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This is how to fight Israel's Jewish Nation-State Law

From Palestinian refugees to High Court justices, the Jewish Nation-State law will have a significant impact on several groups affected by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is what we can do about it.

By Said Zeedani

Palestinian women take part in a Land Day protest march in Jaffa, March 31, 2012. (Mati Milstein)

Palestinian women take part in a Land Day protest march in Jaffa, March 31, 2012. (Mati Milstein)

The Jewish Nation-State Law, a new law with the force of a constitutional amendment, enshrined Israel as the exclusive nation-state of the Jewish people, demoted the official status of the Arabic language, and gave the right of self-determination in Israel to Jews alone. Palestinian political leaders, Israeli opposition politicians, and dovish Jewish-American groups all lambasted the passage of the law earlier this year, with some saying the law amounted to apartheid and promoting Jewish supremacy.

But beyond the headlines, the Jewish Nation-State Law, sends worrying messages to five different, though interrelated, groups.

The first group is comprised of Palestinian refugees of 1948, whether they reside inside or outside the boundaries of historic Palestine. The law is telling them that their return in large numbers to the villages and towns from which they were uprooted in 1948 is out of the question, since that will disturb the demographic balance of the Jewish State.

In other words, Jews should remain the decisive majority of the citizens of the State of Israel for the long term, just as Israel should remain their exclusive nation state. In addition, and as Prime Minister Netanyahu tweeted recently, even the reunification of Palestinian families divided by the Green Line will become extremely difficult due to the passage of this basic law.

The second group is comprised of Palestinian citizens of Israel. The law tells them that they have no national or collective rights within Israel. The law tells them that they only have individual and not group rights, both in the civil and political realms. The right to national self-determination in Israel is exclusive to Jews, and, hence, it does not apply to them. The law is telling Palestinian citizens of Israel not to even dare dream of separation, to transform Israel into a bi-national state, and not to entertain ideas or visions about autonomy.

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Finally, the law is telling Palestinian citizens of Israel that they have no significant role in matters affecting the Jewish character of the state and how that affects issues such as security, borders, demography, language, the national anthem, or national holidays and symbols. In short, Israel is what it is, and should remain what it is: the state of the Jews. Jews are the masters of the house and they are the only ones with a say regarding sovereignty.

The third group is comprised of the Jews who live outside of Israel. To them, the law says: the State of Israel is your nation state, so you must maintain and protect it, just as it must maintain and protect you. It is your refuge, and it is yours, just as it is for its Jewish citizens. Jews have no other nation state except Israel, the law tells them, and they have the right to immigrate to it at any time.

Strangely, while Jews living outside of Israel, citizens of other countries, can call Israel their nation state, the law denies the very same right to Palestinians living within Israel’s borders and who hold Israeli citizenship.

The fourth group to whom the law speaks is all those who advocate for a democratic one-state solution for Palestinians and Israeli Jews. To them, it says: there is no place for one democratic state in which both Palestinians and Israeli Jews can enjoy equal rights — not in a bi-national, federal, or liberal democratic state. Equal rights is anathema to the Zionist movement, and more specifically, to the idea that the State of Israel is the nation state of the Jews, whether inside or outside its borders.

The fifth group is comprised of Israel’s High Court of Justice and its exponents, including liberal Israeli political parties and politicians, intellectuals, and jurists. To them, it says: Israel’s Jewish character takes a clear precedence over its democracy. Accordingly, there is no room for attempts to strike a balance between the Jewish and the democratic components. The former, according to the Jewish Nation-State Law, takes priority over the latter. This means that Israel is a democracy only to the extent that is consistent with its Jewishness. Needless to say, the Jewish Nation-State Law, a basic law, is binding on the justices of the High Court as well as judges of lower courts.

