Why not a Jewish state?

On Nov. 23, the Israeli Cabinet approved a new "nationality law" and sent it to the Knesset, Israel's parliament, for ratification. Immediately, a fierce constitutional debate broke out. Did the bill privilege Jewish ethnicity over democratic equality?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sacked two senior members of his coalition, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Finance Minister Yair Lapid, for openly criticizing the controversial legislation. As the two led their centrist parties out of the governing coalition, the prime minister called for early elections in March. With the nationality bill hanging in the balance, the very identity of Israel as a democratic state is at stake.

Since its founding, Israel has been both a democratic and a Jewish state. The nationality bill seeks, however, to define Israel as the "national state of the Jewish people." It gives Jewish citizens preferential rights in Israeli legislation and limits rights for non-Jewish citizens to "individual rights according to the law," thereby denying Arabs "national" rights as a minority. It also demotes Arabic from its status as an official language alongside Hebrew in a country where 20 percent of Israeli citizens are of Arab descent.

Criticism has been widespread in Israel. Former President Shimon Peres called the bill an attempt to "subjugate the Declaration of Independence to fleeting political needs." Former Mossad head Shabtai Shavit warned that the zeal for Jewish nationalism could destroy Zionism: "The nation of Israel is galloping blindly in a time tunnel to the age of Bar Kochba." Current Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein warned in a legal commentary that the nationality bill would have fallout for the entire society as well as for Israeli foreign relations.

Israel's Arab citizens have long suffered from institutional discrimination. Since the founding of Israel in 1948, populations of Arab and Jewish citizens have grown at similar rates (eight- to tenfold), but Israel has established 700 new communities for Jews (including new cities) and not a single one for Arabs.

In 2003, an Israeli state commission of inquiry found that "the [Israeli] state did not do enough to grant equality to its Arab citizens and to eliminate discrimination and deprivation." Ten years later, in 2013, a Haaretz editorial concluded that "a decade after the publication of the Or Commission's report, Arab citizens of Israel are still suffering from ongoing discrimination from the establishment." The editorial went on to assert the Israeli governments were "giving political support to the ultranationalist discourse of the Yisrael Beiteinu party and extreme right-wing forces, who are the standard bearers of the attacks on the rights of Arab citizens."

In the U.S., criticism has come from Jews on both left and right. Americans for Peace Now openly characterized the proposed law as a form of "fascism." The New York Times called the proposed law "heartbreaking." Even the Anti-Defamation League, routinely supportive of Netanyahu's policies, was troubled that "some have sought to use the political process to promote an extreme agenda which could be viewed as an attempt to subsume Israel's democratic character in favor of its Jewish one."

Other major groups opposing or expressing reservations about the proposed law include the Reform and Conservative movements, the American Jewish Committee, the National Council of Jewish Women, and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the umbrella body for Jewish public policy groups. Mitchell Barak, an Israeli-American public opinion expert, pointed out that the law puts Israel in danger of losing support among American Jews who generally hold more liberal political values.

Designating Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, and only of the Jewish people, flies in the face of Israel's Declaration of Independence that pledged to "ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex." The word "equality" appears in U.N. Resolution 181 of 1947, which was the basis for the establishment of the state of Israel.

"Netanyahu and his government aren't just messing with David Ben-Gurion and the founders of the state," wrote Alon Liel, former director general of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, "they're doing so with the United Nations."

The Israeli government has tried to frame the law as an attempt to resolve tensions between Israel's democratic and Jewish aspects. It seems far more likely not only to heighten those tensions, but also to further reduce prospects for greater Israeli security or peace in the region.

[Jesuit Fr. Drew Christiansen is former editor of America magazine and a professor of ethics at Georgetown University. Ra'fat Aldajani is a Palestinian-American writer and commentator.]

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