic existence) of Palestinians. First, the bill downgrades Arabic from an official language to a language with “special status in the state,” affirming Hebrew as the national language and allowing the Israeli government to regulate the use of Arabic within state institutions.
Secondly, and in defiance of international law, the bill reaffirms that “[t]he state views Jewish settlement as a national value and will labor to encourage and promote its establishment and development.” The expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, including the Gaza Strip and Western Golan Heights, has long been the goal of Israel’s occupation and blockading of Palestinian territories. This Basic Law will serve to solidify Israel’s claims that these settlements are legal, despite the international consensus to the contrary. Notably, both Christian and Jewish hardliners still refer to the West Bank, the occupied territories seized by Israel in 1967 during the Six-Day War, as “Judea and Samaria”—a name that emphasizes the area’s role as biblical heartland and divinely-promised homeland for the Jewish people.
The bill comes two months after bloody clashes along the Gaza-Israel border, where Israeli soldiers shot and killed over 60 Palestinian protesters. The ongoing protests are spurred on by the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip—a direct result of the Israeli-Egyptian blockade—which followed the eviction of thousands of Palestinians from what is now the Jewish state. Palestinians demand an end to the blockade and the right to return to their homes, now a part of the ever-increasing land occupied by Israeli settlers.
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This is the grim reality of a religious ethno-state: the rights of religious and racial minorities within the state are increasingly restricted while even more grievous and illegal acts of violence are inflicted on populations deemed to be “external” to the state, a distinction always drawn along racial and religious lines. Cloaked in the banalities of bureaucratic speech, Israeli continues to flout democratic norms, international law, and standards of basic human decency.
As Knesset members Ahmad Tibi and Yousef Jabareen have written, “The law of nationalism is the last nail in the coffin of the so-called Israeli democracy, which has been dying in recent years because of its suffering from chronic racist diseases that have been afflicted with fascism and directed to Apartheid through the legislation of this law.” Tibi and Jabareen, members of the Joint Arab List party, see this Basic Law for what it is: a slap in the face directed at the Arab minority within Israel and the Palestinians in the West Bank, still yearning for a time when they might return to their homes. Israel should not continue to allow its legislative aims to be determined by the ultra-orthodox; for religious minorities within, and subjugated populations without, there is simply too much at stake.