Shlomo Avineri
Haaretz (Opinion)
October 24, 2011 - 12:00am

Israel is a Jewish state - this was the international legitimacy it received in the 1947 UN Partition Plan, this is the principle underlying its Declaration of Independence, Law of Return, Citizenship Law and a long list of laws, regulations and customs. All Israeli governments, left or right, followed this, and Israel's social reality is imbued with it. After a few hours in the country, a visitor from Mars would have no difficulty realizing that he had landed in a Jewish state.

What then is the rationale for the recently submitted bill entitled Basic Law on Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People, spearheaded by MK Avi Dichter (Kadima )? The bill's sponsors say in its explanatory supplement that the law is "necessary even more so now when there are those who wish to abolish the Jewish people's right to a national home in its land and the recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people."

It's true that there are such groups, especially on the margins of the extreme academic left (many of them, incidentally, Jewish or former Israelis ). But no democratic country and no political party in any democratic country have questioned Israel's legitimacy. Yet some Israeli right-wingers prefer to view every criticism of Israeli policies as an assault on Israel's very existence.

The Israeli right wing prefers to overlook what really threatens Israel's Jewish character: our continued control of millions of Palestinians in the territories. Most of the bill's sponsors oppose the establishment of a Palestinian state next to Israel, while others have joined the initiative probably out of sheer populism (or might not have carefully read the text ).

It's clear that if the bill is approved as a Basic Law, it will not change much in Israel's reality as the Jewish nation-state. But if you ask the sponsors why such a Basic Law is needed, they will answer that, who knows, one day the Arabs may become a majority in Israel; then they may try to change the country's status in an ostensibly democratic way. Hence the need to safeguard Israel's character as a Jewish nation-state by a Basic Law, which could be changed only by a supermajority.

This is absurd on two counts: Arabs can become a majority in Israel only if Israel does not leave the territories, and you have to be very naive to believe that if the Arabs ever become a majority, a law will prevent them from taking over the country.

The bill has other consequences and they are all unwelcome. Since there is no Jewish consensus on what a "Jewish state" would mean, the bill will only heighten disagreements among the Jewish population - the reason, after all, that it has been impossible to agree on a constitution. Second, and more ominously, the bill will only deepen the Arab minority's alienation and exacerbate the complex relations between Jews and Arabs.

Some examples: Paragraph 4 abolishes Arabic's status as the country's second official language. Paragraph 10 raises the Hebrew calendar's status to that of "the state's official calendar." Paragraph 13 maintains that "Jewish law will serve as a source of inspiration for the legislature" - opening the door to unforeseen problematic legislation. According to paragraph 9 (b ), "the state is permitted to allow a community, including one made up of one nation or religion, to maintain separate communities" - a clear attempt to overrule the Supreme Court decision in the Ka'adan case, which prohibited the Israel Lands Administration from discriminating against non-Jews. And the bill's ambiguous language makes it possible not to allow separate Arab or Muslim communities.

Obviously some of the bill's sponsors don't follow the international press and are clearly unaware how much their bill will boost anyone who claims that Israel is a racist state. On the other hand, they may feel that support for the bill could help them in their parties' primaries. It they really care about Israel's future as the Jewish nation-state, they should focus on the need to make difficult political decisions vis-a-vis the Palestinians and not make unnecessary proposals that only harm Israel, Zionism and the Jewish people.


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