Last week, a Knesset committeeÂ approvedÂ a final version of the controversial âJewish nation stateâ bill, sending it to the plenum for its three readings before becoming law.
Some Israelis have claimed that the law does not really change much, and stems more from the desire of current ultra-nationalist coalition members to make a point and curry favour with their base â the law, according to this view, is more symbol than substance.
Others, while similarly playing down the billâsÂ legalÂ significance, stress â and worry about â the potential for a negative impact both in terms of Israelâs international reputation, and with respect to a climate of racism and intolerance within Israeli society.
It is true that the âJewish nation stateâ bill changes little â but this is because the State of Israel hasÂ alwaysÂ discriminated against non-Jewish citizens, both in practice and by law (something even the US State Department routinelyÂ acknowledges).
For example, the draft legislation states that âthe realization of national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish peopleâ. Now, while not always expressed quite so explicitly, this hasÂ alwaysÂ been the case â it is precisely why, contrary to what Israeli officials and their apologists often argue,Â Israel is not Jewish like France is French.
Support for âJewish self-determinationâ, not âIsraeli self-determinationâ, is found across the political spectrum. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked recentlyÂ claimedÂ âthe state should say that there is place to maintain the Jewish majority even if it violates rightsâ. But Tzipi Livni, a so-called âcentristâ, alsoÂ believesÂ in âa state in which only the Jewish People have the national right for self-determinationâ.
The law also does not mention âdemocracyâ once â but then neither does Israelâs oft-vaunted âDeclaration of Independenceâ. According toÂ Haaretz, meanwhile, the new bill âis designed to lay the groundworkâ for the countryâs Supreme Court âto give preference to Israelâs Jewish character over its democratic values should the two conflict in the courtsâ.
Again, this is something the court already can do, and has done, most notably whenÂ interpretingÂ Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty and its important limitation clause: as former Supreme Court President Aharon Barak put it, in a 1995Â decision: âWe are different from other nations. We are not only a democratic state but also a Jewish state.â
Finally, voices of protest have been raised over the new draft billâs clause âallowing the establishment of residential communities for Jews aloneâ (something that even a member of Yair Lapidâs Yesh Atid partyÂ likenedÂ to âapartheidâ).
But Palestinian citizens have long been excluded from kibbutzim and moshavim by residential âadmission committeesâ. Indeed, in 2014, Israelâs Supreme CourtÂ upheldÂ a law allowing for such committees, a decision slammed as âeffectively legaliz[ing] the principle of segregationâ.
So, what, then, is this lawÂ reallyÂ about? Politically speaking, this law can only be understood in the context of a concerted pushback againstÂ effortsÂ over the last two decades by Palestinian citizens of Israel to assert their national identity, mobilize against discrimination, and, critically, to demand a state of all its citizens.
In 2006-2007, a number of documents, or position papers, were issued by leading organisations representing Palestinians inside the Green Line. These included Adalahâs âDemocratic Constitutionâ, as well as âThe Future Vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israelâ (The National Committee for the Heads of Arab Local Authorities in Israel), and Mada Al-Carmelâs âHaifa Declarationâ.
Commenting on these developments at the time, Israeli journalistÂ Uzi BenzimanÂ described their publication as a âturning pointâ, adding: âThe documents are being woven like an orderly ideological and political doctrine challenging the current character of the State of Israel â the way it views itself, the structure of its government, and its Zionist identity.â
It was a few years later, in 2011, that former Shin Bet head Avi Dichter kick-started the recent efforts to advance a âJewish nation stateâ bill. The connection between a politically and nationally assertive Palestinian citizenry, and legislative initiatives to cement ethnocracy, was made in an instructive piece from October 2012, byÂ the Jerusalem PostâsÂ Lahav Harkov.
âTodayâ, she wrote, âthe absence of a legal architecture ensuring Jewish statehood isâŠa potential threat to the Zionist project itselfâ, given what she claimed were âcampaigns to delegitimize Israel on the riseÂ both insideÂ and outside the countryâ (my emphasis).
According to Harkov, echoing the likes of Likud MK Yariv Levin, âthe creation of a Basic Law proclaiming Israel a democratic Jewish state would prevent courts from making decisions that erode Israelâs Jewish nature in the name of preserving its democratic one.â
What is especially illuminating here is that the one specific example cited by Harkov was a 2000 Supreme Court ruling that threatened to undermine long-standing discrimination and segregation in land and housing, designed to exclude Palestinian citizens.
This, then, is the crucial context often omitted from discussion about the draft legislation awaiting its readings in the Knesset. The new legislation clearly is a disaster from the point of view of Israelâs Palestinian citizens â but its very existence is a testament to both the effectiveness of their political mobilization, and to the power of a demand for real democratization.
~Middle East Monitor/Days of Palestine