July 18th, 2018, will perhaps be remembered some day as the date when the Knesset challenged, through its vote, the balance existing, since the creation of the State of Israel, between the two components of its identity as a Jewish AND democratic State. After almost ten years of fruitless attempts to obtain a vote, and after a stormy debate, the “Nation-State Bill” was adopted on July 18th by 62 votes in favour, 55 against and 2 abstentions. That law Benyamin Netanyahu was so much attached to passed in spite of the opposition of the government’s legal counsel, who considered it could not stand on its own merits, and of Reuven Rivlin, President of the State of Israel, who perceived it as a threat to democracy.
The new bill declares that Israel is the “Nation-State of the Jewish people, in which it fulfills its natural, cultural, religious and historical right to self-determination.” We could say that there is nothing new in such an statement, since the Declaration of Independence of the State, read by David Ben Gourion on May 14th, 1948, proclaimed already , in the name of “the National Council representing the Jewish community in Israel and the Zionist movement in the world”, “the establishment of a Jewish State in Eretz-Israel.” But the novelty lies in the missing part of the rest of that statement.
In 1948, the Declaration of Independence proclaims that “The state of Israel will promote the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants” and “will be based on precepts of liberty, justice and peace taught by the Hebrew prophets” and “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex” and “will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture”. In fact, there is nothing of the sort in the new law, supposed to define the character of the States for the next generations.
The original bill has been amended, of course, following the numerous critics made in Israel, in the Jewish diaspora and in several countries of the democratic world. For example, one article has been suppressed: it established, for local officials, the possibility to accept or refuse candidacies of persons willing to settle there, according to their religion or nationality, which would have allowed the creation of Jewish-only territorial communities. However, this proposal has been replaced by an article according to which the State sees the establishment of Jewish collectivities as “a national value” and commits to “encouraging and promoting them”, and here again we can anticipate discriminatory measures which the Supreme Court will have trouble opposing.
As for the “complete equality” promised in 1948 by the State to “all its citizens”, it is thwarted by a law which insists heavily—and most often, uselessly—on Jewish identity-related symbols which Zionist pioneers did not need to wear in order to build the Jewish State.
In fact, the adoption of such a “fundamental law” (that is, having almost a constitutional value) reflects the populist shift of the country since the 2015 elections. Conscious of that evolution and of that threat, we organized in Paris, on April 28th, 2018, a conference on “Questioning the Israeli Democracy”. You may find on our website (in French) the various contributions of the participants in the conference.
In order to justify that law, the Israeli Prime Minister recently declared: “We will continue to protect the rights of the individual and the group, but the majority also has rights, and the majority rules. The vast majority of the people want to ensure the Jewish character of our state for generations,” he asserted. If such is the goal of that governement, instead of enacting laws that affect gradually the democratic character of Israel, it should end the occupation which does indeed endanger the “Jewish character” of the State.
Like many Jewish organizations in the United States and in the rest of the world, we condemn that law which will harm the image of Israel within the Family of Nations and in the diaspora as well. We will continue to rally around with all the opponents in Israel, in order to show that such a law contradicts the values the country was built on as well as the values judaism has been based on for centuries. During their history, Jews have learned that the strength of democracies is assessed more in terms of the rights of minorities than in terms of the power of majorities. The founding fathers of the State had understood that in 1948. Ben-Gurion, wake up !