There is no connection between the substance of Israel’s newly passed Nation State of the Jewish People law, and the debate its passage unleashed.
On the one hand, supporters of the law led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insist that the law is a vital step in entrenching and protecting Israel’s Jewish identity. After the law passed last Thursday night, Netanyahu declared, “This is a pivotal moment in the annals of Zionism and the annals of the State of Israel. 122 years after [Theodore] Herzl published his vision [of a Jewish state] we affixed in law the founding principle of our existence.”
On the other hand, Arab members of Knesset theatrically condemned the law and claimed that with its passage, Israel had officially embraced “apartheid.”
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Israel is the heir of Nazi Germany. PLO chief Mahmoud Abbas and his deputies said the UN should reinstitute its definition of defined Zionism, the Jewish national liberation movement as a form of racism.
Israeli leftists, including members of Knesset, the supposedly center-left Zionist Union Party, backed by Haaretz, parroted the Arab-Turkish talking points with Hebrew accents. The American-Jewish leadership, like the New York Times, argued that the passage of the law is proof that Israel is on the verge of rejecting democracy.
Given the unreconcilable claims of the Right on the one hand and the Arabs, the Left and American-Jewish leadership on the other, it is imperative to read the text of the law itself. In reading you discover something remarkable.
This a nothingburger without a bun, or a patty, a plate or a pickle.
It does nothing new and it says nothing new.
Israel was the Jewish state for 70 years before the law was passed and it remains the Jewish state a week after it passed.
The clause in the law which is supposed to render Israel an “apartheid” state deals with Jewish settlement of the land of Israel. Its language is weak and declaratory. It refers to Jewish settlement as “a national value.”
In contrast, the League of Nations 1920 Mandate for Palestine explicitly enjoined the British mandatory government to “encourage… close settlement by Jews on the land.”
Because it does nothing, the Nation-State Law is like a hologram. It means whatever you want it to mean. Which means that the maelstrom surrounding it tells us more about the sides to the argument than it tells us about the law.
What does the vacuous law tell us about the nationalist camp that has championed it since its first draft was written 14 years ago?
It’s possible that members of the nationalist camp that promoted the law didn’t understand what they were doing. They thought that by legislating the obvious, they were, in the words of George Orwell, performing “the first duty of intelligent men.” They thought that by legislating that “The land of Israel is the historic homeland of the Jewish people, where the State of Israel was established,” would protect Israel’s status as the Jewish state from those who deny its right to exist.
The problem with the Right’s narrative – that Israel’s Jewish identity is under attack and that steps must be taken to protect it – is not that it is wrong. Israel’s Jewish identity is under assault from post-Zionists and anti-Zionists in Israel and abroad. The problem is that far from protecting Israel’s Jewish character, the Nation-State Law serves as a red flag for Israel’s detractors, inviting them to attack it.
This brings us to the law’s three groups of opponents: the Arabs and their would-be savior Erdogan; the Israeli Left; and the American Jewish leadership.
The Arab members of Knesset, like Abbas and his deputies are using the law as a means to sell their rejection of Israel’s right to exist. Erdogan uses his hostility and rejection of Israel’s right to exist to advance his goal of leading the Sunni Arab world.
While there is nothing new about their positions, the law has given the Arabs an excuse to ratchet up their assaults. The distressing fact that Arab lawmakers have convinced many of Israel’s Druze citizens and its Arab citizens who seek to integrate into Israeli society that the law harms their civil rights redounds directly to the Arab Israeli lawmakers’ cynical, but predictable exploitation of the law to bash the state.
The amazing thing about the rhetoric of leftist Israeli lawmakers is its radicalism. Without the Israeli accents, it would be hard to distinguish statements by Meretz leader Tamar Zandberg and editorials in Haaretz from denunciations of the law by Arab Joint List leader Ayman Odeh.
The close resemblance of the Left’s talking points with the Arab narrative reflect a profound, and fast-paced process of radicalization that the Israeli Left has undergone over just the past few years. Case in point is the self-proclaimed “Zionist Union” Party’s response to the law.
In 2014, Zionist Union MK Shelly Yacimovich wrote a letter regarding the then circulating draft of the law to the bill’s author, then-Kadima MK Avi Dichter. The draft bill circulating then was more substantive than the law passed last week.
Yacimovich told Dichter that while she couldn’t see anything objectionable about the law, she couldn’t understand why its passage was necessary given that it was merely an aggregation of laws that were already passed.