Palestinian refugees play in an impoverished area in Gaza City on January 17, 2018, after the White House froze tens of millions of dollars in aid to UNRWA. (Wissam Nassar/Flash90)

Palestinian refugees play in an impoverished area in Gaza City on January 17, 2018, after the White House froze tens of millions of dollars in aid to UNRWA. (Wissam Nassar/Flash90)

Since Israel’s founding, the Knesset has passed countless laws that sent identical messages to the aforementioned groups. So why is the Jewish Nation-State Law different? The new law gives explicit legitimacy to the discriminatory laws, practices, and policies that have passed since 1948. Meanwhile, it is also forward-looking, creating a new legal reality with far reaching implications for Palestinians both inside and outside Israel’s borders. This will grant legitimacy to similar, perhaps more alarming, policies, regulations, and practices.

What can be done?

It goes without saying that a serious struggle should be conducted to abolish this ominous law, which undermines the basic principle of equal democratic citizenship. It will need to take place both locally and internationally; it should be waged by civil society, in the legal system, and legislatively. There are many Israeli Jews, as well as many proponents of democracy and human rights worldwide, who are potential partners in such a struggle.

But the struggle must also acknowledge that Israel’s regime of racial superiority and discrimination, created in and sustained since 1948, will not end with the abolishment of the Jewish Nation-State Law. Thus, the struggle must target all laws and policies that sustain an edifice of supremacy. The ultimate goal must be to give the democratic component in the normative definition of the State of Israel a clear and explicit precedence over the Jewish component. In parallel, it must aim to reduce the power of the Jewish component, and offset what remains of it with some sort of autonomy for the Palestinians in Israel, which is needed in any case to preserve their distinct ethnic/national identity.

Dr. Said Zeedani is an associate professor of philosophy at Al-Quds University.

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    1. Firentis

      1) Correct. Israel is not going to allow itself to be turned into an Arab Islamic state by accepting millions of Arab immigrants.

      2) Correct. As individuals they have equal rights. As members of religious and linguistic minorities they have autonomy – schools that teach Arabic, and complete freedom of worship. They have no right to sovereignty as a national group whatever that means and no right to ‘separation’ whatever that means.

      3) Correct. Jews have the right to live in the Jewish state and the right to return to their homeland to become citizens. Non-Jewish citizens have the right to be equal citizens as individuals.

      4) Israel is a Jewish state. There is no room for eliminating Israel and replacing it with an Arab Islamic state which is what most people actually want they claim they want a ‘democratic one state solution’. Democratic for the one election it would take to eliminate Israel. After that Arab and Islamic. Israeli Jews that are taken in by the premise are just the usual utopian useful idiots.

      5) Correct. It cements in legislation the principle that Israel is a Jewish state and it is a democracy that should work towards ensuring it remains a Jewish state as the majority of the country wants.

      What can be done?

      There is nothing you can do. Your attempts since 1948 to destroy Israel have failed. The legislative attempts to use lawfare to undermine the Jewish identity of Israel have just run into a brick wall.

      I love the language you use to describe ultimate goal. It sounds so peaceful. The goal you lay out is to turn Israel into a country that is not Jewish, and given your concern pointed out in (1) to fill it up with Arabs, and then to eliminate the Jewish aspect altogether. At the end of the process you would have an Arab Islamic country called Palestine and no room for Jews. The answer to such a goal is the Nation State Law and it is a good thing that it is now on the books.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Firentis: “As individuals they have equal rights. As members of religious and linguistic minorities they have autonomy…Jews have the right… Non-Jewish citizens have [different] right[s] …Israel is a Jewish state.”

        All of this is persuasively exposed as false and is convincingly refuted by:

        By Noam Sheizaf |Published September 11, 2013
        Why I oppose recognizing Israel as a Jewish state
        A country can, at least in theory, be ‘Israeli and democratic.’ It cannot and will never be ‘Jewish and democratic.’

        They do not, even as “individuals,” have equal rights, and never will in “a Jewish state.”
        They are ways to arrive at a democratic state that is not and never will be “an Arab Islamic state.” This is false dichotomizing. “What most people actually want” is a boogie-man you are erecting to scare people. How many times do we have to say this? What you think people WANT is not the issue. What practical arrangements and safeguards, along American Constitutional lines, that are in place, is the issue. People WANT all sorts of things and can’t have them. You have no more entitlement to “A Jewish state” (as opposed to a Jewish homeland—see Sheizaf) than White Nationalists have a right to a White Protestant America.

