The Nation State Law and its Detractors

The Liberal Zionist/Jewish world is outraged by the passage of the Nation State law last week in the Knesset.

Rick Jacobs released a statement, immediately after its passage it seemed, as if someone at the URJ had their hand on the “send” button directly after the bill’s passage late into the evening. His statement reads in part, “This is a sad and unnecessary day for Israeli democracy. The damage that will be done by this new Nation-State law to the legitimacy of the Zionist vision and to the values of the state of Israel as a democratic—and Jewish—nation is enormous.

“The Israeli nation is deeply divided. But, there are millions of us who are united in our opposition to this new law and fortified in our determination to continue to fight for an Israel that will be true to its own founding declaration of equality for all within its land, with the freedom to worship and to live with true hope for the future.”

J Street’s lengthy response reads in part: “A woman must not be forced to the back of a bus anywhere in a democratic Israel. An LGBT Israeli must not be excluded from any part of public life or barred from living or working where they please. A Mizrahi Jew must not be denied housing because she is “incompatible” with the ethnic identity of a village. Any Jew must be allowed to pray at all of Judaism’s holiest sites, regardless of her adherence to Orthodoxy. A Palestinian citizen must be respected and acknowledged as a minority nationality in the state, including respect for her native Arabic language. Muslims, Druze, Christians, and other religious minorities must not know exclusion and discrimination unbefitting a modern, democratic state.”

Joshua Weinberg, head of Arza, wrote in his weekly blog, “Jewish Nationalism was meant to be a beacon, a source of pride, and a foundation through which we join our tradition with modernity to create an enlightened and ideal Jewish society. It was not designed to shove our Nationalism down the throats of others, or to create a selectively democratic State.”

Saeb Erekat, long-time and well-known player among Palestinians said, “”The ‘Jewish Nation-State’ [law] officially legalizes apartheid and legally defines Israel as an apartheid system,” Erekat tweeted from the PLO Negotiation Affairs Department account. “[It is] a dangerous and racist law par excellence. It denies the Arab citizens their right to self-determination to instead be determined by the Jewish population.”

Okay, so a couple of initial observations.

From Erekat we would expect even a law regulating changing oil in falafel fryers to be viewed as contributing to apartheid, a racist law par excellence. His grave concern for his fellow Arabs living on the other side of the Green Line who now live in an Apartheid state is laudable.

Rick Jacobs’s statement suggests that this law finds Israel “deeply divided”, the Zionist enterprise itself in mortal danger. Millions, he says, millions of people oppose this law and the effort to rescind it is already underway.

The J Street comment suggests that of all of those elements mentioned is its statement, things that characterize a robust democracy, all of them, each and every one of them, are now endangered by this law. Gays, Mizrachim, women, Arabs, Christians, well, just about everybody who’s not a male Ashkenazi Jew, is about to be written out of the Israeli common weal.

Joshua Weinberg’s brief criticism would have it that very original, idealistic purpose of Jewish Nationalism (sic) is now at the precipice of collapse due to the passage of this law, which has been shoved down the throats of the population of Israel, this latter despite that the law was passed by a majority in the Knesset.

These statements all assume a powerful, innate anti-democratic, hence anti-Arab, anti-gay, anti-woman, anti-liberal Judaism, a right-wing Israeli prejudice that presages the onset of a disaster for the Jewish state has now been implemented.

However, though all of these statements’ prediction of what is to come, not one of them goes behind the inflammatory rhetoric to explain what in fact is so calamitous in this addition to Israel’s Basic Laws.

So I had a look at the law ( to see what’s so horrifically objectionable and perilous to the very existence of the Jewish state.

The law consists of twelve rubrics, too many to parse entirely in a short blog post. Let me focus, then, on what I think may have gotten the world of Liberal Zionism up into such a grand lather.

To begin #2 of the law, that asserts specific national symbols, the flag, the Menorah, Hatikvah as being fixed in the Israeli constellation, seems reasonable. But one senses the rumblings of dissatisfaction with assuring, e.g., that Hatikvah, which speaks specifically of Jewish millennial yearnings may somehow threaten a democracy of many different peoples.

Perhaps #3, that declares the unified city of Jerusalem Israel’s capital, raises a problem. Yes, it’s possible to see how those advocating East Jerusalem as a future capital of Palestine might be upset by a law claiming Jerusalem to be undivided and Israeli. To that possibility, I acquiesce, save to point out that should the day ever arrive when reasonable Palestinians willing to enter into a full peace agreement emerge from the current morass that this would have to be negotiated. Meanwhile, I cannot see how declaring Jerusalem the undivided capital of Israel leads to anything remotely threatening to democracy.

