Illustration: Tzipi Livni (Image credit: Mark Neyman/Government Press Office of Israel)
INTO THE FRAY: The last week was one of immense sadness for me.
It was a week in which I watched — incredulously — as a savage, mindless and hugely hypocritical attack was launched against a noble ideal to which I have devoted almost my entire adult life: The idea of a sovereign nation-state for the Jewish people in their ancient homeland.
It is an ideal I have cherished and sacrificed for, both personally and professionally, and one whose defense has exacted a heavy toll on me, emotionally and economically.
Vicious vilification of life’s endeavor
I was, therefore, deeply disturbed and distressed at the appalling spectacle of the malevolent, mendacious and moronic assaults on the morality and legitimacy of what has, in many ways, been the focus of my life’s endeavor — a spectacle reflected in the vicious vilification of the recently legislated Nationality Bill, intended to constitutionally anchor the status of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.
Of course, the fact that some uncharitable souls may — justifiably — point out that there is nothing really exceptional in either my endeavor or my sacrifice and that many others can point to considerably more significant ones, does little to diminish my sense of personal outrage and sorrow.
Certainly, some opposition to the bill was to be expected from the openly declared anti-Zionist elements, both domestically (such as the Joint List, the third largest faction in the national parliament, supported by the large majority of Israeli-Arabs) and abroad (such as the usual anti-Israel/pro-BDS voices that regularly challenge Israel’s right to exist as the nation state of the Jews).
What was far more perturbing was the almost Pavlovian participation in the cacophony of the anti-Israel clamor by many from within mainstream Israeli society — including President Rivlin — who one might have reasonably expected to warmly embrace legislation designed to enshrine Jewish sovereignty against attempts to undermine it.
Pernicious & Pavlovian
I use the term “Pavlovian” purposely.
After all, much of the locally sourced opposition appears little more than a reflexive response to any initiative from the Netanyahu-led coalition — the usual instinctive small-minded and mean-spirited knee-jerk reaction from the myriad of Bibi-phobes, in both the political system and civil society, to any and all action undertaken (or not undertaken) by the government under his stewardship.
Even when some expressions of misgivings appear not to be motivated by political or personal partisanship (arguably in the case of former Defense Minister Moshe Arens, MK Benny Begin and former Justice Minister Dan Meridor, all Likud affiliated), opposition to the bill can be shown to be manifestly misguided and misinformed — even assuming it to be well-intentioned.
Perhaps one of the most upsetting aspects of the ill-considered tirade against the bill was the sorry spectacle of former senior security figures, falling over themselves with unbecoming eagerness to prove their bon-ton politically-correct social acceptability by denouncing the legislation. Indeed, one of the most revealing illustrations of this was an excruciatingly embarrassing interview (Hebrew) with former police commissioner by the popular radio personality Erel Segal. When quizzed as to why he, together seven other former commissioners and scores of other high ranking police officers, had signed a petition condemning the law, the hapless former top-cop was forced to admit that he was not really familiar with its contents at all!
Overall, the mainstream media was saturated with hyperbole deploring the Nationality Bill. One well-known law professor literally broke into tears in an emotionally charged radio interview, bewailing what he considered the grave defects of the law, he sallied forth with a stream of pejoratives. He berated the law as “…humiliating, shocking, imbecilic…” and promoting “ racism, discrimination, exclusion and religionization…”
For anyone who actually read the 11 clauses comprising the new law, this is clearly a scandalous misrepresentation of it.
Nonetheless, many in the allegedly loyal Zionist opposition parties seized on this type of delusional rhetoric to join in on the derogatory campaign. Thus, Tzipi Livni, the newly appointed head of the Opposition, dubbed the government “racist” as she was being removed from the debate on the law because of unruly behavior. The “racist” connotation was used repeatedly by other members of the opposition. Indeed, despite their professed allegiance to Zionism and Israel as the nation-state of the Jews, their rhetoric was virtually indistinguishable from that of the most vehement anti-Zionists and the opponents of Israel as the nation-state of the Jews.
It will, undoubtedly, be swiftly seized on by the latter to corroborate their baseless assault on the legitimacy of the Jewish state. So when Benny Begin proclaims that the Nationality Bill “constitutes a free gift for our enemies and detractors…” He has it backwards. It is the uncalled-for denigration of the law by mainstream, allegedly Zionist, personalities that will comprise that insidious “gift.”
Confounding collective national rights with individual civic ones
Most of the ire over the Nationality Bill focuses not on what the bill includes, but on what it does not!
Allegedly, the major defect is that there is no mention of non-Jewish minorities, resident in Israel, of their rights and their equality before the law.
Indeed, it is true that this does not appear in the bill — and neither should it!
