MKs Stav Shafir (Zionist Union) and Tamar Zandberg (Meretz) (Image credit: Saar Yaacov/Government Press Office of Israel)
INTO THE FRAY: Israel will only be democratic if it is Jewish—and it will only be Jewish if it is Zionist. Therefore, it will only be democratic if it is Zionist, i.e. if it is the nation-state of the Jewish people.
[A] nation is the culmination of a long past of endeavors, sacrifice, and devotion…The nation is a soul, a spiritual principle. Two things...constitute this soul or spiritual principle. One is the possession in common of a rich legacy of memories; the other is present-day consent, the desire to live together, the will to perpetuate the value of the heritage that one has received.
Ernest Renan, “What is a Nation?” 1882
After a stormy passage of well over half a decade, the Nationality Bill, defining Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, was finally passed into law by the Knesset as a Basic Law of the land—by a vote of 62 against 55.
However, as positive as this development might appear to some, it should be a matter of deep concern to the citizens of this country that almost half the members of the nation’s parliament voted AGAINST (!) the bill.
Puerile, preposterous and pernicious objections
Of course, among the 55 opponents were the 13 members of the anti-Zionist Joint List, composed of a motley assortment of smaller, mainly Arab factions—from left-wing communists to Muslim fundamentalists, who openly reject the existence of Israel as the nation-state of the Jews. This, of course, is to be expected of them. After all, this rejection is, in large measure, the underlying raison d’etre for the party’s very existence.
But what was far more inexplicable, unacceptable and inexcusable is the fact that over 40 self-professed “Zionist” MK’s voted against the bill—including the perversely named Zionist Union, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, and the left-wing Meretz faction.
Their arguments (read “excuses”) for doing so ranged from the puerile, through the preposterous, to the pernicious.
To a man (and woman), they claimed that they strongly believed that Israel should be the nation-state of the Jewish people, but believed—apparently just as strongly—that they should not say so.
Thus, for example, MK Elazar Stern of Yesh Atid (himself a former IDF general!), made the breathtakingly and brazenly unfounded accusation that this bland—almost self-evident document for any self-respecting Zionist—would harm Druze and Bedouin citizens, declaring “the Nationality Bill is poking a finger in the eye of our Druze and Bedouin brothers, who serve by our side in the IDF and in the security services.”
Of course, it does nothing of the sort and I would challenge MK Stern to identify a single clause in the Nationality Bill that—barring some farfetched, tortuous and contrived interpretation—even vaguely suggests such a conclusion.
However, as detached from the actual bill as Stern’s claim is, it does give anti-Israel agitators, who seek to dissuade Druze and Bedouin from such service, ample ammunition to further their case. Way to go, Elazar!
Providing grist for the mills of vehement Judeophobes
With infuriating moralistic pomposity, Stern sallies forth: “Nationalism is based on love; jingoism is rooted in hate. So [Druze and Bedouin] IDF soldiers, serving and dying for this country will be transformed into enemies”—thus, incredibly, providing a clear rationale for disloyalty on the part of Israel’s non-Jewish citizens. This from a former IDF general?
MK Tamar Zandberg, head of the radical Meretz faction went even further in her scandalous anti-bill vitriol, lamenting: “This is a painful and shameful night…a contaminated and polluted Basic Law was passed that is nothing but shady political collusion between Bibi and [Naftali] Bennett. According to this law, Zionism is no longer a national movement that built a home for a persecuted people, but coercive and belligerent jingoism, based on a sense of racial superiority”.
This is, at once, an appalling and outrageous misrepresentation of the law. Indeed, I would urge readers to scrutinize the bill for any hint of “racial superiority” as opposed to “Jewish distinctiveness.” Sadly however, no matter how misleadingly mendacious MK Zandberg’s mischaracterization of the bill is, it will doubtlessly be seized upon, with grateful glee, by the most vehement detractors of Israel, as grist to grind in their Judeophobic mills.
Zandberg’s colleague, MK Michal Rozen, was not far behind in her deceitful drivel, charging: “This right wing government is destroying the values of the State of Israel and its Declaration of Independence.” Then, fueling the falsehoods and fabrications of the modern day anti-Israel blood libel, she added: “Soon it will be official—Arab citizens of Israel will be second-class citizens. The Nationality Law is the direct continuation of racist policies that discriminate against minorities in Israel.”
Bill reflects clear intent of Declaration of Independence
Of course, Rozen and others of her disingenuous ilk could not be more wrong.
For, by and large, the Nationality Bill mirrors the substance and certainly, the spirit of, the Declaration of Independence which is a robust assertion of Jewish national rights with a brief reference to the civic rights of non-Jewish minorities.
Thus, in the Declaration of Independence, the word “right(s)” is mentioned ten times—nine of which refer to the collective right of the Jews/ Jewish people. Only once does it refer to the individual civic rights of “all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.”
Clearly then, the Declaration is an unequivocal affirmation of national rights as the sole prerogative of the Jews, while committing to uphold the individual civic rights of non-Jewish minorities.
Any other interpretation is incompatible with its text—and certainly with the context in which that text was formulated.
The Nationality Bill is merely a legal blueprint for implementing the clearly stated intent of the Declaration. Any other interpretation is grossly misleading. For it does little more than declare that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, that it should maintain ongoing contact with, and concern for the security of, Jewish communities abroad and mandates that public life in Israel be conducted in a manner that reflects the Jewishness of the state—in its flag, symbols, calendar and ceremonies.