        And what really makes it all smell of bad faith and dishonesty is that the very same people such as yourself who spin this propaganda are the people who constantly begrudge the Palestinians their own state east of the Green line in a fair 2SS. You can’t have it both ways. You cannot sell this to people who know better. You can have a 1SS or a 2SS. You can’t have apartheid.

        Reply to Comment
        • Firentis

          I’ll be happy to hear about what individual right they are missing. Is there an office they can’t hold?

          Yeah, I hear you. You want to tell the naive morons in the US and Western Europe that there can be a secular democracy in the Middle East. That the fanatics amongst the Arabs and the Jews can be kept at bay by a magical piece of paper. That the populations won’t naturally gravitate towards hostility despite being unable to agree on any of the basic issues including the name of the place. And yet you know, I know and the author of this article know that this is BS. Anyone that actually looks around the Middle East knows this is BS. And so yes, there is certainly a smell of bad faith and dishonesty. But it isn’t coming from me.

          And as well all know this is BS we also know that the consequence of all these proposals is to deprive the Jews of their rights and ability to defend themselves in order to replace Israel with an Arab Islamic state.

          The Palestinians can have a state any time they are willing to accept one. Unfortunately they, like you and the author want a Palestinian Arab Muslim state in place of Israel and not one next to it. And so the truth remains. The Palestinians can have their own state. They can’t have mine.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            The bad faith in your reply is contained in two false statements wrapped around an exercise of feigned helplessness. Your first sentence is an evasion. In practice Arab Israelis have not been afforded the same rights as Jewish Israelis and never will in “a Jewish state” and the nation state law only made that too obvious. (Sheizaf is persuasive to me–and somehow I recall you recently praising Sheizaf for his realism–only you cherry pick and choose what aspects of realism you like, whereas I read Sheizaf as having the courage to accepts all aspects and draw conclusions.) And in saying that “The Palestinians can have a state any time they are willing to accept one” you go beyond evasion to the kind of false assertion that no one, Left or Right, who knows anything about what is really going on believes for a minute. Between these two false statements that begin and end your post is an exercise in feigned helplessness: “We are helpless to do anything but surrender to fanatics, therefore our fanatics not their fanatics must rule.” All of it is an exercise in bad faith.

            Reply to Comment
          • Firentis

            Blah blah blah. I asked for an example of an individual right they were missing. You resorted to the usual bloated sanctimonious evasions.

            The only thing that is preventing the Palestinians from having a state is their inability to accept an offer when one is placed in front of them because it would mean giving up on the dream of eliminating Israel.

            The golden rule of government is: never allow neither fanatics nor idealists to rule. The former will pursue bad dreams and in the process break things. The latter will watch helplessly as their precious naive dreams are crushed under reality.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Excuse me? The golden rule of government involves not letting fanatics or idealists rule? You’re so obviously quiet happy with letting both fanatics and idealists rule Israel and the territories it occupies. Only they are Jewish fanatics and idealists, so you, unconsciously it seems, think this quite alright.

            “I asked for an example of an individual right they were missing.”

            First of all, I am not conceding the issue of self-determination. Just so you know. Because you want to control the terms of debate and sneak in the idea that self-determination in this particular Israel-Palestine context can be dispensed with (for non-Jews) if we just busy ourselves with that nice-sounding “individual rights.” Human rights are more complicated than “individual rights,” which in your hands become a subterfuge. This is why +972 Magazine never goes astray—it maintains its focus on human rights for all. You want a situation where one group of people has rights another group does not, based entirely on ethnicity. You got lost somewhere along the way in the wrong century in my view.

