DEMOCRATIC AND JEWISH or DEMOCRATIC OR JEWISH?


Our beloved Israel, the democratic homeland of the Jewish people, lacks a constitution. Instead, Israel has 11 Basic Laws, meant to lay the groundwork for a future constitution. It also has a Declaration of Independence, which has been used by Israel’s Supreme Court as a guidepost for Israel’s fundamental values.

Israel’s Declaration of Independence states that:

THE STATE OF ISRAEL … will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture

Israel’s present government has proposed a new Basic Law, called the Nation-State Law in English, Hoq Ha-L’om in Hebrew. Here’s its purpose as set out in the law:

Purpose 1. The purpose of this Basic Law is to secure the character of Israel as the National State of the Jewish People in order to codify in a basic law the values of Israel as a Jewish democratic state in the spirit of the principles of its Declaration of Independence.

Please note that the State’s character is the National State of the Jewish People, “in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence.” How does the government interpret the “spirit of the Declaration of Independence?”

The proposed Basic Law opens with this provision:

Basic Principles 1. The State of Israel is the National Home of the Jewish People; wherein the Jewish People fulfills its yearning for self-determination in accordance with its historical and cultural heritage. 2. The Right of national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish People. 3. This Basic Law and all other laws shall be interpreted in conformity with this provision.

The right of national self-determination is uniquely a Jewish prerogative in this newly redefined State. All other laws are to be interpreted in accord with this principle. No other people in the State has the right to self-determination. It is fair to anticipate that future laws in Israel will be interpreted with this idea in mind: does this law further the self-determination of the Jewish people? If so, even when the law does not treat all citizens equally as the Declaration of Independence promises, it is nonetheless constitutional.

Tzipi Livny, founder of the Hatanua Party and former Justice Minister of Israel, in an article in Haaretz newspaper on April 30th called this Basic Law “legislation to dismantle Israeli democracy.”

Already in Israeli law smaller towns may exclude Arabs, even citizens of Israel. It is well-known that the army frequently watches passively while settlers deny the rights of Palestinians on the West Bank.

With this Basic Law, Israel stands on the verge of judging all laws not on the basis of their equal treatment of citizens of whatever background, but on the basis of the “self-determination of the … Jewish people.”

It is well-known that Israel currently faces a demographic challenge: if Israel keeps the West Bank, the Jewish and Arab populations may soon be equal. Democracy means one person one vote. If Israel’s Arabs, including Judea and Samaria, become a majority, democracy means they would have the votes to replace the government with an Arab majority government.

But not if this Basic Law passes. This is Prime Minister Netanyahu’s solution to the demographic dilemma of “greater Israel”: do not treat the Arab population as equals.

My article two weeks ago in the Chronicle referred to the coming fascistic tendencies in Israel if this Basic Law passes. No one actually knows what the Likkud government will do. But Tzipi Livni and the editorial board of the Haaretz newspaper, and many others who can read the writing on the wall, understand Netanyahu’s intentions. It’s not a matter of simply declaring Israel what it already is. The Declaration of Independence proclaimed Israel the national home of the Jewish people 70 years ago. No, it’s about degrading and delimiting the rights of the Arab minority and preventing them from ever having full rights in an Israel declared to be the State which fulfills the promise of this Basic Law, that “… national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish People.”

Will American Jews continue to support an Israel in which Arabs, de jure, are denied equal rights?

I am not declaring the problems associated with the Arab minority in Israel to be entirely Israel’s fault: far from it. But we are watching the Netanyahu government turn Israel into a legally repressive regime in which, contrary to Israel’s purpose as proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence, Israel will no longer be based on freedom, justice and peace for all of its inhabitants. Rather, it will be the Nation-State of the Jewish people, and if the government deems an oppressive law to be needed for the “Self-Determination of the Jewish people,” then democracy be damned.

The Netanyahu government expects the support of American Christian evangelicals and Orthodox Jews. Netanyahu already proclaimed that liberal Jews no longer matter, “because in two generations they will all be assimilated.” My question is: will American Jews who care about democracy support an Israel that has abandoned democracy and decency in its quest to be the so-called Nation-State of the Jewish people, but which oppresses Arabs?

Admittedly Israel’s Arabs may well enjoy better lives than the same people would in other nations in the Middle East. But that’s not the question we’re discussing here. Rather, will a non-democratic Israel be the nation of the Jewish people, or just another middle eastern theocratic leaning state that ignores the fundamental rights of a large proportion, possibly a majority, of its future inhabitants?

Will our beloved Israel, the “hope of 2,000 years,” remain a democracy among the democracies of the world, or a regime that requires more and more oppressive measures to control its minorities? I pray for democracy, because only a democracy will survive as the Jewish State for all the Jewish people.

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© 2016 by Rabbi Mark H. Levin.