By Linda Gradstein, The Media Line
Israel has no constitution. The reason, according to local lore, is that the secular majority and the ultra-Orthodox minority could not agree on how to refer to God so they never wrote an actual constitution. Instead there are a series of 13 “Basic Laws” that function as a constitution.
Several members of the governing coalition have now written a new basic law, which recognizes Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people.”
“The state of Israel is the national home of the Jewish people, where they realize their aspiration for self-determination according to their cultural and historical legacy…the right to national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.”
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu threw his support behind the law after the nine months of U.S.-mediated peace talks ended in April without an agreement. During those negotiations, Netanyahu repeatedly demanded that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas recognize the Jewish character of Israel, a demand that Abbas has steadfastly rejected.
Now, after Abbas’s Fatah and the Islamist Hamas have established a unity government that aims to pave the way for Palestinian elections, several Israeli initiatives that had been put on hold are now being pushed forward, including this new proposed basic law.
“Just as the ‘basic law on human dignity and liberty’ anchors the democratic nature of the state of Israel, we need a law that will enshrine its Jewish nature,” Ayelet Shaked, one of the law’s backers and a member of the Jewish National Home party said in a statement. “This should have been done a long time ago.”
In the draft of the legislation, Israel is described as both a “Jewish” and a “democratic” state. But some worry that the new law would describe Israel as “the nation state of the Jewish people” in a way that some would make the Jewish character of the state more important than its democratic character.
“Twenty percent of Israel’s population is made up of non-Jews and it like saying to those citizens who are loyal to the state that they are somehow less than the Jews,” Wadie Abunassar, of the International Center for Consultations, and an Arab citizen of Israel, told The Media Line. “It sends negative signals to the Arab and international community.”
Abunassar said it is as if France passed a law saying that only Catholics were full citizens and that highlighted the Catholic nature of France.
Defenders of the proposed law argue that it includes the “personal rights” of all citizens of the state of Israel. Critics, though, say this does not go far enough.
“The whole spirit of the law transmits a message that Israel should be more Jewish and less democratic,” Amir Fuchs, a legal expert at the Israel Democracy Institute told The Media Line. “It’s meant to bring more substance to the Jewish nature of Israel and lessen the democratic nature of the state.”
The current proposal has some amendments remaining from the original draft. In the first version, Arabic was no longer listed as one of the national languages. In addition, the original draft described Israel as “a Jewish state with a democratic system of government.”
Wadie Abunassar says this latest proposal will join a series of recent anti-democratic measures such as the “Naqba law” which allows the finance minister to penalize any state-funded institutions which mark Israel’s Independence Day as a day of mourning. Many Palestinians refer to the creation of the state of Israel as the “naqba” or “catastrophe.”
He said he understands the impetus for this current law enshrining Israel as a Jewish state, but believes it is unwise.
“Some people here are concerned that Israel will face an existential threat from within and from outside that could threaten the state’s Jewish character,” he said. “But instead of pushing away Israel’s minorities, Israel should use them as a bridge between Israel and its Arab neighbors.