Thursday 4 December 2014

Is the "Jewish State" Bill Really Needed?

The Israeli government decided last week to submit the so-called "Jewish State" bill for consideration to the Knesset to be incorporated in the Basic Law.  The decision by the government to approve this law has proved to be enormously controversial, both within Israel as well as by the international community.  There are many questions about whether the Jewish State bill is really needed in Israel at this time, whether the bill is really required at all, and whether the introduction of such a bill will make any difference to the facts on the ground in Israel?

The main purpose of the Jewish State bill is to enshrine in Israel's Basic Law (which acts as a type of constitution in the absence of an official constitution) that Israel is the national state of the Jewish people and that Israel is a Jewish state.  Despite the fact that there are various references in different Israeli laws to the Jewish nature of Israel, and despite the fact that it is mentioned in the Declaration of Independence, members of the government have deemed it necessary and appropriate at this time to entrench it in the Basic Law.

While the proposed bill has yet to be passed into law, it seems as though the proposed bill in its current form will not make any difference to the way in which Israel operates.  Israel has always been governed as a Jewish state.  This manifests itself in a number of different aspects of Israeli everyday life.  National holidays are according to the Jewish calendar, the day of rest is Saturday while Sunday is a regular school and working day, Jewish religious law is applicable in certain situations specifically those relating to family matters, and people with one Jewish grandparent are entitled to claim immediate citizenship of Israel under the Law of Return.  None of these aspects of Israeli society will change as a result of the Jewish State bill.  It is anticipated that all matters that relate to the Jewish nature of Israel will continue to apply in the same way as they have applied until now.

Some of the Jewish aspects of Israel have been controversial, in a country that prides itself on its democracy.  There are those who believe that the Jewish nature of the state is a contradiction to democracy, due to the fact that these aspects disadvantage non-Jewish citizens of the state.  Despite the fact that all Israelis, Jewish and non-Jewish, are entitled to vote, are entitled to be a member of Knesset, have the right to freedom of speech and receive state education and health, there are many who feel that the Jewish nature of the state discriminates against those who are not Jewish.  As a counter-balance, non-Jewish citizens are not obliged to be conscripted to the army while young Jewish men and women are mostly required to sign up.  Non-Jews are free to volunteer for military service, and many choose to do so.  The question is whether these points of law, that favour Jews over non-Jews, result in a democracy that is not really democratic?  How does this compare, for example, to affirmative action that has been employed in a number of democracies around the world.  It is contended that favouring one group or race over another, even where this is designed to correct wrongs in the society, is an undemocratic policy.  Does this make the entire country undemocratic?  In cases outside of Israel, employing policies that may be considered questionable on a purely democratic scale, have not resulted in the country's democracy being called into question.  By the same token, it is my view that the Law of Return and the Jewish nature of the state, do not change the fact that Israel is a real democracy,  the only one in the Middle East.

If this is true, why would there be such opposition to formally adopting a Jewish State bill?  Many people believe that the idea of reinforcing the Jewish nature of the state is, in itself, not objectionable.  The problem for them is that the draft bill does not specifically balance this out against the democratic nature of the state.  They object to the bill for its form rather than for its substance.  These objectors wish to see some open statements in the draft bill to reinforce the democracy of the State of Israel, while also confirming the Jewish nature of the state.  For other objectors, their opposition comes to the timing of the introduction of the bill.  Israel is currently experiencing a wave of terror attacks that some are calling the start of the third Intifada.  Israel has been criticised for events that have taken place on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, and some have even accused Israel of attempting to change the current modus operandi of the Temple Mount.  The situation is extremely sensitive, and there can be no doubt that the introduction of such a bill at this time contributes to stirring up this sensitive situation.

What is the reason behind Prime Minister Netanyahu's desire to introduce the Jewish state bill at this time?  Perhaps it is about countering the current Palestinian violence and uprising that is being experienced in Jerusalem and other areas.  The prime minister has been known to take unilateral steps against the Palestinians to counter the unilateral steps that the Palestinians take.  I believe that it runs deeper than that.  We know that the peace talks between the Palestinian Authority and Israel are currently stalled on the issue of the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.  Prime Minister Netanyahu has insisted that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas acknowledges this fact before the talks can move forward.  Abbas has failed to do this, and the talks are stalled.  Netanyahu has come under criticism in the international community for this position, and it is presented that this is his own demand that has been made without justification.  By passing this into law, Netanyahu can turn this argument around by saying that this fact is now in Israel's Basic Law.  Failure to recognise this on the part of Abbas is tantamount to denying a fundamental tenet of the State of Israel.  Have the Jewish State law on the books may cause further delays to the peace talks, but may also help to clear the logjam and progress the talks.  Abbas will be forced to turn to his people to say that he has no choice where this is concerned because it is a law of the land, and not a whim of Netanyahu.

The Jewish nature of Israel is undeniable.  This was clear to those who escaped the ashes of the Shoa and found Israel to be the only place that Jews can really feel safe, and it is clear now when anti-Semitism is rife around the world.  Members of other religions have more than one country in which they can to choose to live, that will give them the religious freedom that they desire.   Jews only have one.  It is inconceivable that the Jewish nature of Israel can be denied, in the same way as the democracy of the State of Israel cannot be denied.  The fact that some members of the international community are questioning the concept of the Jewish State bill, is perhaps enough reason to insist that it be passed into law.  We have an obligation to future generations of Jews to ensure that the Jewish nature of Israel can never be denied, not by those who live here and not be those who do not.  Israel will always be the safe haven for Jewish people, and placing this on the law books is a natural extension of the intentions  of the founding fathers of our country as set out in the Declaration of Independence.  It also reflects the views of the majority of those living in Israel, including many of those who are objecting to the introduction of the bill for technical reasons.

I do not believe that balancing the Jewish State bill with statements reinforcing Israel's democratic nature, dilutes the statement of the Jewish nature of Israel.  As such, it seems sensible to balance the statement out in order to gain wider support in favour of the bill.  Those non-Jews who wish to accept these principles upon which Israel is premised, are welcome to live here and enjoy our democracy.  Despite the fact that the bill will change little or nothing on the ground about the way that Israel operates, I personally support having this on the statute books and including it in the Basic Law.  After all, it is one of the fundamental premises upon which the State of Israel was built, and upon which the state continues to be built.  And we should not be ashamed to say so. 

1 comment:

robert lane said...

Goodbye to Israel’s Lousy Government (Let’s Hope the Next One Isn’t Worse