Wednesday 3 October 2018

What is the Problem with the New Nationality Law?

The new Jewish nation-state law (also known as the nationality law) was passed by the Knesset into law before the summer break, and now forms part of Israel's "Basic Laws".  In the absence of a constitution, the Basic Laws act in the place of a constitution and are the most fundamental laws on Israel's statute book.  The new nationality law has caused a great deal of consternation amongst many Jewish Israelis as well as amongst Jews living outside Israel, and continues to occupy the pages of Israeli and international press in spite of the time that has passed since it was enacted.  There has also been a great deal of opposition coming from the Druze community in Israel which is an immensely loyal, law-abiding minority group living in Israel.  This Druze opposition has been used by Israel-haters to increase their verbal attacks on Israel.  The main charges against the nationality law are that it is undemocratic, and that it discriminates against non-Jewish citizens of Israel.

The crux of the new law is that it reaffirms a number of facts that are already in place and well known.  These include the fact that Israel is a Jewish state, that the united city of Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and confirms the flag and menorah emblem as being the symbols of the state.

Before examining the pros and cons of the nationality law, it is interesting to consider why there was even the need to enact it.  Some people consider the combination of the Declaration of Independence as well as the previous nationality law to have been enough to confirm the fact that Israel is a Jewish state for the Jewish people, that Jerusalem is the capital and to confirm the symbols of state.  In spite of this, there appear to be constant questions surrounding the right by the Jewish people to determine their own destiny in the State of Israel.  The most public of these questions comes in the form of the denial by the Palestinian Authority to acknowledge that Israeli is a Jewish state as part of the peace talks that have been in hiatus for the past few years.  This denial is part of a concerted campaign against Israel, but particularly against Jews.  This is the new form of anti-Semitism that is considered by many to be politically acceptable and correct, because it is directed against Israel rather than Jews.  The fact that the attack is in the form of a denial of the right of Israel to be a Jewish state seems somehow to be lost in the debate.  The status of the city of Jerusalem is also a very public battle in spite of it having served as the capital of Israel since 1948, and in its current form as the undivided city since 1967.

History has supported and recognised the right of Israel to be a Jewish state over many years.  The Balfour Declaration of 1917 spoke about the "establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people".  Of course, the Palestine referred to in the letter by Lord Balfour comprises, in a large part, modern-day Israel.  The Mandate for Palestine passed by the League of Nations in 1922 also spoke about the British government being responsible ".... for establishing in Palestine a national home for the Jewish people".  UN General Assembly resolution 181 (II) passed in November 1947 on the issue of the partition of Palestine spoke about an "Arab State and a Jewish State" being established in then Palestine.  Israel's Declaration of Independence  declared "the establishment of a Jewish State in Eretz Israel, to be known as the State of Israel".  In spite of this, the Palestinians under Mahmoud Abbas still have the audacity to refuse to acknowledge and recognise this.  And members of the international community signal their tacit support for this position by trying to force Israel to return to the negotiating table despite the unwillingness on the part of the Palestinians to give due recognition.  Surely, this is enough reason in itself to warrant Israel restating and emphasising these facts as some that are fundamental to Israel's existence and identity?

This new law changes nothing on the ground in Israel, and discriminates against nobody.  It seems quite normal for countries to have a strong religious basis for the identity and symbols adopted by their countries.  Around 20 countries around the world have crosses, crescents or other religious symbols on their flags and emblems of state.  Those countries are not accused of discrimination because of that.  We have not heard charges of being undemocratic levelled against them because of their flags or symbols of state.  So why should Israel be singled out again?  Because it is the only Jewish state?

The accusation that this law is undemocratic is entirely without basis. The principles of democracy require that each citizen has an equal right to express his free will in a national poll for government.  Once this has been adequately achieved, the majority is entitled to exert its will on the minority.  Israel goes a step further by also granting certain minority protection rights to ensure that the minorities are not entirely trodden on.  Even the new nationality law does not change the democracy of the State of Israel, nor its status as the only democracy in the Middle East.  In fact, aside from making a stronger statement of the obvious and what has been in situ for many years, the new nationality law changes nothing at all.  As Prime Minister Netanyahu pointed out in his recent address to the General Assembly of the United Nations, it is ironic that Israel is being accused when other nations have much more serious discriminatory actions to answer for.

Perhaps the strongest organ of Israel's democracy is its independent judiciary.  It seems almost certain that this body will be called in to adjudicate on the new law, and whether it transgresses Israel's democratic and other ideals.  I watch eagerly for this matter to be brought before Israel's Court of Appeal, and the outcome of this case.  I am not optimistic that the court's decision, whatever it may turn out to be, will necessarily change anything about the way in which Israel is viewed in the international community.

Work is still required to convince the Druze community (and other loyal minorities) that the new law does not affect them in any way.  I feel sure that, in time, they will understand this for themselves and that no further explanations will be necessary.