In her speech in the Knesset plenary ahead of the law’s passage last week, Yacimovich did a full about face. She referred to the law that simply aggregates previously passed statutes, “racist” and “xenophobic.” Likewise, Zionist Union leader Tzipi Livni condemned the law she once supported in the most extreme language.
It is hard to align Yacimovich and Livni’s positions with even the lowest common denominator definition of Zionism. How can it be racist to define Jewish settlement of the historic Jewish homeland as “a national value”? Of course it is a national value. If it weren’t Israel would never have been established in the first place.
This brings us to the American-Jewish leadership. The Jewish Federations of North America lobbied strongly against the bill. In an email to members, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the JNFA Richard Sandler said the Jewish Federations, “were disappointed with the law that ultimately passed.”
The Federation’s Israel office sent out a detailed explanation of the law to members. While the language was careful, it strongly intimated that the law is racist for making Israel’s Jewish character explicit. The Philadelphia Federation’s letter to its members alleged that the law’s provisions “are a dangerous check on Israel’s democratic principles.”
Like the self-proclaimed Zionist Union’s condemnation of the law as racist, the American-Jewish response marks a stark departure from past responses of the Jewish Federations and other Jewish groups to Israeli laws and policies. For Israel’s first 60 years, the Federations, like the other major Jewish groups weren’t quick to air their disagreements with Israel’s elected officials. Their gut response was to support Israel and let others attack it.
Now the longstanding instinct has been turned on its head. Underlying the Federation’s reactions to the law is a profound discomfort with the fact that Israel is the Jewish state and intends to remain the Jewish state. This pronounced discomfort speaks to a profound shift in Federation values from Zionism to post-Zionism.
Moreover, as Sandler noted, the Federations were intensively engaged in the legislative process. As a consequence, their representatives and leaders knew the law changed nothing in the status of Israel’s non-Jewish citizens. That is, they knew that the law was an anodyne statement of principles that did nothing more than enshrine the situation that has existed in Israel since its founding. And yet, they hate it.
From the nationalist camp’s perspective, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the Nation-State Law and the controversy it sparked and intensified demonstrates that its members and leaders have forgotten the lessons of the past.
On July 30, 1980, the Knesset passed Basic Law: Jerusalem, Israel’s Capital. The law declared that “Undivided, unified Jerusalem” is Israel’s capital. But that declaration did nothing to change Jerusalem’s status as Israel’s capital. Jerusalem has been the capital of Israel since 1949. Its municipal boundaries were extended and the city was united by government decision shortly after the 1967 Six Day War.
Then-prime minister Menachem Begin said the law would protect Israeli sovereignty over unified Jerusalem. Instead, the law undermined Israel’s control of the city.
Seizing on the law as an opportunity to condemn Israel, rabidly anti-Israel then-US president Jimmy Carter orchestrated the drafting and passage of UN Security Council Resolution 478. The resolution, which the US abstained from, declared the Knesset law null and void and ordered the nations who had set up their embassies in Jerusalem to withdraw them. In short order, 14 of the 16 nations whose embassies were in Jerusalem removed them from the capital.
To the extent the Israeli Left opposed the bill, like Yacimovich in 2014, they did so not because they disagreed with its provisions but because it had no substantive value.
The American-Jewish community was so angry with Carter for stabbing Israel in the back that Jewish support for the Democratic president reached an all-time low in the 1980 presidential election. Carter received a mere 50% of the Jewish vote. Ronald Reagan received a whopping 35%.
This then brings us to the lesson the nationalist camp ignored from 1980. Back then, Begin would have done far more to protect Israeli sovereignty over unified Jerusalem if he had built new Jewish neighborhoods throughout eastern, southern and northern Jerusalem and invested in road infrastructure. Instead, Begin opted for a law that changed nothing in relation to Jerusalem’s legal status and caused harm to Israel’s international standing.
Again, the nationalist camp is right to be concerned about protecting Israel’s Jewish character. It is under attack both at home and abroad. There are substantive steps that the Knesset can and must take to secure it. The Knesset must undertake a significant overhaul of Israel’s legal system. It must revoke the tax exempt status and other privileges of political NGOs financed by foreign governments. It must apply Israeli law to Area C in Judea and Samaria. These steps, taken separately and together will do more to protect Israel’s Jewish character than a hundred nation-state laws.
It’s too late for regrets. The milk has been spilled. The law has passed. Amending it will only prolong the bloodletting and empower the anti-Zionists.
But the time has come – 38 years late – to finally learn its lesson. Declarative laws do not protect Israel. Actions protect Israel.