Making Something Out of Nothing
Somehow Israel always seems to find itself in the middle of a controversy. Israel’s parliament recently passed a bill called the Jewish Nation-State Law, and immediately it made headlines around the world.
American news-and-opinion website Vox posted this headline online: “Israel’s hugely controversial ‘nation-state’ law, explained.” ABC News’s headline read, “Israel passes controversial Jewish nation-state law.” NBC News wrote, “Israel ‘nation-state’ law prompts criticism around the world, including from U.S. Jewish groups”; and Time magazine wrote, “Israel’s Nation-State Law Is an Affront to Democracy.”
The purpose of the new law is to enshrine Israel as a Jewish state. If you didn’t know any better, you might think this law is absolutely scandalous. But what’s so controversial about calling Israel a Jewish state? Israel was designed to be a Jewish state.
Article 2 of the League of Nations’ “Mandate for Palestine,” a legal document that took effect in 1923 and made Great Britain the ruling power in Palestine, declared, “The Mandatory shall be responsible for placing the country under such political, administrative and economic conditions as will secure the establishment of the Jewish national home.”
That said, the Jewish Nation-State Law solidifies basic national claims for all of Israel’s citizens, including Arab Israelis.
It states that Israel is the historic homeland of the Jewish people, and Jewish people have a right to self-determination. Israel will remain the country’s name, and “Hatikvah” (“The Hope”) will remain Israel’s national anthem. Hebrew is the national language, but Arabic maintains a “special status” among the many languages spoken in the country. Finally, the state flag is white with two blue stripes near the edges and a blue Star of David in the center.
The law merely states the obvious: Israel is a Jewish democracy.
The Jewish Nation-State Law was created to preserve Israel’s Jewish identity amid growing anti-Israel rhetoric that seeks to erode the country of its Jewishness. The dissenting voices come primarily from Israel’s progressive left and anti-Israel Arab citizens. For them, Israel’s Jewishness hinders non-Jews from feeling fully connected to Israeli society.
Yousef Jabareen, an Arab-Israeli member of Israel’s Knesset, believes the new law “encourages hatred against Arabs and enables exclusion.” But Mr. Jabareen is a living testimony that the opposite is true. He is one of many Arab-Israeli politicians who have equal voices in Israel’s democracy. Israeli law offers equal voting rights to all citizens and is one of the few countries in the Middle East that permit Arab women to vote.
The Jewish democracy Israelis want to protect elects Arab-Israelis to Israel’s supreme court and encourages Arab citizens to get degrees in Israeli universities and invest Israeli money in building technology parks in Arab towns to help close the income gap between the Arab and Jewish communities. Israel’s democracy seems to provide more opportunities for minorities than Syria, Jordan, and Iraq give to the majority of their own people.
Israel’s founders dreamed of a state that would be a safe haven for Jewish people—where they would no longer be persecuted for being Jewish and could enjoy the same rights as non-Jews. That’s why the Declaration of Independence established Israel as a Jewish state, while still providing the same rights and privileges to citizens irrespective of religion, race, or sex. The Declaration guarantees freedom of religion, conscience, language, education, and culture, while protecting the holy places of all religions.
The Jewish Nation-State Law is not an impediment to democracy; it protects what makes Israel the most open society in the Middle East.
If controversy is what you’re looking for, look north of Israel, where more than a half million Syrians have been murdered in a civil war. Look southwest, where Christians in Egypt suffer unprecedented persecution from Islamic extremists. Look east at Jordan’s impending economic ruin. Look south to the Sudan and its Darfur genocide. But don’t look to Israel, where a Jewish democracy makes the Jewish state the freest society in the Middle East.