Photo: Alex Kolomoisky
Knesset votes on nationality bill
Photo: Alex Kolomoisky

Is the nationality law a wolf in sheep's clothing?

Op-ed: A unilateral nationality law contradicts the vow we made to ourselves and to the world in the Declaration of Independence, which says the state is the national home of the Jewish people, but at the same time will 'maintain full equality for all its citizens, regardless of religion, race or gender.'

The Knesset is voting Wednesday night on the nationality bill, which will determine—hold onto your seats—that Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people. It turns out that the Declaration of Independence, the existing Basic Laws, the elaborate ruling of the courts and the fact the overwhelming majority of Israeli and world citizens see Israel as the state of the Jewish people are not enough.



But if the bill states the obvious, why would people for whom Israel's Jewish identity plays a vital part in the shaping of their being, such as myself, oppose it? If the bill is so innocuous, why would the coalition need to flex its muscles—forbid any type of absence—to pass a bill that says nothing new? A a closer examination shows that it is a case of a wolf in sheep's clothing.


The bill seeks to change the existing law, suggesting, inter alia, to downgrade the status of Arabic from an official language to one with a "special status"—a move which is meant as an act of defiance against the Arab minority. The bill also initially sought to allow the establishment of separate communities based on nationality despite the opposition of the attorney general.


Knesset votes on nationality bill  (Photo: Alex Kolomoisky)
Knesset votes on nationality bill (Photo: Alex Kolomoisky)


However, and without diminishing the importance of the aforementioned issues, the bill's most dramatic damage is the violation of the balance between the Zionist enterprise's particular aspect and its universal one. 


The bill proposal extensively reviews one side of the equation—the Jewish identity of the state—without mentioning its democratic element. Those who support the bill argue that that democratic element is already addressed in other Basic Laws. But that's misdirection, since Israel does not have a complete Human Rights Charter, and even the most basic right of all—the right for equality—is not

explicitly statutory.


Therefore, if the nationality bill is passed into law, a reasonable interpretation of it might put the Jewish majority's national preferences above basic human rights, thus enabling harming the Arab minority through nationalistic legislation as well as by the actions of the executive authority.


A unilateral nationality law contradicts the vow we made to ourselves and to the world in the Declaration of Independence, Israel's constitutive document, which says the state is the national home of the Jewish people, but at the same time it commits to "maintain full equality in social and political rights for all its citizens, regardless of religion, race or gender." 


In 1948, when we were few, weak, and under attack from every direction, we managed to present a moral and decent stance without lowering our national stature. Are we now to withdraw from it?


The nationality bill contradicts constitutional norms across the world. Countries that enshrine into their constitutions their status as a nation state always balance it with a constitutional provision addressing the "other." Most of these countries ensure in their constitution equal treatment and bar ethnic discrimination, or otherwise determine the country is also the nation state of the minorities residing in it. Is the State of Israel—which claims to be a light unto the nations—willing to be the only democratic nation state that does not guarantee equality to all its citizens?


The unilateral nationality bill not only contradicts the Israeli ethos and international norms, but also the basic Jewish message on how to treat a foreigner living among us. The Torah speaks directly to our generation in saying: "When ye are come into the land of your habitations, which I give unto you ... One law and one ordinance shall be both for you, and for the stranger that sojourneth with you."


The decent way to treat the foreigner derives directly from our fundamental historical memory—"Love ye therefore the stranger; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt."


After 70 years of resounding success in the physical aspects of the Israeli existence—security, economy, science, and more—it is time to deal with our identity aspects with a careful, balanced, generous and trusting hand. It cannot be done while denying all that is dear to us—our humanity, our Judaism, our Israeliness and our membership in the international community. Let us not shame ourselves.  

Yedidia Stern is the deputy president of the Israeli Democracy Institute and a law professor at Bar-Ilan University.








פרסום ראשון: 07.19.18, 00:43
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