On July 24, just days after the Knesset passed legislation officially defining “the land of Israel” as “the historical homeland of the Jewish people” and “the State of Israel as the national home of the Jewish people,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan went ballistic.
Responding to the nation-state bill,” Erdogan warned it would cause “blood, fire and pain” in the region, urged the international community to stand against Israel, condemned Israel as the world’s “most fascist and racist state” and claimed that “the spirit of Hitler … has found its resurgence among some of Israel’s leaders.”
Erdogan’s hysterical reaction was so extreme that it can safely be classified as the ravings of an Israel- basher. But the bill, passed on July 19 by a margin of 62-55, with two abstentions, and hailed as “a defining moment” by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is nevertheless problematic and in dire need of revision.
Sponsored by Netanyahu’s Likud Party, it affirms the symbols of Israeli statehood — the seven-branched menorah, the Star of David flag and the Hatikvah national anthem. It also establishes the Hebrew calendar as the country’s official calendar and recognizes Jewish holidays and days of remembrance.
No problem here, but most Israeli Arabs do not identify with these symbols and find them unrepresentative and objectionable.
The bill’s reference to Hebrew as Israel’s official language also raised the hackles of Israel’s Arab citizens because Arabic, Israel’s second official language, has now been downgraded and accorded only “a special status.”
The clause describing “the land of Israel” as “the historic homeland of the Jewish people” could well be a reference to the contested West Bank, which is inhabited by 2.5 million Palestinians and 400,000 Jewish settlers. Israel has built a network of settlements, roads and army bases in the West Bank, breaking up its territorial contiguity and placing in grave doubt the possibility of a two-state solution to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict.
An amended clause encouraging and promoting “the development of Jewish settlement as a national value” seems innocuous at first glance. But if applied to the West Bank, it gives Israel carte blanche to build yet more settlements and maintain its occupation. In its original form, this clause was implicitly racist because it tolerated communities segregated by ethnicity and religion.
Another clause, affirming the Jewish people’s unique “right to exercise national self-determination” within Israel’s borders, seems intended to head off Israeli Arab irredentism and the specter of a binational state.
As critics have correctly observed, the bill is at odds with the founding principles of Israel’s 1948 Declaration of Independence, which assured “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants, irrespective of religion, race or sex.” (In practice, however, the vast majority of Israeli Arabs have always believed they have been treated like second-class citizens).
Israeli Arabs, Bedouin and Druze, comprising about 20 percent of Israel’s population, have vehemently denounced the bill. Ayman Odeh, the chairman of the Arab Joint List Party, with 13 Knesset seats, says it will perpetuate the second-class citizenship of the Arab minority.
“This is an extremist move by the government against Arabic speakers and continues the discrimination against … minorities,” say three Israeli Arab parliamentarians, Hamed Amar of the right-wing Israel Beytenu Party, Akram Hasson of the centrist Kulanu Party and Salah Saad of the centre-left Zionist Union.
The president of the Israel Democracy Institute, Yohannan Plesner, argues that the bill does not celebrate the spirit of the Declaration of Independence and fuels the campaign to delegitimize Israel. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin alluded to this when he warned that the bill could be used as a “weapon” against Israel. The European Union has taken a tougher position, saying that the bill “reeks of racism” and “consolidates the notion of occupation.”
The former head of the Jewish Agency, Natan Sharansky, fears it might drive “a wedge” between Israel and the Diaspora.
The American Jewish Committee is of the view that “questionable elements” in the bill could “put at risk the commitment of Israel’s founders to build a country that is both Jewish and democratic.” The Union of Reform Judaism calls it a “sad day for Israeli democracy.”
It’s clear that this misbegotten bill, though supported by a majority of Israelis, has angered and alienated a substantial number of people in Israel and abroad.
The Israeli government would do well to go back to the drawing board and overhaul it. Failure to do so will be counter-productive to Israel’s internal and external interests.