The Nation State Bill is Just the Symptom, the Disease is Far Worse

When the Nation State bill was first seriously discussed by the Israeli government 4 years ago, I took to the streets with my friends, all Jewish Israelis living in an almost entirely Jewish town. We bused to Tel Aviv to join a crowd of protestors walking down Rothschild Avenue crying apartheid. Today when I heard that the bill finally passed, I barely shrugged. Back then it had only been about the pizzeria at the corner of Rothschild and Allenby anyway, I thought to myself.

A lot is being said about the bill these days. That it is anti-democratic. That it discriminates Palestinian citizens of Israel. That it undermines the values of the Israeli declaration of Independence. All of these have strong elements of truth in them. To start with the facts, the bill was first proposed in proposed in 2011 by the Chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense committee, Avi Dichter, and immediately gained both strong support within the government coalition and generated an outcry outside of it. The idea of the law was simple; to formally declare that Israel was first and foremost a Jewish state and only then a democracy. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud party stood to gain a lot from the bill, particularly since his right flank was being overtaken by the nationalist “HaBait Hayaudi” party. However, since his coalition also included more centrist parties, the likes of “Kadima” and “Yesh Atid” he decided to back down. However, today the atmosphere in Israel is very different than it was five years ago. All of the “centrist” parties have left Netanyahu’s coalition in he is under ever more stress from the corruption scandals engulfing him. Why he would push for this law to be passed is clear. Yet he still had to concede and provide a watered down version which did not explicitly include a reference to the precedence of the Jewish nature of the state over its democratic aspect, despite strongly implying it.

Prime Minister Benjamin Nentanyahu talks to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer during an interview.

The significance of the softened bill means that it cannot be used directly to target the Israeli judiciary, which was one of the goals of the original bill submitted in 2015 which asked for “principles of Justice and Liberty of the Jewish tradition” to be considered in judicial decisions. However, what the bill does include are explicit references to whom can make claims on the institutions and the territory of the State of Israel. It declares the State of Israel to be the national home of the Jewish people, which uniquely holds the “right to exercise national self-determination”, and whose capital is “complete and undivided” Jerusalem.

However, knowing that the law has minimal practical consequences and is simply a desperate act of a man keen on raising his polling numbers does not diminish its significance. It is, as many correctly point out, a law undermining Israeli democracy. It is a law that goes against the spirit of the Israeli declaration of independence, which carefully states that Israel is to be both a Jewish and Democratic state which “will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants… and ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex”. However, my personal belief is that many of those horrified by the law share a critical though not uncommon misunderstanding about life in Israel. Israeli is, and always has been, exclusively the state of its Jewish citizens. This is not meant to be taken as a normative statement, but rather an observation of the facts on the ground. Israel affords all its citizens rights which make them nominally equal in the eyes of the law, yet while all Israelis are equal, some, in practice, are clearly more equal than others.

HaTnuah Party Chairwoman and Former Foreign Affairs Minister Tzipi Livni

It starts with the small things, a Muslim woman wearing a Niqab is not allowed into a train station, and ends with much bigger things – the Israeli government allocating only a miniscule percentage of its budget to Palestinian towns and institutions. As a thought experiment consider the impossibility of a Muslim Israeli Prime Minister or even of a mainstream political party which included a significant percentage of Palestinian Israelis. While Arab parties and lawmakers occupy a significant amount of seats in the Knesset, except for Yizhak Rabin’s second government coalition in 1992, no majority Arab party has ever been a part of Israel’s governing coalition. Even the majority (though by no means all) of left of centre parties, which constantly espouse their commitment to democracy and Palestinian independence, cannot fathom the idea of multiculturalism. To take away any of the nominal equality afforded to Palestinians is unfathomable insofar as it undermines the institution of democracy, not because of its oppression of non-Jewish Israelis.

Take Tzipi Livni for example, the head of the centrist HaTnuah party and a strong partisan of an independent Palestine (but don’t push her too much on Jerusalem and the right of return). Her reaction to the nation state bill was posting on twitter that “the only way Israel can be Jewish state is if the Palestinians get their own”. I.e. democracy and Palestinian independence are important inasmuch as they promote our own interests. So why not just say it? Why not publically declare to the entire world that Israel is not committed to all its citizens? Why not take away the last weapon of those who say to Palestinian Israelis that they should be grateful to live in the only democracy in the Middle East?

Before writing this I paused to think whether I was in a position to say all this. After all, I’m a Jewish citizen of Israel. Moreover, I’m a Jewish citizen of Israel currently living in a country with an unrivalled commitment to multiculturalism. The pain I feel for the Palestinian citizens of Israel is that of one who attempts to distantly sympathize from a position of strength. I have never been discriminated against in Israel. Sometimes when I walk into a train station a security guard will ask for my ID. And I show it to him proudly. After all the guard is my friend, maybe today I was just looking a little too Arab for his taste. But I know that the second he’ll take a look at my ID he’ll see that my name is Inbar, and my father’s is Guy and my grandfather’s is Avraham. Then he’ll surely let me through, he might even give me a smile. It can only attest to the dissonance between the ideal of equality and the reality of Israeli life that all that information is indeed contained on my government issued ID.

Druze Israeli Protest in Tel Aviv, August 2018

Perhaps it is the case that Palestinian Israelis enjoy the nominal equality afforded to them by Israeli law despite the systemic discrimination they face. Maybe there are Palestinian Israelis who don’t feel discriminated against or feel that they are as much a part of Israeli society as anyone else. This was clearly the case of Druze Israelis who came out in droves to protest against the bill. After all, despite being a religious minority, the Druze have sent their sons to fight alongside Jews in the Israeli army since 1953, and through their blood and sacrifice have inextricably woven their destiny with that of the Jewish people. It is hardly surprising that they find this law a slap in the face. But for me, as much as it pains me to admit, this law is simply a perfect reflection of the prevailing sentiment in Israel. The focus on the consequences of the law overshadows a fundamental truth- a society is shaped by its laws, but the laws are equally shaped by the society. Yesterday, Palestinian citizens of Israel were equal in nothing but name – and today the world finally knows it.

Edited by Sarie Khalid