Israel’s New Law Inflames the Core Tension in Its Identity

Source: The Atlantic

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a recent cabinet meeting.RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS
Israel passed a law this week that has been floating around the Knesset for a half-dozen years. Branded the “nation-state bill,” the legislation declares that Israel is the historic homeland of the Jewish people, and that “the right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.” It establishes Hebrew as the official language of Israel and downgrades Arabic to a language with “special status,” even though many people in Israel’s sizeable Arab minority primarily speak in Arabic. The law also asserts that Jewish settlement—without specifying where—is a national value, and promises to encourage and advance settlement efforts.

Some liberal Jews, especially outside of Israel, are outraged. “The damage that will be done by this new nation-state law to the legitimacy of the Zionist vision … is enormous,” wrote Rick Jacobs, the head of the U.S.-based Union for Reform Judaism, in a press release. J Street, a liberal Zionist organization, called it “a sad day for Israel and all who care about its democracy and its future.”

The law is controversial because it inflames the core tension in Israel’s identity. The country was established as a democracy—and a model of Western, liberal values—but it’s also premised on Jewish identity. In a state established as the national homeland of the Jews, it was never entirely clear what rights non-Jewish minorities should be assigned, and Israel has been arguing with itself over how to balance these identities since it was founded. Critics, especially Jews in diaspora, see this new law as a definitive declaration in favor of the Jewish identity at the expense of the democratic one.

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