Jul 17,2018 -JORDAN TIMES
Israel is about to adopt one of the most controversial laws in its history, possibly more contentious than its declaration of independence 70 years ago at the expense of the Palestinians. The Israeli Knesset has passed the first reading of a bill that, if adopted, will set Israel aside as a state that is exclusively for Jews; an ultranationalist entity that discriminates against other non-Jewish citizens.
The “nation-state” bill has been in the works for years; the brainchild of Israel’s rising far-right. So dangerous is this legislation that even Israeli President Reuven Rivlin is against it, warning that it could “harm the Jewish people, Jews throughout the world and the State of Israel”. Israel’s Deputy Attorney General Raz Nizri supported Rivlin, saying that the bill would “not accomplish anything while causing only damage to Israel as both a Jewish and democratic state.”
Three basic components of the nation-state bill are behind the growing opposition. The bill, which will have a constitution-like status, making it almost impossible for future governments to repeal it, allows for
Jewish-only communities, removes Arabic as an official language of the state and permits judges to rely on Jewish law as the precedent when there is no other. Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon wrote a letter to the chairman of the special committee for promoting the nation-state bill saying that “we have not found equivalence in any constitution in the world” to the clause suggested in the bill, allowing exclusive communities.
Defining Israel as a Jewish state has been one of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s top priorities for years, even before he formed the most far-right government in Israel’s history in 2016. According to Haaretz, the legislation would prioritise Jewish values over democratic ones. One clause in particular would allow the establishment of communities that are segregated by religion or nationality. Israel’s Attorney General’s Office has said the clause “is blatant discrimination” and that it means that residents of such communities have the right to hang up a sign saying “No entry to non-Jews”.
Basically, this clause will target Israel’s biggest minority groups, the Arabs, who make up 20 per cent of the population, as well as other minorities such as Druze, Armenians, Circassians and Assyrians among others.
Arab lawmakers in the Knesset are fighting to present their own bill, one that defines Israel as a state for all its citizens. So far, their efforts have been blocked.
Despite domestic and international criticism of the nation-state bill, Netanyahu is pushing to get Knesset to pass it before the summer recess. If passed, the bill will complicate Israel’s international position and will certainly erode its distressed self-identity as a democratic state and an oasis of democracy. Netanyahu had repeatedly stated that for negotiations with the Palestinians to resume, they must also recognise Israel as a Jewish state. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has rejected this demand, while critics have warned that succumbing to Netanyahu would put the fate of Israel’s 1.5 million Arab citizens in jeopardy.
The timing of the controversial bill is important. It comes at a time when Israel has reneged on all its commitments under the Oslo Accords. Hardline ministers in Netanyahu’s Cabinet reject the two-state solution, the right of return for Palestinian refugees and want Israel to annex most of the West Bank, while giving limited self-rule control to Palestinian towns and villages. Israel has never defined its final borders and if its annexation goes into effect, the new Israel will emerge as the only apartheid state in the world.
With Netanyahu enjoying unconditional support from US President Donald Trumps’ administration, he does not seem to care about the repercussions of adopting the bill as law. Critics have pointed out that the bill has already stressed ties between Israel and so-called diaspora Jews, especially in the West, where most of whom are self-proclaimed liberals. Outgoing Jewish agency Chairman Natan Sharansky said last week that while he agrees with the broader sentiment of the proposed legislation, its details will widen the gulf between US Jews, the majority of whom are non-Orthodox, and Israel.
The Obama administration had criticised Netanyahu’s insistence on recognising Israel as a Jewish state. Before leaving office in 2016, US Secretary of State John Kerry said Israel has to choose; either be Jewish or democratic, it cannot be both.
The current debate in Israel, which is unlikely to alter much in the proposed bill, exposes the gradual departure of Israel over the last decades from the original Zionist dream, envisioned by its founding fathers as a democratic, secular, socialist and multiethnic society, into an ultranationalist and fundamentalist entity edging closer towards fascism. In a letter to the Knesset, Rivlin called on lawmakers to “take a look at Israeli society and ask: In the name of the Zionist vision, are we willing to support discrimination and exclusion of men and women based on their ethnic origin?” But few are willing to answer his question.
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman