Ever since its founding on May 14, 1948, Israel has struggled to maintain its delicate balance between being a Jewish state and a democratic one.
Even the most casual visitor to Israel cannot doubt its Jewish character: the vast majority of its citizens are Jewish, the language most widely spoken is Hebrew, the rhythm of the week is marked by the Jewish Sabbath, and the rhythm of the year beats to the tune of the Jewish holy days.
On the other hand, at least 20 percent of Israeli citizens are Muslim, Christian or Druze. Roughly 1.5 million of almost 9 million Israelis call Arabic their native tongue.
Israel’s founding document, its Declaration of Independence, embodies this delicate balance between Israel’s Jewish identity and its democratic values. Its opening sentences unabashedly affirm the historical connection between the Jewish people and the land of Israel: “The land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and national identity was formed. Here they achieved independence and created a culture of national and universal significance. Here they wrote and gave the Bible to the world.”
The declaration goes on to proclaim Israel’s rightful place among the community of post-World-War-II nations: “This recognition by the United Nations of the right of the Jewish people to establish their independent state may not be revoked. It is, moreover, the self-evident right of the Jewish people to be a nation, as all other nations, in its own sovereign state.”
While the declaration unambiguously affirms “the establishment of the Jewish state in Palestine, to be called Israel,” it is equally clear in its affirmation of the rights of the non-Jewish minority in the democratic state:
“The state of Israel will promote the development of the country for all its inhabitants; will be based upon the precepts of liberty, justice and peace taught by the Hebrew prophets; will uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens without distinction of race, creed or sex; will guarantee full freedom of conscience, worship, language, education and culture; will safeguard the sanctity and inviolability of shrines and holy places of all religions; and will dedicate itself to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”
Noble words, of course, often do not easily translate into a noble reality. Daily life in Israel has never fully conformed to the ideals of its Declaration of Independence. Nevertheless, many elements of Israel’s society continue in their struggle to achieve a better balance between Jewish character and democratic values.
This past July 19, Israel’s Knesset passed the Nation State Law by a vote of 62 to 55, with two abstaining and one absent. The law has been added to the state’s Basic Laws, which, taken together, serve as the nation’s quasi-constitution.
Sadly, the Nation State Law upsets the delicate balance implied by the words “Jewish democracy,” which has prevailed – however imperfectly – for the past 70 years. In effect, this new law repudiates the principle of the equality of all citizens that was enshrined in Israel’s founding document. Indeed, nowhere in the Nation State Law does the word “equality” appear; for the central purpose of this legislation is to emphasize the inequality between Israel’s Jews and the 20 percent of the population who are not Jews.
The very first sentences of the Nation State Law privilege Jewish identity: “A) The land of Israel is the historical homeland of the Jewish people, in which the state of Israel was established. B) The state of Israel is the national home of the Jewish people, in which it fulfills its natural, cultural, religious and historical right to self-determination. C) The right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.”
Question: Does this mean that the one out of five Israeli citizens who are not Jewish has no say in the shaping of the state?
Arab-Israeli Sayed Kashua, an author who chooses to write in Hebrew, says in an op-ed piece in the July 31 issue of The New York Times, titled “Israel’s Unequal Citizens,” that Israel “prefers to be the state of people born elsewhere, who do not speak its language, have never visited it or paid it taxes or served it in any way ….
“The Nationality Law prevents the possibility of multiculturalism in Israel and rejects any collective history or memory other than the Zionist one. By revoking Arabic’s status as an official state language, the law delivers yet another blow to the culture that has been vying for a position since Israel was founded.”
Israel’s 1.5 million Arab citizens are not the only minority aggrieved by the passage of the Nation State Law, which renders them de jure second-class citizens. Israel’s Druze community, long considered the country’s “model minority,” is equally outraged. Though only about 1 percent of Israel’s population, they have been disproportionately represented in the higher echelons of the nation’s army and police force. From their perspective, the Nation State Law is a slap in the face for decades of loyalty.
A final word. Section 6 of the Nation State Law says, “The state shall act to preserve the cultural, historical and religious heritage of the Jewish people among Jews in the Diaspora.” As a Diaspora Jew, I must say to the 62 members of the Knesset who voted to support the Nation State Law: “No, thank you. Given your massive anti-democratic bias, I cannot support your skewed views concerning ‘the cultural, historical and religious heritage of the Jewish people.’ ”
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim in Barrington. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.