To call a state a democracy requires that the people choose their political representation and that the state protects a set of rights that everyone has access to. There are many frightening things about the so-called “Jewish Nation-State law”, which puts Israel’s Jewish character out in front of democracy by a long shot and we very well may see this bill become law. So far, the bill was already approved by the cabinet in a vote of 14-7, and was set to hit the Knesset floor this Week, but Prime Minister Netanyahu has postponed it until next week.
The bill, which is meant to become a Basic Law (the closest thing Israel has to a constitution), is scary because it emphasizes Jewish privilege under the law in Israel, for example pushing Jewish law into the secular court system and demoting Arabic from one of two official languages down to merely being the mother tongue of 20% of the population and the regional language.
The Declaration of Independence, like most such documents, has beauty and flaw in it. It set Israel up to be a Jewish and democratic state. Much has been discussed about whether that is even possible, or if it ought to be a state that enshrines Jewish and Palestinian identities in state institutions, or if starting from scratch makes sense.
But the Prime Minister of Israel has dictated his answer to those questions and the majority of the cabinet has weighed in favor of his view that Israel will protect individual rights – something it already fails to do, as discrimination and ongoing occupation persist – but will protect only the national rights of one of the peoples that call this place home. Collective rights can be a wonderful thing, but not when those rights extend to only one group at another's expense. It’s fairly simple.
Some say that this bill is only putting on paper the daily reality that so many live as 2nd class citizens in Israel even without this law. This summer, a Palestinian citizen of Israel and member of Knesset was banned from the Knesset for six months for saying things. The reality is already frightening, and the law opens the door to more laws and more discrimination and more oppression.
This bill is, at the least, an announcement of more racist bills to come.
The thing about democratic institutions (courts, parliaments and cabinets) is that they can be used to dismantle themselves. Democracies rarely go out in a flash. Most of the time the power hungry, the xenophobic and the supremacists tear it apart bit by bit. Sheldon Adelson, a major supporter of Netanyahu and his right wing politics, has already suggested that Israel need not be democratic. Democracy is not a given and it is under attack here.
This bill is meant to weaken democracy. Plain and simple. It is another bleeding wound for equality. Minister of Economy, Naftali Bennett has already suggested that this law could be used to demote human dignity and freedom as secondary concerns of this government.
The bill is having another side effect though. People, pundits and politicians are finding more and more that they have to decide whether they are for or against a state of justice and equity for the people living in, or under, Israel. Some cabinet members, including centrists Minister of Finance Yair Lapid and Minister of Justice Tzipi Livni have opposed the law in their rhetoric over the past few days. The outspoken Likud-nik President of Israel, Reuven Rivlin has also come out in opposition. Even the ADL has come out against it.
It is true that this bill is exposing the sad and maddening reality of racism, hate, and privilege in Israel to more people inside the country and elsewhere. I hope this will help inspire people to stand up and work for a better reality.
Still, I feel sick and depressed at the fact that in much of the country the streets are empty. Continued occupation, settler violence, and police repression have led to protests in Palestinian communities throughout Israel and occupied territory, which have been met with more repression and violence, but the vocal rage that a moment like this should elicit from the majority is simply not here.
Op-eds (Yes, I am aware of the irony) are plentiful, but the tents are all packed up for the winter. There are some organizers getting people together to protest this bill, but conversations at work and on facebook betray the fear that so many of us are feeling and right now, as the bill passes to the Knesset, pessimism and downward stares pass through the people.
While we have to be visionary in building a world based on justice, it is a necessity for us to respond here and now; to join the opposition to this bill vocally in the halls of power, in classrooms and media, and in the streets. States can’t be made up of institutions that can be torn down, taken over and used to house hateful ideals, if they are to be facilitators of human dignity, equality and freedom – the building blocks of actual democracy. Instead, a state itself must be an ongoing activity, so those of us who stand against racism in our streets and in our laws must stand today.
This post also appeared at Jewschool.com.