            Sheizaf (please actually read him and take him seriously) spells out why polite talk, for outside consumption by the goyim, of formal–but in practice worked around–“individual rights” is empty talk when we are dealing with, as Tomer Persico explains–

            A ‘truly’ Jewish democracy: On the ideology of Likud’s Moshe Feiglin

            –a “popular democracy” in which there is no constitutional redress for ethnic discrimination and the tyranny of the majority. Just picture the United States without a Constitution and without a Supreme Court that vigorously defends that Constitution and enjoys a truly tripartite system of government with three co-equal branches (settled since Marbury vs. Madison, 1803—but which certain Trump supporters, always testing boundaries like criminals and neo-fascists will, are making outrageous noises that they would like to revisit). Just picture the fate of non-White-Christian minorities in that situation from 1776 onwards. There is nothing Israelis have done in the last 70 years that would mark then as peculiar exceptions to all the things the American Founding Fathers were on guard against because they understood human nature as it really is.

            Reply to Comment
          • Firentis

            So you wrote another wall of text because you really can’t come up with an individual right that the Israeli Arabs do not have. Thank you for conceding the argument.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Poor dear. It wouldn’t be another Israeli episode of feigned helplessness, would it? Sorry you find a paragraph an unscalable wall but I won’t lower the level to accommodate this disability. I’m not going to provide a cognitive wheelchair and ramp for you. In any other circumstance you would admire my lack of “progressivism.”

            I do not concede the argument. The differentiation between collective rights, which only Jews enjoy, and individual rights, which are given to others, has to be rejected. One cannot sever individual citizens’ rights from their consciousness about their identity, culture, language, religion, tradition, and historical memory. To try to do so is to try to strip people of their selves, their souls, their dignity. If I am a native Arabic speaker native to the land and over 20% of my fellow citizens are such, to strip my language of official status is to strip me of my rights as an individual citizen. Try telling the Canadian citizens of Quebec not to worry they have full “individual rights” if French is demoted to unofficial status in Canada.

            The nation state law very explicitly and purposefully excluded, despite the explicit request of many to include it, a statement about equality for all citizens. It deliberately excluded the language of the Declaration of Independence, in which is promised “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.” Sending Israel further on the path to apartheid, the law asserts Jewish supremacy and the entrenchment of two separate classes of citizens, one that enjoys full rights and one that doesn’t. And all of this gets back to what we said in “wall” # 1 above, formal rights are one thing, rights in actual practice another: “polite talk…of formal–but in practice worked around–“individual rights” is empty talk when we are dealing with…a ‘popular democracy’….”

            Reply to Comment
    2. itshak Gordine

      This law was democratically voted by the Knesset. Arab deputies participated in the vote. It’s democracy.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        You see, Firentis? You want to say “everyone has formal individual rights, what’s the problem?,” but Israeli citizen Halevy’s smug satisfaction with the tyranny of the majority of the nation state law as an example of “democracy,” says it all. The fact is, the practices of Israeli “democracy” would, practiced in the United States, be immediately struck down as unconstitutional. You need to stop pretending you are like the United States. Because you can cloak this system in Israel in nice sounding terms but it is at bottom Feiglinist:

        By +972 Magazine |Published December 17, 2012
        A ‘truly’ Jewish democracy: On the ideology of Likud’s Moshe Feiglin
        By Tomer Persico

        This is, yet again, the Israeli demand to have it both ways: “We want to be considered a western liberal democracy just like the USA and Western Europe, and accorded all the respect and rights that go with that, but we don’t want the responsibilities to all our citizens that go with it. We want a special exemption to practice colonialism, ‘popular (Jewish) democracy,’ and the tyranny of the majority, all of which–“river to sea”–adds up to a form of apartheid. And if we don’t get that special exemption, we’ll cry foul (we’ll cry “the new anti-Semitism”) — because we’re special. We get to have it both ways.”

        Reply to Comment
      • Tom

        @Itshak Gordine : A democracy by definition means than the sovereignity of the nation belong to the people. With the new nation law, the nation belongs only to the jewish people, meaning than non-jewish people can be citizen (with most of equal rights, even with 60 discrimination laws) BUT are NOT part of the nation. Israel can’t be democracy by definition.

        Let’s compare to other country around, Egypt for exemple (that is absolutly not a model of democracy where christian and jewish are also discriminated). Even if Egypt has a religous state, the egyptian constitution clearly includes the christian and the jewish IN the nation. Jewish (even if few remaining) and christian egyptians are citizens BUT ALSO part of the Egypt nation.

        Reply to Comment