Everything You’ve Heard About Israel’s Nation State Bill Is Wrong
Israel’s new Nation State Law, which passed last week with the aim of affirming the country’s Jewish character, has come under considerable fire.
The new legislation is made up of mostly symbolic declarations that reaffirm the symbolism, calendar, and meaning of the “Jewish State.”
And it took about eleven seconds before critics went ballistic.
Ahmed Tibi, an Arab member of Knesset and the former aide to PLO leader Yasser Arafat, declared “with shock and sorrow the death of democracy.” He was joined in his condemnation by other opposition members who shouted “Apartheid!” as they tore up the law defiantly. The chief legal counsel of ACRI, the Israeli equivalent of the ACLU, agreed. “This is a racist law,” he pronounced.
While the Times stopped short of calling the bill racist, one of its pieces opened with an outright falsity, claiming that the law declared that “only Jews have the right of self-determination in the country”— when in fact the law explicitly says “national self-determination,” something entirely different from individual freedoms (more on that later).
In its main coverage of the new legislation, New York Times Jerusalem Bureau Chief David Halbfinger gestured towards a different, widespread criticism of the bill, casting the bill as just another step in Israel’s inexorable march into darkness.
“Wrapping up its business before a long summer recess, the right-wing, religious coalition that rules Israel’s Parliament moved aggressively this week to push through its polarizing agenda, piling up points at the expense of its already weakened foes,” he wrote.
But the truth is, the Nation State bill is not overturning the applecart. In fact, it’s reaffirming some of the key ideas that always lay at the heart of the Zionist project, bringing about the correct balance of “Jewish” and “democratic” that has always been the secret sauce that makes Israel work.
And a closer look at the criticism the bill has engendered will reveal it to be nothing more than prefabricated outrage from Israeli opposition parties, American Jewish liberals, and the usual chorus of anti-Zionists and anti-Semites.
To be sure, each of these groups have different core interests and each believes different things. But all have become totally reflexive in their rejection of anything coming out of the current government. It is, in fact, hard to imagine that in the current political climate, there could have been any version of the Nation State bill coming from this government that would not have set off alarms.
Before diving in, a note about who this article is for, and who it’s not for. If you have been vociferously denouncing the law but have not read it yet (it’s a quick read); if you believe it doesn’t matter what’s in the law because its passage by a Right-Wing Israeli Government qualifies it for your fury; if you are receiving a salary or other compensation to criticize Israel; or if you simply despise Israel—this piece is not for you.
But if you’re a fair-minded person who’s troubled by the noise surrounding the law, or if you’ve read it but don’t understand why it needed to be passed, I have a lot to tell you.
So, what’s actually in the law? When you look more closely, it’s really not very controversial — or at least, it shouldn’t be.
Most mundanely, it ratifies the Hebrew calendar as the official holiday schedule of the State of Israel and it establishes Independence Day, Memorial Day and Holocaust Remembrance Day as holidays, too. It also reaffirms Israel’s special connection to diaspora Jewry. None of this is new.
Among its more talked-about provisions, however, was the clause about the Hebrew language, which for the first time was made into Israel’s sole official language, a status it has shared with Arabic up til now.
Critics have said that in the new bill, Arabic has been “demoted.” And at a highly abstract level, they are right.
And yet, the law is careful to clarify that the Arabic language will not only be granted “special status,” but also that “this clause does not harm the status given to the Arabic language before this law came into effect.”
Now, the primacy of Hebrew in the Jewish State is an obvious matter, and has been since Israel’s inception. It is the language of public discourse, of Knesset deliberations (including speeches of Arab members of Knesset), of the nightly news, of the culture, of the courts, of university classes, and of the laws themselves. Ratifying this is something quite ordinary, which democratic countries like Spain and France have done long ago.
Furthermore, the clarifying clause makes it impossible for the demotion of Arabic to be anything other than symbolic. To turn this into “the end of democracy” is nonsense.
Similarly offensive to critics was the clause according to which “The right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.”
This, too, is almost synonymous with the very idea of a Jewish state. What could a right of “national” self-determination to non-Jewish communities inside Israel possibly mean other than ending the Jewish state as such?
More to the point, what democratic country on earth offers national self-determination to twenty percent of its citizens? With few and minor exceptions, the U.S. gives no minorities any such right. In Israel, such a right is something the Jewish majority has never granted and never promised, and never could have or should have, since day one.
This clause is not a violation of democratic principle, much less “racist” or “Apartheid,” so long as individual rights continue to be guaranteed. And they are, through the other Basic Laws that make up Israel’s constitutional reality.
Similarly baffling were objections to the law’s determination that “Jerusalem, complete and united, is the capital of Israel.” No doubt, in the context of today’s politics, anything about Jerusalem smells like jumping on the Trump-Bibi bandwagon.
