Press Release

Jewish vs. Democratic: IDI Experts Say Nation State of the Jewish People Bill Threatens Stability in Israel

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Bill is as an attempt to destabilize the balance between Israel's democratic character and its Jewish character.

The Basic Law: Israel – The Nation State of the Jewish People bill was again scheduled for debate by the Ministerial Committee for Sunday, Oct. 25. Although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu removed the item from Sunday's agenda, it is understood that a special committee will convene to determine the status of this legislation. While it goes without saying that the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) recognizes and agrees that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, top IDI experts are opposing the bill as an attempt to destabilize the balance between Israel's democratic character and its Jewish character.

In a policy statement submitted to the Knesset, Mordechai Kremnitzer, IDI vice president, and Dr. Amir Fuchs, Head of IDI's Defending Democratic Values project, explain the bill as "unnecessary, dangerous and liable to destroy the delicate balance" between the two most fundamental characteristics of the State of Israel: Judaism and democracy.

They write, "The founding fathers of Zionism, including [Theodore] Herzl and [Zeev] Jabotinksy, and Israel's leaders, such as [David] Ben-Gurion and [Menachem] Begin, aimed at more than the establishment of a Jewish nation-state. They wanted to create an Israel that would be a model polity in the best tradition of liberal democracy – one, which in the words of Israel's Declaration of Independence, 'will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.'"

Kremnitzer and Fuchs say the bill positions Israel's Jewish identity as elevated above its democratic identity, which by definition excludes non-Jews who cannot affiliate with the Jewish nation.

"The State has a special obligation to treat its minorities fairly and equally. This is a moral obligation," they explain.

Similarly, IDI Vice President Prof. Yedidia Stern warns in a separate policy statement that the shift from defining Israel as a "Jewish and democratic state" to a "Jewish state with a democratic regime" is not a semantic shift, but a seismic change. Today, the two components in the dual definition of the state – "Jewish" and "democratic" have equal status.

"The proposed bill seeks to decide between them and impose one over the other," writes Stern in a related op-ed.

The 2015 IDI Democracy Index asked which part of Israel's dual constitutional definition that think is more important, Jewish or democratic. Among Jewish respondents, 37 percent said Jewish, 36 percent said democratic and 27 percent said the two are equally important.

Stern continues: "The nation-state of the Jewish people, with its Jewish character and Jewish identity, offers the promise of renewal of a Jewish public sphere, with all its vibrant color. … Democracy, however … is a way of life and a political culture that seeks to promote important values. A substantive conception of democracy includes the protection of human rights. … The proposed Basic Law turns a cold shoulder on these basic values."

While the bill's sponsors assert that the law is necessary because of recent and constant denial of the Jewish people's right to a national home in its land and refusal to recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, Kremnitzer and Fuchs question whether enactment of such a law would enhance Israel's international standing as the nation-state of the Jewish people or, in fact, weaken it.

"Forces inimical to Israel would exploit such legislation to deny the country's legitimacy as a Jewish state. … The bill would expose its Jewish essence to severe criticism," write Kremnitzer and Fuchs. "The bill would certainly spark protests and denunciation of Israel for abandoning its democratic character and forgoing equal treatment of its minorities."

The IDI researchers say they are not opposed to a nation-state law, but do not believe that the current legislation is fitting. Kremnitzer and Fuchs say they would support a pursuit by the Knesset to draft a constitution, but that this constitution must "include an expression of the Jewish character of the State of Israel while at the same time defining the state as democratic, and endowing its democratic character with content."

To set an interview on this issue, contact Maayan Jaffe at 050-718-9742 or [email protected]

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