For years, whenever my non-Israeli friends would ask me to explain to them the meaning of the phrase “Israel being a Jewish and democratic state,” I would answer that I needed a week-long seminar to explain that.
Indeed, how can a country be a full democracy when it is defined as a Jewish one?
The fact that I need a week to explain it shows how complex this issue is. Nevertheless, let me try to sum it up: Jews have always prayed and aspired to return to Zion, their ancient homeland. After the Holocaust, the need for the Jewish people to have a state of their own was fully accepted by the world and ratified in the United Nation’s Resolution (181) from Nov. 29, 1947, calling to partition Palestine between Arabs and Jews (the Jews accepted, the Arabs rejected it, but that’s a different story).
When the State of Israel was founded on May 14, 1948, a great opportunity was missed to frame a constitution that would define the character of the state. Nevertheless, a Declaration of Independence was drafted, which stated that Israel was the state of the Jewish people, but with the same breath promised that “based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel, (the state) will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.”
That is the essence of Jewish and democratic Israel: under the Jewish umbrella, everyone is equal.
Well at least in theory, because in practice Israeli Arabs until 1966 were kept under a restrictive military rule, and they have never enjoyed the full spectrum of opportunities Jewish citizens had.
If Israel were smart, it would make its Arab citizens the happiest people in the country, first, for its own sake as a democracy, and second, as a message to the hundreds of millions of Arabs surrounding Israel. For years, however, we failed to do so, with the notable exception of the Yitzhak Rabin government of 1992-95, which I had the honor to serve.
For the first time ever, that government tried to change the situation by launching a serious affirmative action.
While aspiring and struggling to gain equality, the Israeli Arabs always had the Declaration of Independence to look up to. While not a law, Israeli lawmakers, when legislating basic laws dealing with human and civil rights, always took their cues from the declaration, as did the Supreme Court in its rulings.
The recent nation-state law motion has shattered this fragile equilibrium. In its original version, proposed by right-wing Knesset members, the law tried to settle once and for all the dilemma between the Jewishness of the state and its democratic nature by ruling that if there is a conflict between the two, the Jewish element overcomes the democratic one.
For instance, in the proposed law Arab citizens, unlike Jewish ones, were to have only individual rights, not communal ones. Another major change from the current status quo was the clause that only Hebrew was to become the official language of Israel. Something like an anglophone majority deciding to legislate that French is not an official language in Canada.
Even a more moderate version of the law proposed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received criticism from Hebrew University law professor Ruth Gavison, who for years had been involved in serious efforts to reconcile between the Jewish nature of Israel and its democracy. Gavison, according to Haaretz newspaper, wrote that “Israel is a nation-state whose vision has three essential ingredients: Jewishness, democracy and human rights. The nation-state law is likely to upset the essential balance of safeguarding the entire vision.”
To put it bluntly, if Israeli Arabs could up till now cling to the Declaration of Independence and hope to sometime be equal in the Jewish state, this law rubs in their face the bitter truth that by law they could forget about it.
To get an idea of the damage this law proposal is causing to the already sensitive relationship between Arabs and Jews in Israel, one should have watched an interview on Channel 1 on Israel TV with the brother of Zidan Saif, a Druze police officer who was killed while trying to save the lives of Jews who had been brutally attacked in their synagogue by Palestinian terrorists. Facing the camera and directly addressing Netanyahu, he painfully asked: “So this (law) is the decoration you want to give my brother?”
Law professor Mordechai Kremnitzer and Dr. Amir Fuchs, both from the Israel Democracy Institute and harsh critics of the proposed law, smartly invoked Ze’ev Jabotinsky, father of the revisionist movement, the forerunner of today’s Likud party. Years before the State of Israel was born, he wrote: “I do not believe that the constitution of any state should contain special clauses explicitly guaranteeing its ‘national’ character. I believe it is a good sign if a constitution contains few such clauses. The natural and best way is for the ‘national’ character of a state to be ensured by the very fact that it has a particular majority.”
It’s a pity that Netanyahu, whose father Prof. Benzion Netanyahu was the personal secretary of Jabotinsky, didn’t adhere to this wise advice.
Nobody in Israel today understands why on earth Netanyahu called for early elections. Most people here believe that the last thing we need now is to throw our already polarized society into the mayhem of a cutthroat, negative campaign, which will only result in another unstable government. I, for one, tend to differ. If these early elections mean that the ill-advised nation-state law is dead and buried, then I wholeheartedly support them.
(Uri Dromi was the spokesman of Israel’s Rabin and Peres governments from 1992 to 1996.)