“It’s a disgrace”: Israel’s Nation State law leaves liberal democracy behind

World leaders must press for the law’s repeal, to protect the standing of the Arab citizens of Israel and to boost Israeli Jews battling for democracy.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

The ease with which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right government was last week able to formally define Israel’s Arab minority as second-class citizens should worry everyone. 

With little domestic or international pushback to deter them, the ultranationalists who passed the landmark Israel: Nation State of the Jewish People law on Thursday can be expected now to push forward their annexation drive in the occupied West Bank, seek to further downgrade the position of Arab citizens inside Israel and advance their efforts to weaken the democratic facets of the Israeli system including the supreme court and civil society.

I was not shocked by Israel's fateful step. Indeed, I had a sense of foreboding already on 10 July, when I attended a raucous meeting of the Knesset constitution committee that convened to discuss the bill. Centrist legislator Tzipi Livni, a former foreign minister, was ejected from the crowded conference room by ushers on the orders of ruling Likud party committee chair Amir Ohana. Livni's transgression: disrupting the flow of the discussion by reading aloud from the Israeli declaration of independence, which calls for equality among all inhabitants.

The declaration never had legal standing and the new legislation, by contrast, casts Israel’s Arab citizens, who make up a fifth of the population, as, at best, the tolerated “other” in their own homeland and, at worst, the demographic enemy of the Zionist project. The law, which has de facto constitutional status, specifies that the state views “the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation.”

Legal scholars and Arab rights activists say this effectively gives full sanction to establishing residential areas for Jews that will be off limits to Arabs. Moreover, they say, it will ignite Jewish settlement drives to alter the character of Arab areas of Israel. The law also strips Arabic of its status as an official language (which dated back to the British mandate) in a deliberate degradation of its speakers while enshrining Hebrew as the “state language”. Overall, the move is seen as turning existing de facto discrimination into the highest law of the land. “Everyone understands what this law is,” Israeli political scientist Galia Golan of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv, told me. “It enshrines the Jewish majority as dominant and ruling without protection of the rights of anyone else.”

“It definitely takes us out of the Western liberal democratic camp and puts us in the xenophobic super-nationalist East European camp,” she added. “It’s terrible, no question it’s a disgrace.”

But despite the magnitude of what was at stake, when opponents of the bill called for a demonstration against it in Tel Aviv the weekend before its passage, only several thousand people turned out. Nor can the Israeli Labour Party, whose MPs voted against the law, be counted on as a major mitigating force. The reaction of outgoing parliamentary opposition leader Yitzhak Herzog of the Labour Party to the 62-55 vote was decidedly lame. He stressed that time would tell whether the law helps or hurts Israel.

Israel has always been a hybrid between a democracy and a Jewish ethnic state. But the dissipation of the left in Israeli politics and the 51-year-old occupation of the West Bank are two of the factors that made its step last week towards shedding democracy possible. In 1995 prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated and, along with him, hopes for an end to the occupation and flickerings of greater equality for Arab citizens were also killed. Then came the collapse of the peace process with the Palestinians as prime minister Ehud Barak declared after the Camp David summit in 2000 that there was no Palestinian partner. The right’s agenda of settlement in the occupied territories and its waging of Zionism as a revolutionary movement-for Jews only and at the expense of Arabs-has been basically unchallenged in recent years. In this revolution, Israel has no eastern border and international and even Israeli law are flouted in order to settle Jews in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank). With the left discredited and amid the Palestinian suicide bombings of the second intifada, the public shifted rightward. Israeli politics today is in large measure an exercise in right-wing politicians competing with each other over who can be more nationalistic and anti-Arab.

Rather than restrain this racism, Netanyahu foments it. On election day in 2015, in a bid to turn out his supporters, he claimed that Arabs were descending on the polling stations “in droves.” The following year he went so far as to falsely blame a spate of forest fires on Arab arson. Defence minister Avigdor Lieberman last year called for a boycott of the Arab city of Umm al-Fahm after stone-throwing nearby lightly wounded three Israeli Jews. Arabs, he stressed, “should be made to feel unwanted here.” There are many other examples but the dynamic is clear: statements and policies directed against Arabs are seen as paying off politically. The Nationality Law and the idea that Arabs have been put in their proper place will be held up as a great achievement by Netanyahu during the next election campaign.

But there is also another explanation for the law’s ascendancy: the Zionist revolution being waged by Israel’s government does not distinguish between “Judea and Samaria” (the West Bank) and Israel proper. In fact, the view that the Palestinians in the West Bank are people who can be indefinitely occupied and denied basic rights is now being imported into Israel, albeit in a modified manner. The nationality law is saying in unprecedentedly powerful fashion that Jewish settlement is to be waged against the internal enemy, the Palestinian citizens of Israel, just as it is carried out in the West Bank. The only difference is that, the Arab citizens in Israel have what Netanyahu described after the vote as “individual rights.” Tellingly, he did not say political rights or equal rights.

It appears that only the supreme court has the ability to stand in the way of further steps by the Netanyahu government against Arab citizens. In theory, the court could even strike down the Nationality Law. Additional anti-Arab moves by the coalition could include broadening a 2011 law enabling the state to cut funding to any institution that marks Israeli Independence Day as a day of mourning for being the anniversary of the 1948 Palestinian Nakba, or catastrophe of displacement. Perhaps other reasons will now be found to enable cutting state funding to the institutions of Arab citizens. It is also conceivable Arab citizens will be compelled to swear loyalty to the state, as has been proposed in the past by Lieberman. But the supreme court’s restraining role, always in the eye of the beholder, is now in the gun sites of those who pushed the Nationality Law. Justice minister Ayelet Shaked and education minister Naftali Bennett, both from the Jewish Home party, and Likud party tourism minister Yariv Levin, who is close to Netanyahu, are leading the efforts to cripple the court’s ability to strike down discriminatory legislation.

All of this points to the need for international engagement to press for the repeal of the Nationality Law, to protect the standing of the Arab citizens of Israel and to boost Israeli Jews battling for democracy against Netanyahu and his tyranny of the majority. In the run up to passage of the law, President Reuven Rivlin and others who voiced limited reservations about it seemed concerned primarily over how it would be perceived abroad. It is possible that a strong reaction to the Nationality Law might deter further racist and anti-democratic steps.

Ben Lynfield,MA in Middle Eastern Studies (Harvard), is former Arab affairs correspondent at the Jerusalem Post. He writes for the National from Jerusalem and has covered Israeli and Palestinian politics for the Independent, the Scotsman and the Christian Science Monitor.