The government of Israel has approved a first reading of the nation-state bill defining the country as “the nation-state of the Jewish people.”
The basic law downgrades Arabic from being an official language to having “a special status in the state,” meaning its speakers have “the right to language-accessible state services.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the bill will pass the Knesset in 120 days. Its main purpose seems to be to remind Israel’s Arab population that they are second-class citizens, while creating the constitutional infrastructure to confer upon the Jews, should they become a minority in the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, legal preference over other citizens.
Israel, which has regarded itself as a Jewish state since it was founded in 1948, ensures in its declaration of independence “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race, or sex.” And, since the country has no written constitution, its constitutional character is made up of basic laws, judgments, and the 1948 declaration. This is at the heart of why the issue matters so much.
Israel already wrestles with being both a Jewish country and a fully democratic one. This bill discriminates against the state’s Arab citizens, and although they would remain citizens, it in effect says that the state does not belong to them, that the Arabs belong to another people and can stay for the time being.
Supporters say Israel’s inherent Jewishness must be codified into law. Opponents say the law gives Jewishness priority over Israel’s dedication to democracy and human rights. It provides legal sanction to bolster Israel’s Jewish identity at the expense of equal and respectful treatment of the country’s minorities. One example of this is the law’s designating Hebrew as the country’s sole official language (contrary to the current Hebrew and Arabic), a fact that ignores the mother tongue of the 1.8 million Arabs who make up almost one-quarter of the population. Early Zionists saw Israel as a land comprising two peoples, Arab and Jewish, sharing a homeland as cousins.
So why pass the bill now? Netanyahu claims the proposed law is needed, in part, because Palestinians won’t accept Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, something that comes up repeatedly in failed peace negotiations. But Palestinians say that if the bill becomes law, they fear Arab-Israeli citizens and Palestinian refugees who fled what is now Israel in 1948 and 1967 would lose rights.
Israeli writer Uri Avnery, founder of the Gush Shalom peace movement, wrote in a blog post, “We will have a National State for the Jewish people, in which the majority of the world’s Jews are not citizens, and in which two million non-Jewish Arabs will be citizens, in whose ‘eternal capital,’ Jerusalem, there live some hundreds of thousands of Arab inhabitants who are not citizens, which militarily occupies the West Bank with some 2.5 million Arabs, and which indirectly controls the lives of another two million Arabs in the Gaza Strip. Altogether, there live now in historical Palestine some 7 million Jews and some 7 million Arabs.”
The basic legal assumption until now has been that Israel is a Jewish and democratic state, attributes of equal status. The new law will change that. Both attributes will remain, but if there is a contradiction, the “Jewish” elements will have the priority; the nation-state bill would lead to deterioration of the democratic characteristic of the state.
Arab citizens say that Israel’s claiming to be both a Jewish and democratic state is a fiction; they “joke” that the bill changes nothing, that it just codifies the racism they already experience. Can Arab citizens who love living in Israel continue to do so when they are being downgraded? Instead of making Arab citizens feel marginalized, Israelis need to figure out how Arab citizens can be partners in the nation-state of the Jewish people.
Commenting on the bill, Paul Mansour, an American Arab born in Nazareth, said, “There is a saying in Arabic that goes like this: ‘If you corner a snake it will bite its own tail.’ If Arabic is their enemy and it makes them feel superior, then they already lost!”
Noam Shuster Eliassi has dedicated her life to promoting coexistence through Interpeace, which bills itself as “an independent, international peacebuilding organization.” “Arabic is not the enemy,” she said. “Arabic is not an obstacle to the identity or functioning of the state. It’s a partner. Arabic signifies one of the last remaining options for a shared future here.”
I was excited about a number of developments in Israel: when the teaching of spoken Arabic became mandatory in all Jewish primary schools in Israel; when waiting lists formed for bilingual elementary schools; when Jewish and Arab students in Be’er Sheva protested together about removing Arabic bus signs; when bilingual schools displayed student signs that said, “If you are going to cancel my language, then you are canceling me”; and when President Reuven Rivlin recognized there will be peace only when there is consensus from all sides on the issue of coexistence.
Removing Arabic in so many places where it is currently used would make it harder for Arabs in Israel to function on a basic level and would make it easier to discriminate against them. Placing Arabic on a rung below Hebrew would pave the way for education to be conducted exclusively in Hebrew, for all forms of civic life to be carried out only in Hebrew, and for the government to do the bare minimum in demonstrating that it respects the right to “language-accessible state services” that the bill mandates.
Let’s encourage our leaders and government to put pressure on the government of Israel, which, if it adopts such an anti-democratic law, cannot present itself to the world as the supporter of democracy in the Middle East.