The issue of the status of Hebrew and Arabic in #4 distresses the law’s opponents. In it, Arabic is changed from being an official Israeli language (apparently a remnant from the British Mandate era) to a language with “special status.” The prolixity of this rubric bears all the hallmarks of a law written by an overwrought committee. For this reason, I quote this entire section:

The Language of the State of Israel
a) Hebrew is the language of the state.
b) The Arabic language has a special status in the state; the regulation of the Arab language in state institutions or when facing them will be regulated by law.
c) This clause does not change the status given to the Arabic language before the basic law was created.

The second two-thirds of section (b) are incoherent. I haven’t consulted the Hebrew original where it may be clearer, but as translated, I cannot understand what it means. And section (c) appears to obviate the first part of (b). For if (b) is not changed by the status of Arabic through history (“does not change the status given to the Arabic language before the basic law was created”), then what’s the point of the “special status?”

Meanwhile, how many Israelis speak Arabic? Between Arabs and Mizrachim, quite a few, I would reckon. Consider Spanish in the US, or Catalon or Basque, or the innumerable languages spoken in China. The speakers of these languages have to be accommodated. Though the alteration of the status of Arabic might conceivably lead to policy complications, but I don’t see how. That is might be insulting to Arabs is clear. But what, practically, could happen under this new position. Can one imagine street signs no longer in Arabic, or the banning of Arabic on Israeli media, the cessation of the publication of books in Arabic? In the event, it’s impossible to see how this alteration in the status of Arabic can remotely be characterized as destructive.

For purposes here, this leaves #7, the one about settlement, which I also quote in full. “The state views Jewish settlement as a national value and will labor to encourage and promote its establishment and development.” Now, it’s possible to see something insidious in this, a veiled support of THE settlements, which I imagine is how the many perturbed opponents of this bill likely see it. But its ambiguity is too, well, ambiguous. Another possible reading would have it that the old Zionist dream of settling the land is now instantiated in law, and no court could deny Jews’ rights of settlement, as has in fact happened.

It’s difficult to see how the collectivity of these parts of the law lead directly to a drastic an erosion of Israeli democracy so dire that the law’s detractors can make the frenzied statements quoted above, much less Erekat’s hysterical claims. Still, I have wondered what brought this law about, why, over the course of so many years, versions of this law have been bandied about until this, by all accounts, watered-down version finally came to pass last week. What were the issues that concerned this law’s framers and supporters?

Thanks to a piece in the JPost by Emmanuel Navon (, I now have a better idea.

As much press about this law has indicated, Israel has from its beginning struggled with the following dialectic: how to be simultaneously Jewish and democratic. There is a delicate balance between the two. Navon argues that, due to judicial activism on the part of Israel’s High Court going back to the end of the 20th century, there had arisen serious concerns that various provisions of Israel’s Jewish self-understanding might be endangered. Navon writes:

“[Certain] laws and symbols related to Israel’s Jewish identity are not immune from petitions at the High Court of Justice. The “law of return”… might one day be struck down for being discriminatory; Israel’s national anthem…and flag… could be challenged in court for ignoring the feelings of the Arab minority; and taxpayers could petition the court against the spending of their money on the preservation of Jewish identity in the Diaspora. Until the passing of the basic law on Israel as a nation-state, the court had no constitutional basis to reject such petitions and to protect Israel’s Jewishness. Now it does.”

That is the nub of the issue the Knesset faced last week: Protecting the Jewishness of Israeli institutions in the face of very real situations that might be brought to the High Court. To guard against, e.g., Hatikvah being removed as Israel’s national anthem, the Knesset passed the nation-state law.

The provisions of this law are a far cry from provoking the ending Israeli democracy. There may be good reasons to dispute this law. But if so, the law must be debated on the rather subtle dialectical balance between “Jewish” and “democratic”, not according to a series of simplistic and frequently distorted talking points that are shared in common by the so-called Liberal Zionist world that apparently has failed to give the law itself even a simple read. Instead, as shown, we’ve witnessed an avalanche of superficiality, some of it hateful. Have a look at Ira Stoll’s article in a recent Algemeiner on the New York Times’s treatment of this story.

The Nation State law has now become the sixteenth of Israel’s Basic Laws. Whether its provisions protect Israel’s Jewish character only time will tell. The end of the Zionist dream, much less the onset of Apartheid are clearly hyperbolic. Meanwhile, it would behoove the opposition to address the law’s meaning and implications with a greater degree of thoughtfulness than we have thus far witnessed.

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