Two weeks have passed since the adoption of the Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People—also known as the Nationality Law—and yet the debate is in full swing. The media gives the impression the new law violates the rights of minorities and turns the State of Israel into a racist country. I thought so too, until I read the law, discovering that the truth could not be further from that. You can read it yourself here.
What is the Nationality Law?
The basic law declares that the State of Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, that the anthem is "Hatikvah," that the flag of the state is blue and white, that Independence Day is a national holiday, and that the state shall encourage Jewish immigration. All familiar things that every Zionist supports.
Sounds great. So why is the law needed?
This law should have been passed years ago. Since its establishment, Israel has passed 13 Basic Laws that are in many senses equivalent to a constitution. The previous Basic Laws dealt with the separation of powers, with human dignity and liberty, and so on. This law adds an element that was missing: the special character of the state as a Jewish homeland.
In addition, the law is a response to the erosion among some of the Israeli elites—including some sections of the Supreme Court—of the Jewish identity of the state. Had the Knesset not passed this law, the High Court of Justice could have been petitioned, for example, over the right of Jews to immigrate to Israel or over the national anthem.
So the Druze, the Arabs and the other minorities are right. The law discriminates against them!
It seems that when opponents of the law can’t find problems with the language of the law, they invent things that are not written in it. Arabs, Druze and members of minorities: you are being deceived. The law does not violate any of your rights, nor limit your partnership in this country. There might be areas in which there are unjustified gaps between sectors, such as in the field of education or infrastructure, and these are problems that must be dealt with; recently the government has expressed its commitment to this task by allocating billions of shekels to it. In any event, this law does not deal with individual civil rights, which are shared equally, but rather only with the national rights granted to the Jewish nation. Individual rights are guaranteed explicitly in other basic laws.
Moreover, the law ensures that "the state will work to ensure the well-being of the Jewish people and of its citizens who are in distress ... because they are Jews or because of their citizenship." This was carefully drafted to mean that the state is obligated by its Basic Law to come to the aid of any Druze, Christian or Muslim citizen in harm’s way due to their Israeli citizenship.
If the rights of minorities are not violated, why is the principle of equality not mentioned within the law?
This is not the appropriate framework. The appropriate framework is the Basic Laws dealing with individual rights. Indeed, the court has already expanded the interpretation of "human dignity" and granted constitutional protection to the value of equality. The court rejected government decisions and laws whose violation of equality was unjustified in its opinion and the Nationality Law does not seek to change that. Thus, for example, the tax benefits map was rejected on the grounds that it discriminates against Arabs; the IDF was forced to allow the recruitment of female pilots, and so on.
Moreover, the court inserted the value of equality into the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty even though the Knesset did not include it explicitly it in the language of the original law. This is, of course, another reason why Knesset members are suspicious and unwilling to introduce the word "equality" into the new law. Based on the Supreme Court’s history of very loose interpretation of existing statutes, the Knesset is legitimately concerned that the Court might one day decide, for example, that in the name of equality, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from the territories can become citizens of Israel through marriage, or that the Israeli religious marriages system should be annulled. These are legitimate questions, but they should be left to the legislators, the people’s representatives, not to the Supreme Court.
Is the status of Arabic being downgraded?
No. To this day, there is a dispute among jurists whether Arabic is considered an official language. In practice, it is clear that it has never been of equal status to Hebrew, which is apparent, for example, in the fact that Israeli courts will not accept petitions in Arabic. Moreover, the Basic Law clearly states that "the status that is actually given to the Arabic language before the commencement of this Basic Law is not to be harmed." In fact, this means that the status of Arabic in Israel is higher than the status of minority languages in other enlightened countries. In France and the United States, it is impossible to study at a state school in Arabic or Spanish, you study only in the language of the state, French or English respectively. In Israel, the Arab minority studies in Arabic at state schools and will continue to do so.
What about the article that says the state will act to encourage Jewish settlement?
The relevant article reads "The state views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value, and will act to encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation." This says nothing more than was already stated in the League of Nations mandate and has been a cornerstone of Zionism for over a century. Unfortunately, Israel still is endangered by irredentism and must defend its borders. By the way, Israel has many established settlements and large cities that are exclusively populated by Arabs, who do not wish for Jews to live in their midst. Have you ever tried to live as a Jew in Umm al-Fahm or Rahat?
What about the connections with Diaspora Jewry?
The law explicitly states that "the state will act in the Diaspora to preserve the connection between the state and the Jewish people." For the first time, the State of Israel affirms in basic legislation the status of the Law of Return and guarantees the connection with Diaspora Jewry. What could be more Jewish and Zionist than that?
So why do so many people oppose to the Nationality Law?
The truth is that the public relations for supporting the law is poor and there is wild incitement against it in the global media. Even if it is possible and desirable to argue about the law and its sections, the level of media discussion indicates that many critics of the law did not even bother to read it. After they read the law, I would expect all Jewish MKs to support the law or at least to lower the level of incitement.
The law ratifies classical Zionism: The State of Israel is a Jewish state. That's all. Like most countries in the world (but unlike the United States and Canada, which are the exception and not the rule), Israel is a nation-state.
Those who deny the legitimacy of nation-states cannot do so only in the case of Israel. And those who oppose the law did not read it or automatically react negatively to everything that Netanyahu and his government are promoting. It is possible not to love Netanyahu, but it is fitting and proper to support this just legislation promoted by his government.
Now that this law joins the rest of Israel's basic laws, Israel will continue to be a Jewish, democratic state that guarantees full civil rights for all its citizens. That’s the way it was until now, that’s how it’s going to be from now on.
Dr. Netanel Fisher is a Kohelet Policy Forum fellow and a senior lecturer at the Academic Center for Law and Science Sha'arei Mishpat.