Painted mural of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Seeking to consolidate and further enhance the country’s status as “the national homeland of the Jewish people” — at least as far as political rhetoric goes — the Israeli cabinet voted two weeks ago in favor of a hotly contested “Jewish State Bill” that will from here on out define Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu voiced his support for the bill’s passage, which he thinks is essential in order to maintain the liberty and dignity of Judaism as well as democracy. After nearly 70 years of undefined statehood, many within the country believe that such a bill is long overdue. However, many others fear that by emphasizing Israel’s Jewish character — assuming that this “emphasis” entails granting a marginalized religious minority a sovereign home state — the bill may also weaken the democratic nature of the country. Opposition to the “Jewish State Bill” stems from the concern that passing the bill would effectively give the green light to institutionalized racism on the grounds of ethnic and religious distinctions. The bill would grant national rights only for the Jewish people: including a flag, an anthem, and the universal right for every identifying Jew to immigrate to Israel.
It is no wonder that the notion of “rights only for Jewish people” has angered the nearly two million Arabs living in Israel (roughly 20% of the population). Many believe that the bill’s passage would give Judaism precedence over democracy, but is this fear well founded? One intention of the bill is to crack down on forms of extremism that threaten the Israeli people. This entails granting the government the authority to strip the rights of any Arab who takes part in or incites violence against Israel. The bill is a step in the right direction in terms of curbing extremism in the region; however, such power left unchecked in the hands of the prime minister can open the way for institutionalized racism — effectively relegating non-Jews to second-class status.
By staying mum on the rights of millions within your borders while trying to pass a bill that would make your state a Jewish state, you risk de facto discrimination becoming de jure. This will only serve to escalate tension in the context of an ongoing crisis in the Gaza Strip. While granting refuge to a religious group is certainly not unheard of and is definitely important in order to protect the rights of said group, it should not be made at the expense of another group’s rights. In keeping with the principle of a Jewish and democratic state outlined in the Basic Law, the Israeli government must give equal weight to both qualities, and not give precedence to one over the other.
After all, a true Israeli democracy, as Netanyahu has repeatedly asserted on numerous occasions, will guarantee the equal rights of all citizens — a mandate as important as protecting the dignity of Judaism. Unfortunately, this level of equality will prove very difficult to strike in the foreseeable future. If ever struck, however, it will pay large dividends to the entire region.