Israel passed a controversial law on 19th of July, this week that has been floating around the Israeli Knesset (or Parliament)for almost six years. The “Nation-State Bill,” in which the legislation declares that Israel is the historic homeland of Jewish people and that only the Jewish citizens have the right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel.
Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, just after the 70th anniversary of the birth of the state of Israel, said “This is a defining moment in the annals of Zionism and the annals of the state of Israel,” after the bill was enacted early in the morning after hours of thorough debate, just before the Knesset went into summer recess. He also said,“We have determined in law the founding principle of our existence. Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, and respects the rights of all of its citizens.” The law also establishes Hebrew as the official language of Israel and strips Arabic of its designation as an official language alongside Hebrew and has been given a 'special status' despite the nation's sizeable Arab population that primarily speaks Arabic.
Which, if we take a minute to look at the history of Israel seems somewhat justified.
To quote from Charles Krauthammer - The Weekly Standard, May 11,1998
"Israel is the very embodiment of Jewish continuity: It is the only nation on earth that inhabits the same land, bears the same name, speaks the same language, and worships the same God that it did 3,000 years ago. You dig the soil and you find pottery from Davidic times, coins from Bar Kokhba, and 2,000-year-old scrolls written in a script remarkably like the one that in today's date advertises ice cream at the corner candy store."
And according to the available historical information, people of modern day Israel share the same language and culture shaped by the Jewish heritage and religion passed through generations. Thus, Jews have had a continuous presence in the land of Israel for the past 3,300 years. The year 587 BCE marks a turning point in the history of the region. From this year onwards, the region was ruled or controlled by a succession of superpower empires of the time in the following order: Babylonian, Persian, Greek Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine Empires, Islamic and Christian crusaders, Ottoman Empire, and the British Empire. In 1948, the Jewish Community in Israel, under the leadership of David Ben-Gurion,re-established sovereignty over their ancient homeland. Declaration of independence of the modern State of Israel was announced on the day that the last British forces left Israel (May 14, 1948).
A day after the declaration of independence of the State of Israel, armies of five Arab countries, Egypt, Syria, Transjordan, Lebanon, and Iraq, invaded Israel. This marked the beginning of the War of Independence. Arab states have jointly waged four full-scale wars against Israel:
1. 1948 War of Independence
2. 1956 Sinai War
3. 1967 Six Day War
4. 1973 Yom Kippur War
Despite the numerical superiority of the Arab armies, Israel defended itself each time and won. After each war, Israeli army withdrew from most of the areas it captured.
But, while this bill has been discussed in the Knesset for some years now, it seems that this time the Netanyahu government determined itself and changed the draft bill into a basic law, which has caused controversy across Israel, in the Diaspora and in the West with criticism that it will enshrine in a basic law, various forms of discrimination, racism and segregation.
The essential problem with the bill is that it only addresses the Jewish nature of Israel and makes no mention of its democratic underpinnings, of the ethos of equality that has guided it since its foundation, or of the one-fifth of its population that is not Jewish. At the end of the second decade of the 21st century, the ruling coalition plans to backtrack on the values that have enabled Israel to maintain its social diversity and its political vibrancy in the face of continuous threats to its security. While the declaration of the country as a Jewish state “obviously makes sense,” according to Yohanan Plessner, the president of the independent think tank at Israel Democratic Institute,
“The wording of the current bill and the way it was passed is harmful because it does not include the basic tenets and the basic components of the Jewish state as they have been defined over the past 70 years.”
However, by far, the most problematic element in the bill was its ‘separate communal settlement’ clause, which enables segregation based on religion and nationality in housing and planning policies. The clause said,
"The State may permit a community, including the members of a single religion or the members of a single nationality, to establish separate community settlements."
The clause received huge backlash. MK Ya’el German, a member of YeshAtid party, chaired by Yair Lapid, said during the debate in the joint Knesset committee before the vote of 13 March 2018:
“There is an agreement that the State of Israel is the state of the Jewish people, but only alongside the principles of liberty, equality and democracy, the ‘separate communal settlement’ clause can be described with one word: Apartheid.”
The American Jewish Committee, one of the oldest and most prominent Jewish advocacy groups in the United States, said it was "deeply disappointed" by the law, and added that "it put at risk the commitment of Israel's founders to build a country that is both Jewish and democratic." It also said that the clause in the bill saying “the state views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation” could be read as a euphemism for the clause that was removed.
Other than that, the sharpest criticism came from Arab-Israeli legislators and citizens. Yousef Jabareen, a member of parliament for mainly Arab Joint List alliance, said “This is a law that encourages not only discrimination but racism as well. The result of this legislation will be to perpetuate the inferior status of the Arabs in Israel,” as Arabs make up about 20 per cent of Israel’s population of 9 million.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has sought out a compromise on the bill to water down the clause that was viewed as encouraging segregation.
“The state will encourage, establish and strengthen Jewish settlement in a way that will make clear that encouraging Jewish settlement is a legitimate way of implementing the Zionist vision and is not unacceptable discrimination or inequality,” the new clause reads.
Previously, the bill had said that the state may allow communities to maintain separate nationalist or religious communal settlements, as mentioned above.
However, struggling against segregation is not just about one law. It is about the larger struggle for coexistence and having more contact between Israel’s numerous diverse communities. The discussion of the nation-state bill should give impetus to a discussion about how we can bridge gaps in a society and coexist.
The state is a Jewish state, but in its soul, it is also a state where coexistence should be a powerful value. However, what changes will the ‘Nation-State bill’bring out in the relationship between the Jewish citizens and the Arabs is up for question and clearly depends on the people of Israel.