Who's Afraid of a Jewish State with Equality for All?

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A state that is proud of its identity has nothing to fear from granting all its citizens equality.

Imagine the following scenario: On Monday morning, April 9, 2018, 10 days before Israel’s 70th Independence Day, the president of Israel, the country’s chief rabbis, the president of the Supreme Court, and Israel Prize honorees from years past all make their way to the Knesset building. Inside, the ambassadors of the United States, United Kingdom and France are already waiting, bearing special congratulations from their respective heads of state. The visitors’ galleries are packed with veterans of the state’s founding generation. The air is charged with anticipation and tension as the group awaits the passing of the Nation-State and Equality Law. For the first time in its 70-year history, the State of Israel is about to write the first chapter in its constitution that confirms its identity and character as the Jewish and democratic state.

One would hope that this scenario is the end goal of the process that began a few weeks ago at a meeting attended by the prime minister of the Special Knesset Committee for Legislating the Nation-
State Basic Law. Unfortunately, from what we’ve seen so far, this doesn’t seem to be the aim of the bill’s proponents. It would appear that some of our leaders prefer to engage in questions of national identity only as a political tool with which to sow and deepen the divisions in the Israeli public and by these means to garner political points and votes.

The Nation-State law, as it was presented to the committee, is a dangerous piece of legislation. From a practical aspect, it upsets the fragile balance that has prevailed since the founding of the state between the Jewish and democratic elements of Israel’s identity. The state’s character, and its international legitimacy, is founded on our unchanging belief that we are the Jewish nation-state that is also a democracy. If we are to pass a significant and symbolic Basic Law that emphasizes the Jewishness of Israel, we can only do so if we also reaffirm our commitment to the value of equality, as a true democracy, and indeed, the sole democracy in the Middle East. Excluding the value equality from the law is likely to have serious consequences. How can we look our Druze brethren in the eye, as we all mourn two Druze border policemen murdered in the July 14 terror attack at the Temple Mount, knowing that they might be viewed as second-class citizens?

The law in its current form is unacceptable and will inevitably lead to clashes between different groups within the Zionist majority, and, of course, will only heighten tensions between Jews and non-Jews. It will also provide fodder for the extremists in Israel and abroad who believe that a Jewish nation-state is necessarily racist. Israel is not the first nation-state in the world to promise full equality to all its citizens and minorities, allowing them to maintain their own culture and heritage. A state that is proud of its identity has nothing to fear from granting all its citizens equality.

A serious, worthy, and inclusive legislative process, founded on broad consensus, would be a wonderful gift from our elected representatives to mark Israel’s 70th birthday. Instead, we are facing a rushed and cynical attempt at lawmaking that is entirely in the service of narrow political interests. As such, this law stands to be a mark of ignominy for all of us to bear; it would have shamed our founding mothers and fathers, signatories of the Declaration of Independence, who promised a state that would “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants.”

The character of the state should not be decided by any one coalition, as doing so would mean that the state’s character could be altered whenever a different coalition is formed. No, Israel’s character belongs to us all. Members of Knesset from across the political spectrum should come together to pass a Nation-State law that ensures equality for all Israel’s citizens. In the Scriptures, too, the idea of the Jewish state was inseparable from the idea that “You shall have one manner of law, for the stranger as for the native-born.” (Leviticus 24:22)


Yohanan Plesner is the president of the Israel Democracy Institute

This piece was originally published in the Jerusalem Report.