If you care about Israel, and have been following the recent controversy about the new Nation-State law, then you know it’s touched some nerves. Here is an explanation of the law, why it is controversial, and how in some cases it has been misrepresented.
What is the Nation-State law?
On July 19, Israel adopted a new Basic Law that is referred to as the Nation-State law, officially codifying many things about Israel that are commonly accepted but not enshrined in law. For example, there wasn’t a law explicitly stating that Israel is the national home of the Jewish people.
Unlike the United States, Israel does not have a constitution. Instead, Israel has a series of Basic Laws that act like a constitution.
Many of the provisions of the new law are basic facts, such as the country’s name being Israel, “complete and united” Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Shabbat and Jewish holidays as official days of rest while recognizing the right of other faiths to have different days of rest and holidays, the current flag as the national flag, the menorah as the symbol of Israel and “Hatikvah” as the national anthem.
What is the controversy?
When the bill narrowly passed, Arab members of the Knesset condemned it as the “death of democracy” and apartheid. It was condemned as a racist law, polarizing the nation and demonstrating the strength of the right-wing.
Some who are otherwise in favor of the law have said it would have been far more palatable to a wider spectrum if it had included language reinforcing equality for all Israeli citizens. Others have responded that the concept of equality for non-Jewish citizens is already enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence and elsewhere in the Basic Law, and did not need to be reiterated here.
Several groups have petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court to review the law.
What about the self-determination clause?
Critics have claimed the law permits self-determination only for Jews in Israel. That is a misrepresentation, as the law states that “national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.” Simply put, Israel is the homeland for the Jewish people. This has to be stated, because some have urged a one-state solution with the idea that Arab demographics would soon overwhelm the Jewish population and Israel would no longer be a Jewish homeland. This way, the Palestinians cannot assert national self-determination inside Israel.
In that sense, it is seen as no different than Spain not granting national self-determination to Basques, for example, or the U.S. resisting the call of fringe African-American groups to establish an independent, separate “New Africa” in several Southern states.
What about the settlement clause?
The law states that Israel will “encourage and promote” Jewish settlement around the country. Many critics have claimed this refers to the disputed territories, but the Hebrew word used in the law has the context of the Galilee in the north and the Negev in the south, and the language does not even hint at the territories — much to the chagrin of those on the right who want to expand communities in the territories. There has always been an emphasis on building communities in the Galilee and Negev, rather than everyone concentrating in the Tel Aviv to Jerusalem corridor, going back decades before Israel’s independence.
Some have also claimed the clause refers to creating Jewish-only towns, but that is not present in the wording. Conversely, Israel’s Supreme Court has ruled in the past that Israeli Arabs have the right to establish all-Arab communities, but Israeli Jews cannot exclude Arabs from their communities.
Similarly, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has repeatedly declared that no Israelis would be allowed to live in a future Palestinian state.
What about the status of Arabic?
While the law states Israel’s language is Hebrew, Arabic is recognized as having a “special status” and the clause “does not harm the status” given to Arabic before this law was passed. Road signs and government documents are in Arabic, Arabic is mandatory in Israeli elementary schools, and in the last couple of years, learning Arabic has been trendy among Israeli adults.
The perception that Arabic has been demoted was one of the main complaints of the Druze community, Arabs who serve in Israel’s military and are very loyal to the state. Many of their leaders felt the law was a slap in the face, and they met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to protest the law.
What about the neighbors?
The Palestinians have a basic law, passed in 2002. It declares Islam as the official religion, Islamic sharia as the “principal source of legislation” and Arabic as the official language. It also declares Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine.
The Nation-State law does not recognize Judaism as the Israel’s official religion. Many Western nations have Christianity as their official religion, many Eastern nations have Buddhism as their official religion, and virtually all Arab countries recognize Islam as the state religion.
Why was this passed now?
Because of the way the law has been portrayed, many have asked why Israel would bother to pass such a declaration at this time, knowing the firestorm it would provoke. Just because you have the right to do something, and you may be morally correct, it doesn’t necessarily follow that one must take such an action.
Of course, that same argument was used for over 20 years to delay moving the United States Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The perception was that it just was never quite the right time to do it.
After the vote, Netanyahu explained that in recent years there have been efforts to cast doubt on Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, “and so to undercut the foundations of our existence and our rights.”
Part of that, of course, comes from advocates for the Palestinians. Three months before the law was passed, Arab Knesset members introduced a bill to make Israel a binational state, end the Law of Return for Jews, and retire the state’s Jewish symbols.
There is also a trend among some intellectuals to deny the idea of Israel as a Jewish state, and transform it into a state of all citizens by eliminating Jewish symbolism.
One of the main reasons why Israel exists is to be a place of refuge for any Jews who is endangered, anywhere in the world. Eliminating Israel as a Jewish state would endanger that mission.
There is also a political aspect, as new elections are anticipated next year, and Netanyahu is looking to shore up his base. Some have said that the omission of some concepts in the law, prompting left-wing parties to not support it, was a calculated move to paint left-leaning parties in a negative light and bolster the national-defense resume of right-wing parties.
While the new law is seen as an important declaration of principles, it also is seen as having little effect on the day-to-day life for Israelis of all backgrounds.