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Israel’s nation state law backlash is what Netanyahu wanted

20 July 2018

4:34 PM

20 July 2018

4:34 PM

One of the joys of a world seized by identity politics is that everyone wants to let you know their self-identification: Israel identifies as a Jewish state and has passed a Basic Law explicitly saying so. 

The law is, as a millennial might say, problematic, even if most of it is uncontroversial. It defines the name, flag, emblem and anthem of the state. The Hebrew calendar will still be the official calendar and Yom Ha’atzmaut will continue to be the annual national holiday. Jews will go on having the right to observe Saturday as their day of rest and non-Jews to observe their day of rest. Clause five recommits the state to promoting Jewish immigration while clause seven defines Jewish settlement as ‘a national value’ and says that Israel ‘will labour to encourage and promote its establishment and development’. These twin principles are nothing new: the right of Jews to migrate to and settle the Land of Israel has been recognised in international law since the League of Nations’s 1922 mandate for Palestine

So what is the trouble with the Nation-State law? The answer lies in clause 1(c) which reads:

‘The actualisation of the right of national self-determination in the state of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.’

That has been misread to mean only Jews have a right to self-determination in Israel. But ‘the Jewish people’ does not refer to Jews as individuals but to the Jewish nation — Am Yisrael — and says that other nations cannot realise their national ambitions inside Israel. 

Israel is not the only country with such a provision. The Spanish constitution, for example, ‘is based on the indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation, the common and indivisible homeland of all Spaniards’ and declares that ‘national sovereignty belongs to the Spanish people’. 

The wording of Israel’s Basic Law prevents a nation other than the Jewish nation making Israel its state. This in itself is hardly controversial: UN General Assembly resolution 181 endorsed the creation of a ‘Jewish state’ while the Israeli declaration of independence committed to ‘re-establishing in Eretz-Israel the Jewish State’. Serving as the national homeland of the Jewish people is the point of Israel. Arabs have 22 states; Jews have only one. However, by denying other forms of ‘national self-determination’, the law arguably shuts down the opportunity for Arab Israelis to achieve, for example, an autonomous Arab region within Israel (something the Spanish constitution does afford the Catalans). This kind of political devolution isn’t part of the Israeli public policy conversation, among either Jews or Arabs.

Left-wing Israeli groups and some political and religious organisations in the diaspora have criticised the language of the Basic Law, as well as the Likud party’s electoral motivations for passing it. Indeed, you don’t need to be a dai-la-kibush leftist to object to Benjamin Netanyahu’s cynicism in pushing the law, to cringe at its wording, or to wonder if Israel has a kink for being denounced and isolated. To the extent such a law was necessary, it could have drawn on the independence declaration to say something like this: ‘The State of Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people and their right to national self-determination in the state is inalienable. The state will also ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex and guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.’

On the question of language, though it has been overlooked by many, clause four is the most insidious of all. Where Hebrew and Arabic had been the co-official languages of Israel, Hebrew will from now on be the state-recognised tongue; Arabic will merely be assigned ‘special status’. Because the law also specifies, contradictorily, that the status of Arabic will not change, the effect will be more symbolic than practical. But symbolism matters and the 21 per cent of Israelis who are Arabs have now been told that their language is no longer as respected as it was. It will surprise some that Arabic was an official language of Israel for the past 70 years and that’s the primary menace of this law: it deprives Israel of those pleasant surprises that regularly confounded its enemies. 

There is a broader context in which the Nation-State law must be viewed, that of Israel’s foreign policy and positioning. The Jewish State has always been pragmatic, taking friends where it could find them, but it had an implicit preference for the West. Israelis fly the Stars and Stripes on July 4th; their parliamentary system is a Middle Eastern flavour on Westminster; for the first twenty years of its existence the state was armed largely by the French. Today, Israel can’t rely on old friends. Western political culture — and not just on the left — no longer views Israel as a plucky pioneer nation that made the desert bloom. Now Israel means settlements, checkpoints and illegal occupation; even sympathisers lament how little time they have to extol the virtues of Israel once they’re done defending its vices (and virtues slandered as vices). 

The Israeli left mistakenly believes that the world has turned against Netanyahu’s Israel but Netanyahu’s Israel just happens to be the Israel the world has turned against. If Tzipi Livni had been prime minister for the past decade, the tone might be different, but the direction of travel would be the same. Mainstream diplomats, academics and journalists disdain Israel under Netanyahu but, then, they disdained Israel under Ehud Olmert, who proposed withdrawing from 90 per cent of the West Bank; under Ariel Sharon, who withdrew from Gaza; under Ehud Barak, who offered to give the Palestinians 96 per cent of the West Bank, all of Gaza, and three per cent of Israel. The only Israeli left that the international community will tolerate is a left that couldn’t get elected in Israel. 

Western liberals increasingly find Israel at odds with post-Christian universalism, the ‘any enemy of the West’ fallacy, and their suspicion of borders and self-defence. The Israeli right gets this but sees it as an opportunity to reorient Israel away from old allies to new ones. The United States remains Ally No. 1 but Israel now enjoys good relations with Russia, China and Hungary, all authoritarian states in which liberal opinion is seldom factored into policy decisions. What matters to these regimes is that they can do business with Israel — commercially and politically — and that’s enough. Netanyahu’s government no longer bothers to make the liberal case for Israel because it has become a harder case to make and because Netanyahu saw which way the nationalist and authoritarian winds were blowing before the rest of us. 

The Nation-State law is mostly reasonable, in some places badly worded, in others ill-motivated. It is also largely pointless, another fight picked with the left and the international community to win Netanyahu another majority. Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people and, while it must and does afford full equality and freedom to non-Jewish citizens, the land and the state do not belong to another people. Israel’s enemies will not change that truth, even as Netanyahu cheapens it. Zionism, despite the best efforts of the Likud, is still the noblest of dreams. 

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