The Jewish state is truly under siege. Not from the Hamasniks of Gaza, who – despite their posturing – are no more than an annoyance (although a rather vicious one that our government is not dealing with properly), but from a coalition of the Israeli Left, Arab citizens and other non-Jewish minorities, European and American-funded NGOs, and liberal American Jewish organizations. Did I leave anyone out?
The conflict is over the Nation-State Law that recently passed the Knesset, which has the temerity to affirm one of the most fundamental principles of Zionism, that “The right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.”
Don’t be misled by those who say they have a problem with the supposed denigration of the Arabic language, the commitment to encourage Jewish settlement, the promise to act to preserve Jewish heritage in the Diaspora, or anything else. Their problem is with Zionism itself.
Some will say that the trouble is not with anything in the law, but what is not in it – anything about equal rights for citizens belonging to different religious, ethnic, or other groupings. That objection misses an important point, the logical distinction between the individual rights of citizens – which are not affected in any way by any reasonable interpretation of this law – and the collective rights of the Jewish people, which the law places above the collective rights of any other nation that lives among us. One possibility is that those who say this simply don’t get it. But another is that they are trying to disguise the true nature of their opposition.
The State of Israel is the state of the Jewish people, all of the Jewish people, even those that do not live in Israel. The Left believes this is illogical, because Diaspora Jews, whose state it is, can’t vote, while Israeli non-Jews, whose state it is not, can. But there are good practical reasons for limiting the franchise to those who are immediately affected by the decisions of the government, who pay the taxes and serve in the military (or at least have the option to do so). The sense in which the state belongs to all Jews is spelled out in this law, in terms of its specific obligations to them. The Nation-State Law anchors one of the most important of these obligations, declaring that the state will “strive to ensure the safety of the members of the Jewish people in trouble or in captivity due to the fact of their Jewishness or their citizenship.”
At the same time, Israel was founded as a democratic state, in which there must be equality of individual rights for all citizens, such as the most fundamental of all rights in a democracy, the right to vote. Israel’s basic laws do not explicitly call for “complete equality” among citizens, whatever that is, but the “Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty” has been held by Israel’s Supreme Court to imply that all citizens have equal civil and political rights. In my opinion, if it is felt that an explicit statement of this is needed, it should be added to this law, which deals with the rights of individual citizens, and not the Nation-State Law, which deals with the collective rights of the Jewish people as a people.
The Jewish state is unique even among nation-states because of its protective relationship to the Diaspora, a relationship which came about as a reaction to the millennia of persecution experienced by the Jewish people. The early Zionists correctly diagnosed the condition of the Jew in the Diaspora as precarious – a diagnosis confirmed by the Holocaust – and prescribed as a cure the creation of a sovereign Jewish state which would look after the Jewish people, both inside and outside of it. The sharpest manifestation of this is the Law of Return, which grants instant citizenship to anyone with a Jewish grandparent who requests it.
The decision to create a truly democratic state was not dictated by Zionism. Indeed Herzl himself preferred “a democratic monarchy” or an “aristocratic republic.” The founders of the state made the decision to declare a democracy in view of the traditions of the prophets of Israel and their own socialist principles.
The fact is that to today’s Israeli Left, the Zionist part of Israel’s heritage is embarrassing and they would prefer to dispense with it, leaving only the democratic part. Just as individual Jews tried to escape antisemitic persecution by assimilating to the larger non-Jewish society, the Left would prefer to assimilate the Jewish state to the larger body of non-Jewish nations, by making it no more than one more liberal democracy, a state of its citizens rather than a Jewish state.
Most of the Arabs go farther, demanding for themselves, as Palestinian Arabs, the right of national self-determination that the new law reserves to the Jewish people. What does this mean? There are only two senses in which this right could be realized: Israel could become a binational nation-state, in which Jews and “Palestinians” would each have special rights to determine the nature of the state, its demography and its symbols; or – their ultimate objective – it could become a Palestinian nation-state.
It’s important to understand that these demands are separate from the call for a Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria. That state would be 100% Palestinian from the start, with a Jewish population of zero, like so many other Arab states. The rights the Arab citizens are demanding are in the state of Israel, the part west of Green Line. A binational Israel would most likely need a new flag and national anthem; but most importantly, it could do away with a Law of Return for Jews – or it could simply add one for Arabs. Soon, possibly after a bloody civil war, there would only be one state between the river and the sea, Palestine.
Those of the Left who still see themselves as Zionists believe that the state of its citizens that they would create would maintain its Jewish majority. But why should it, once its justification for selective immigration is removed? What reason could be given to allow a Jew from Los Angeles to become a citizen at the airport while not permitting the Arab from Gaza, who even claims to have lived in Israel before 1948, to return? It might take a little longer, but it would follow the same path as the binational state.
The Nation-State Law denies both the leftist and the Arab visions. No wonder they are angry!
Last night they expressed their anger in a large demonstration against the new law in Tel Aviv. Some of the Arabs – against the advice of the group that organized the demonstration – waved Palestinian flags and sang (video here) “with blood and spirit we will redeem Palestine,” perhaps (I devoutly wish) to the discomfort of the Jews that came to support them.
As PM Netanyahu said, what better argument for the Nation-State Law could there be than this?
Unfortunately, the law – although justified and necessary – isn’t enough. As President Reuven Rivlin noted in 2015, there are four major “tribes” in Israel: the secular Jews, the National Religious, the Haredim, and the Arabs. Only the first two groups are Zionist. In recent years, the proportions of the National Religious bloc and the Arabs have gone up a few percent, the Haredim have increased by a much greater percentage, and the secular group has dropped precipitously. Judging by enrollment in the parallel school systems associated with these “tribes,” Israel is not far from a non-Zionist majority.
Zionism will get no help from abroad, where most Jews don’t understand that the survival of the Jewish people depends on a Zionist state of Israel; and most non-Jews think Zionism is close to Satanism.
Can we unite Jewish Israelis under the banner of Zionism? Can we somehow convey to our Arab citizens that their welfare depends on the continued existence of a Jewish and democratic state, and that if they destroy it – well, they can just look at the Palestinian Authority or Gaza to see what they would get.
We’d better. Otherwise, the days of a Jewish, Zionist state are numbered, law or no law.