Yet there is nothing at all new in it. The hope that some may have of internationalizing the Western Wall or dismantling the sprawling urban neighborhoods of Gilo and Pisgat Ze’ev has never been more than a fantasy.
At the same time—and this is crucial—the law does not define Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries, thereby leaving fully open the possibility that, when the geopolitical time is right, major Arab neighborhoods in eastern Jerusalem like Isawiyyeh, Silwan, or Jabel Mukkaber could become part of a future Palestinian State by simply redefining the city’s map.
What many in the West fail to understand is the role that Jerusalem has played in Israel’s self-definition since well before the Six Day War that led to the city’s unification under Israeli rule. There’s a reason why the IDF risked a lot to take the strategically unimportant eastern Jerusalem in 1967, and why Jerusalem, but not the West Bank, was effectively annexed in 1980.
Naomi Shemer’s song “Jerusalem of Gold”—one of the most iconic songs in Israeli history—became popular before the city was reunified. Regardless of international recognition, and in the face of global disregard, Israel declared Jerusalem its capital within two years of its independence, and has insisted on it ever since.
Finally, critics were angered by the bill’s declaration that “Jewish settlement” be “a national value” that the state will continue to promote.
Once again, distilling reality from projected fear is crucial here. The word being translated as “settlement” is hityashvut, which to any Israeli ear refers more to the Galilee and the Negev and the history of building new Jewish communities a century ago across the country than it does to the West Bank.
Yes, it is true that a major coalition partner, The Jewish Home, would love to claim a victory for the settlers of Judea and Samaria; that’s politics. But it’s the courts, not the politicians, who will interpret the law; and there is nothing in the phrasing that even hints at the West Bank; historically charged terms such as “in the Land of Israel” are nowhere to be found.
Again, you can decide that Jews should never have been encouraged to settle in their historic homeland, and the idea of a place on earth that continues to encourage it—even offering them citizenship and financial benefits for doing so—is something you can’t live with.
But then you really shouldn’t call yourself a Zionist, or even a supporter of Israel, in any meaningful sense. Building a Jewish homeland—through sovereignty, through culture, and through settlement—has always been the core purpose of the country. Should it really not appear in its Basic Laws?
Nor does anything in the law make Israel unusual for a European-style democracy. France, a country that granted equal rights to all a century before America freed its slaves, nonetheless has a single national language. The United Kingdom has an established church, as well as a hereditary monarchy. Germany will put you in prison if you deny the Holocaust.
Limits on pristine and abstract rights, especially the right to feel equally central to the narrative of the democracy in which you live, are acceptable because they are limited, and because people are complicated and human, with a real history that inevitably influences the core principles of their social contract.
Even democracies have a right to enshrine in law the things that make them unique.
To suggest that Israel alone shouldn’t be allowed to is self-evidently absurd, and smells a lot more like political noise-making than honest criticism.
It’s true that Israel’s Nation State law was passed by a right-leaning national government. But a much more meaningful way to look at it is in its historical and constitutional context.
This law has been in the works at least since the early 2000s, a time when two major forces arose that threatened the Zionist project as it was historically understood. The first was the rise of “post-Zionism,” a small but passionate intellectual-political movement that explicitly repudiated the idea of a “Jewish state” and sought to transform the country into a “state of all its citizens” by stripping it of any connection to Jewish history, peoplehood, or symbolism.
The second, more important factor was the “constitutional revolution” led by then-Supreme Court President Aharon Barak, which recognized earlier Basic Laws as having constitutional status, and which culminated in the passing of two new Basic Laws (Basic Law Human Dignity and Liberty, and Basic Law: Freedom of Employment) that established the core rights of Israeli citizens, Jewish or not.
These basic laws were not at all a bad thing. The fact is, Israel is both a Jewish state and a liberal democracy, and basic freedoms must be protected for all.
But defenders of Zionism correctly noted that such laws would have to be balanced with similar protections of Israel’s flag and anthem and the original vision of the country as not just a refuge for oppressed Jews but also as the embodiment of the aspirations of the Jewish people.
Much of what we see in the law is the direct result of the big debates that happened back then—debates I was directly involved in.
The bottom line is that Israel is the Jewish State, and this law tells us what that means, just as other Basic Laws tell us what goes into its democratic foundations.
You can freely dislike the idea of an ethnically or historically based democracy for a specific people. But know that it’s not fascism, it’s not the rise of ethno-national-populist-alt-right-MAGA-Bannonism. That’s just a category error—one that a lot of people really want you to make right now.
Israel’s Nation state bill reflects rather, the constitutional reality of nearly every European democracy, and European democracy has always been a little different from American democracy.
If you have any interest in understanding what’s really a fascinating and historic development in a country far away, the one I actually live in, tune out the noise.
David Hazony is the executive director of the Israel Innovation Fund and former Editor in Chief of the Tower.
Correction, September 8, 2:08 p.m.: An earlier version of this article incorrectly cited the French National Anthem.