After all, the purpose of the bill is to constitutionally define Israel’s national identity and the accompanying collective rights, not the system of governance and individual civic rights. Now, while the latter are undoubtedly a matter of great importance, they have nothing to do with national identity or composition.
After all, numerous countries (such as New Zealand and Japan) choose to govern themselves by various forms of egalitarian democracy, without that having any real impact on their sense of national identity or any sentiment of affinity between them.
Likewise, from the middle of the last century, many countries have undergone far-reaching changes in their systems of government without that changing the composition of the nation or its identity — for example Japan, Italy, Greece, Spain, Portugal, Chile and Argentina. None of these countries underwent any noticeable transformation in their national identity despite the dramatic metamorphism their regime structure underwent.
So, in confounding the collective national rights of the Jewish people with the civic rights of the non-Jewish minorities (i.e. with egalitarian governance), critics do the Nationality Bill — and the nation — a grave disservice. This is particularly true with regard to the Druze community, which, almost by definition, has no national aspirations anywhere in the Middle East, in general and in Israel, in particular.
The patriotic way to ensure civic equality for minorities
Although I know of no case where mistreatment of ethnic minorities — however reprehensible that clearly is — has undermined the claim to national sovereignty of a nation (not the Roma in France, nor Kurds in Turkey, not the Uyghur in China or the Rohingya in Myanmar), this is clearly not the case in Israel.
Indeed, while Israel’s treatment of its non-Jewish minorities is not without blemish, it has by and large, been distinctly benign — particularly when large portions of those minorities are socio-culturally and religiously affiliated with its enemies. Moreover, the situation of Israel’s minorities, in terms of their civic rights, have improved dramatically over the years. After all, despite the brief mention of equal civil rights for all in the Declaration of Independence, which critics invoke ceaselessly as a blueprint for a Nationality Bill they would find acceptable, it should be recalled that immediately after it was penned, for almost two decades, the entire Arab population lived under military rule that severely curtailed its civil liberties.
There is, of course, no real chance of any Israeli government moving to restrict or reduce the civil rights of its non-Jewish minorities. However, even if there was such concern, a far better way to do so would be to pass an additional basic law, say, “Basic Law — Equal Civic Rights.” This would not only be far more effective than a mere insertion of a brief, misplaced declarative reference to civic equality in the Nationality Bill; it would be far more patriotic than raucously denouncing one’s government as “racist” from every available public platform.
Every form of nationalism prioritizes
As a doctrine of collective rights, every instance of nationalism prioritizes one collective’s right over those of another — and in this sense, is discriminatory. So too with Jewish nationalism — i.e. Zionism. The very fact that the national flag bears the Star of David, the words of the national anthem, HaTikvah, refer to “Zion” and “The yearning of a Jewish heart”, and the calendar is structured according to Jewish tradition and Zionist history, constitutes a form of “discrimination” vis-à-vis non-Jewish minorities. It is difficult to imagine that any of these generate — or could generate — a sense of identification by non-Jews — and indeed, it should not be expected of them. However, what can — and must — be expected, even demanded, from any non-Jewish resident, who chooses to live under Jewish sovereignty in a Jewish nation-state, is that they should be respected, challenged and certainly not rejected.
Perhaps the most tangible example of prioritized Jewish national rights is the Law of Return, which permits — with very few exceptions — any Jew (and only a Jew) from anywhere in the world, immediate Israeli citizenship. Thus, any Jewish Israeli citizen can ensure his family abroad rights that any non-Jewish citizen — even a former Druze IDF officer with relatives in Syria — cannot.
It would be intriguing to know whether any of the self–professed Zionist detractors of the law propose annulling the Law of Return in the name of multi-ethnic equality. If so, surely public integrity and morality would compel them to state so openly.
Dangerously disloyal opposition?
In excoriating the Nationality Bill with such unfounded vigor, its opponents have set dangerous precedents. Indeed, they have come perilously close to calling for — or at least condoning — insurrection among the non-Jewish minorities, chiefly the Druze and the Bedouin — neither of which have any aspiration for a nation-state of their own.
There are powerful processes underway, designed to challenge and undermine the very concept that Israel should continue to be the nation-state of the Jews. The Nationality Bill is an important proclamation for those who think it should, that these processes will not be brooked.
Indeed, in many ways, the uproar the Nationality Bill provoked, was in itself the definitive proof of why it was imperative to legislate it. After all, unless one actually believes that somehow, it is “racist” for the Jews to aspire to political independence and national sovereignty, the accusations that the law itself is “racist” are either shamelessly disingenuous or shamefully misinformed.
Hopefully, skillful and resolute management of the discourse on this matter will expose the disingenuous and inform the uninformed.
Martin Sherman is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies.