Now that the Nationality Bill—or in its formal name, Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People—has passed a preliminary Knesset reading, we should remember that the legislation was originally proposed by Knesset Members Ze’ev Elkin and Avi Dichter, with the latter being a member of the Kadima party at the time.
In fact, nearly all Kadima lawmakers supported the bill at the time, much to Chairwoman Tzipi Livni’s chagrin. Dichter’s first version, by the way, was more radical than the one approved last week.
The bill's supporters will say that after it passes a second and third reading, a balance will be struck between the rights of the individual, which are already protected in two basic laws—Human Dignity and Liberty and Freedom of Occupation—and the definition of the State’s Jewish character. Up until now, they will claim, there has been a clash between these two components, the rights of the individual and the national definition. From now on, there will be equality. Or as Minister Elkin said last week: The law doesn’t change things, it just gives them legal validity.
On the surface, it seems that the entire purpose of the Nationality Bill is to show the Arabs, once and for all, who’s boss here. A deeper, thorough look reveals that this is indeed its only purpose.
In other words, the Nationality Bill offers no dramatic changes. All it does is repeat things that already exist in legislation. One of the best examples is the alleged downgrade in the status of the Arabic language compared to Hebrew. It’s unclear what this clause can actually achieve that doesn’t already exist.
About half a year ago, a Be’er Sheva resident complained to the city’s mayor that the Arabic signs and public announcements on Dan buses were “irritating to see and irritating to hear.” Another person wrote: “Dan offers signs in Arabic too. Am I the only one troubled by this? It’s as if I live in Hebron.” The mayor immediately ordered the bus company to remove the Arabic announcements, and the company rushed to implement his order. Even the court ruled years ago that if it is complicated or expensive to publish every order or law in two languages, Hebrew will suffice.
Everything the Nationality Bill seeks to offer already exists in the State of Israel’s different laws: The Israeli Flag, Emblem and Anthem Law; the Law of Return; the Independence Day Law; the Memorial Day Law; the Hours of Work and Rest Law; the Foundations of Law Act; the Protection of Holy Places Law. Together, they cover everything proposed in this new legislation, and there is essentially nothing new.
It’s possible that in the State of Israel of the 1960s or 1970s, such a law would have been adopted by a large majority. Even the left-wing Mapam party would have voted for it. But in the current Knesset, even Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party voted against it.
The tempest created by the bill brings to mind similar, although smaller, tempests. Daylight saving time, for example: There are arguments in favor and against it, and frequent changes every year in the day it starts and the day it ends. Industrialists and economists offer scientific evidence of the millions of shekels that each additional day adds to the state coffer. On the other hand, rabbis complain about how difficult it is for Ashkenazi Jews to observe the Selichot tradition of the month of Elul. And the decisive factor is the demand to apply standard time before Yom Kippur so as to make things easier for those who fast, as if the purpose of the fast is to be easy. The entire daylight saving time issue is, in fact, aimed at showing the religious—and, on the other hand, showing the secular—who’s boss.
The Knesset factions are like six blind men touching an elephant, and trying to explain what an elephant is. Each faction sees something different in the bill. Some see it as a way to pressure the High Court of Justice, which is sometimes inclined to rule out of democratic considerations, and force it to favor Jewish considerations. For example, to “save” the residents of south Tel Aviv from the infiltrators, or as Minister Naftali Bennett once said: “The next time the High Court discusses a law to stop the infiltration, it will have to include in its considerations the fact that Israel is the Jewish people’s national home, and not just human dignity and liberty.”
The only clear and pronounced thing about the bill that passed a preliminary Knesset reading last Wednesday, causing quite an uproar, is that it will be changed completely. The different wordings proposed so far—Dichter and Elkin’s proposal, Arie Eldad’s proposal, Ruth Calderon’s proposal, Ayelet Shaked and Yariv Levin’s proposal, Benny Begin’s proposal, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposal, Elazar Stern, Meir Sheetrit, Amram Mitzna, David Tzur and Amir Peretz’s proposal, Hana Sweid, Dov Khenin and Afu Agbaria’s proposal—have all been carried by the wind. The proposal that passed a preliminary reading last week will be carried away too, and so will the proposals that replace it.
There was unrest last week even in the coalition. The bill was almost thwarted by the ultra-Orthodox parties. Shas and United Torah Judaism are afraid of basic laws, ever since the two human rights legislations from the 1990s. Their objection also stems from the fact that the legislation includes Zionist symbols like the anthem and the flag, and they are being cautious about it.
In their coalition agreements, they demanded a right to veto this bill’s wording and advancement. When the bill was submitted to the Knesset last week, they wanted to use their veto power. The only reason they finally agreed to support it in the preliminary reading was that Dichter and Coalition Chairman David Bitan promised that each coalition faction would have the right to veto the bill’s advancement. Nevertheless, the Haredi dissatisfaction indicates that future votes won’t be that simple. Will today’s Israel, which is incapable of deciding on the structure of a public television channel, be able to agree on a basic law?
The bill’s main goal—for the Jewish people to give the Arab people the finger—has already been achieved.