Last week, Israel’s government pushed through Parliament a new law calling Israel the “nation-state of the Jewish people.” That statement may sound like a truism — and in some respects it is one — but the implications of it officially being made are monumental.
In 1948, the Declaration of Independence, the text that marks the founding of Israel, created a Jewish state that would ensure “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.” Since then, the question of how Israel could be both Jewish and democratic has been the object of fierce controversy.
The effort to guarantee equal rights for non-Jews has at times seemed like trying to square a circle. Last week, Israel gave up on even trying.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claims that the new legislation simply “determined in law the founding principle of our existence.” In fact, its primary function is to build a formal foundation for Israel’s annexation of the West Bank — and for a Jewish state eventually to stretch over the whole of Palestine. Late last year, Mr. Netanyahu’s hard-right Likud party had called for the “application of Israeli law and sovereignty in all liberated areas of settlement” in the West Bank.
Critics of last week’s nation-state legislation say it flouts the 1948 Declaration of Independence, but matters are messier, and uglier, than that: The new law only exposes an old dirty truth, an unspoken quid pro quo dating back to the creation of modern Israel.
The Declaration based itself explicitly on a 1947 United Nations General Assembly resolution that called for the establishment of two states in Palestine: one Jewish, the other Palestinian. It recognized “the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign state.” It also declared “the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz-Israel.” This language — “like all other nations”; “in,” not “over,” the Holy Land — left open the possibility that Palestinians, too, could be masters of their own fate, also in Palestine.
But this implicit nod to Palestinian self-determination was driven by an overriding concern for Jewish interests, not Arab rights. In May 1948, there were about 600,000 Jews and some 1.2 million Arabs living within Palestine’s borders. With Jews in the minority, the Jewishness of a democratic Israel could only be ensured if Palestinians had a chance at self-determination. In other words, Israel’s foundational twin pledge (to be both Jewish and democratic) was hypocritical: Arabs would be equal (in rights) so long as Jews were superior (in numbers).
The system’s original contradictions are now being laid bare. Of the more than 8.2 million people living in Israel’s recognized borders today, roughly 73 percent are Jewish and 22 percent are Arab. But of the 11.8 million people who live in Israel and the West Bank, roughly 56 percent are Jewish and 40 percent are Arab. And as the prospect of a viable two-state solution has receded, so has Israel’s promise that it would provide full equality to non-Jews.
In keeping with this evolution, last week’s nation-state law says that, “The right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.” Its proponents insist that such pronouncements neither amend nor undermine the 1948 Declaration’s commitments to equality because the legislation doesn’t subordinate democratic rights to the protection of Jewish identity. This is a misleading claim: The nation-state law doesn’t create any such hierarchy because it doesn’t need to; other laws already do.
Notably, any person who “expressly or by implication” negates “the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state” already is prohibited from running for Parliament, known as the Knesset. Defending Israeli democracy through such a law arguably is a legitimate way to guard against extremists who want to destroy the system from within, by abusing its own rules. But defending the state’s Jewishness in this manner runs roughshod over people’s equal right to democratic representation. It implies that Israel’s Jewish identity trumps its democratic character.
Last month, the Joint List, an alliance of mostly Arab-Israeli lawmakers, submitted to Parliament a bill called “Basic Law: The State of All of Its Citizens” that proposed redefining Israel from a Jewish state to a neutral republic. The Knesset didn’t even vote on it, invoking a procedural rule to dismiss it outright as denying the country’s Jewishness.
As Ahmad Tibi, an Arab-Israeli member of the Knesset quipped back in 2009, “This country is Jewish and democratic: Democratic toward Jews, and Jewish toward Arabs.” The nation-state law has just made it more so.
In particular, the new law says that “the state views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation.” In the context of Israel’s ongoing conflicts over demography and land, promoting Jewish settlement doesn’t just mean favoring the interests of Jews; it also means undermining the interests of Arabs.
The cruel results of this strategy are well known from Israel’s settlement project in the West Bank, but similar measures have also been implemented inside Israel proper. In the 1980s, numerous Jewish villages were established in the north of the country as part of a heavily funded effort to “Judaize the Galilee.” (I grew up in one of them.) To set up these villages, the government confiscated the land of Arab Israelis and isolated their towns from one another. Their economic prospects waned; their national aspirations — such as for autonomy within Israel — were undermined. Last week’s law will give these old methods a fresh boost, including before the Supreme Court, where they have been challenged in the past.
Israel’s policy of promoting Jewish settlements has created de facto apartheid in the occupied territories of the West Bank. The nation-state law now formally endorses the use of similar apartheid methods within Israel’s recognized borders. What was long suspected has finally been made brutally clear: Israel cannot be both a Jewish state and a liberal democracy.
Omri Boehm is an associate professor of philosophy at the New School for Social Research.