The question of Arabic
The Bill has 11 clauses—one of which stipulates that, as a Basic Law, it requires 61 (out of 120) votes to change it; 8 of the remaining clauses deal with the issues set out in the preceding paragraph; and one calls for the government to foster Jewish settlement—which was always the essence of Zionism.
The remaining clause relates to Language, and stipulates that Hebrew alone will be the official language of the land. True, in so doing, it annuls the 1939 British mandatory decree making Arabic an official language. (English was removed as an official language in 1948.) However, the Bill does clearly stipulate that Arabic will have special status in the country and that no steps will be taken to undermine its current practical standing.
Geez! How xenophobic can you get!
Interestingly, there was no outcry over the status of Russian in Israel—although around 20% of the population is reportedly fluent in the language. No demand for “special status” here. Nary a peep! Hmmm, I wonder why.
Could it be that those who do not reject the idea of Israel as the nation-state of the Jews have no need for linguistic autonomy to integrate into Israeli society?
Arab rejection of Zionism
Of course, what those clamoring to exploit this question of Arabic as proof of the coercive jingoistic nature of the Nationality Bill overlook or ignore, is that the Arab sector in Israel is not merely another non-Jewish ethnic minority.
Indeed, not only does it have strong cultural and religious affinity to Israel’s enemies, but several of its elected officials openly identify with them and have even collaborated with them. Indeed, although the majority of Israeli-Arabs have not been actively disloyal to the Jewish state, as a collective, they harbor deep resentment to Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.
This is no unsubstantiated xenophobic allegation.
To the contrary, it is clearly reflected in their voting patterns, particularly in the 2015 election, where well over 80% of Israeli-Arabs cast their vote for the stridently anti-Zionist Joint List, which, as mentioned, is composed of diverse, mainly Arab factions—from Communists to Islamists—united only by their opposition to Israel as the nation-state of the Jews.
A constant refrain of the Bill’s opponents is that Israel is already the nation-state of the Jews in every practical sense, so why “rock the boat” by passing a law that may annoy those who are uncomfortable with the idea? Of course, the answer to that is simple: If you believe that Israel is the nation-state of the Jews, why refrain from articulating that belief simply because others believe it should not be!
Indeed, the very fact that a party, which explicitly rejects the fundamental essence of the Declaration of Independence, is today the third largest party in the Knesset, is, in itself, a powerful argument in favor of anchoring the substantive content of that Declaration in law.
A nation is not an accident of geography
What the critics of the Nationality Bill appear unable to acknowledge is that a nation is more than a random amalgam of individuals, bound by no more than the accident of their current geographical location.
Indeed, as the introductory excerpt, cited from the works of Ernest Renan, one of the leading liberal philosophers on the nature of nations, nationality and nationalism, underscores, the most essential element of nationhood is a spiritual bond and sense of fellow-feeling.
In similar vein, John Stuart Mill in his 1861 seminal treatise, “On Representative Government”, stipulated that a portion of mankind may be said to constitute a nation if its members “are united among themselves by common sympathies which do not exist between them and any others—which make them cooperate with each other more willingly than with other people, desire to be under the same government, and desire that it should be government by themselves.”
Mill also specified what might constitute this sense of allegiance or “fellow-feeling.”
While he acknowledges that “the effect of race and descent... [c]ommunity of language, and... religion [may] greatly contribute to it,” this is not the most important parameter.
For Mill, “the strongest [element] of all is identity of political antecedents; the possession of a national history, and consequent community of recollections; collective pride and humiliation, pleasure and regret, connected with the same incidents in the past.”
The sine-qua-non of democracy
Mill then went on to map out the causal nexus that needs to prevail between this sense of allegiance (i.e. “common sympathies” or “fellow-feeling”) and the feasibility of democratic institutions in a given country: “Free institutions are next to impossible in a country made up of... a people without fellow-feeling [where] the united public opinion, necessary to the working of representative government, cannot exist.”
So, consider for a moment, a single “incident in the past,” say the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. The Jews see this as their War of Independence and celebrate it as a source of collective pride and pleasure; while the Arabs, including those within the Green Line, see it as a nakba (catastrophe) and commemorate it as a source of collective regret and humiliation.
Little analytical acumen is needed to conclude that given the diametrically opposing collective narratives, there is scant chance of generating the required “fellow-feeling” to create “the united public opinion, necessary to the working of representative government,” thus making “free institutions...next to impossible.”
After all, the recent history of this region has shown, even in countries where the ethnic diversity is far less than that between Jew and Arab in Israel, only the iron fist of tyranny can maintain law and order and prevent the country descending into the horrors of Hobbesian chaos.
If Israel is not Jewish…
Indeed, as I have explained elsewhere, in some detail, unless Israel can robustly retain its overwhelmingly dominant Jewish character, it will lose its attraction both for Jews currently resident here—and as a potential abode for Jews living elsewhere.
Accordingly, as emigration increases and immigration declines, the composition of the population will begin to resemble that of the surrounding countries—and so will its socio-political fabric.
So, what the critics of the Nationality Bill should recall is that across the Mid-East—from Casablanca to Kuwait—there is no semblance of any liberal democratic state. Accordingly, for Israel to be democratic, it must be Jewish; but to be Jewish it must be Zionist. Thus, inevitably, to be democratic it must be Zionist—i.e. the undisputed nation-state of the Jewish people.
Hopefully, the brouhaha over the Nationality Bill does not signal a growing lack of awareness of this crucial political truth—and the weakening of Jewish national will.
Martin Sherman is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies