The Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People was finally passed a few days ago.
The practical, concrete consequences are minimal. There will be neither more nor fewer Arabic road signs. Nobody will lose their right to vote or serve in the Knesset or as a judge as a result of this law. Nobody will be expelled or imprisoned. No religion will be banned, no newspapers closed. As Eugene Kontorovich said, there is nothing in it that is more aggressively ethnically nationalist than any number of national constitutions, including the constitution of the proposed state of “Palestine,” which states that Palestine is an Arab nation, the national religion is Islam, the source of legislation is shari’a, and the national language is Arabic.
The most controversial part of it declares that “The state views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation,” something that Kontorovich notes is simply a restatement of the commitment to “close [Jewish] settlement on the land” made in the British Mandate. Much of the law is a reprise of ideas that appeared in the Declaration of Independence.
If you listen to Arab members of the Knesset, representatives of the EU and numerous governments in the Middle East, the Israeli Left, the ADL, and the Union for Reform Judaism in the US, you will hear that the new law is Hitler’s Nuremberg Laws and the Confederate Declaration of Independence rolled into one. But there is nothing racist in it.
The hysteria is remarkable, but it is not because the law says anything new. Some of the opposition is simply politics, because it was passed by a Likud government whose head is Benjamin Netanyahu. Tzipi Livni declared that the sole purpose of the law was to help Netanyahu in the next election (indeed, it should). The final version that was passed by the Knesset was much weaker in many respects than older versions; but this did not in general defuse the anger it created.
To understand what is going on, you don’t need to look harder at the law; you need to look at its opponents. Their problem is not with the law’s (minimal) practical consequences or because of the possible interpretation of one clause or another. Their problem is with the whole idea.
The law is like a powerful X-ray beam that exposes the presence or absence of Zionist bones in those it shines upon.
Of course the Arab members of the Knesset disliked it enough to tear it up. Their belief, as Avi Dichter, one of the original writers of the law, said, is that this land is their homeland alone. This isn’t surprising. It’s probably true that the Arab MKs are more extreme than most of their constituents, but it’s also true that there is a strong current of nationalism in Israel’s Arab citizens, and this naturally conflicts with Zionism. This conflict isn’t going to go away by pretending that it isn’t there. Either we will give up the idea of a Jewish state, or the Arabs will get used to it, or we’ll fight another war with them over it. There aren’t any other alternatives.
The Europeans and American Reform Jews have always been uncomfortable with the idea of a Jewish state. They dislike nationalism and conflate it with racism. But Zionism was born as a reaction to European racist Jew-hatred, and is the only answer to it (and, it turns out, to Muslim Jew-hatred as well). This isn’t just Herzl’s theory or mine; it is a fact that has been and is being empirically demonstrated by history and current events. The American Reform solution, to assimilate culturally while trying to maintain some connection to Jewish tradition, has failed. Their movement is a dead man walking, and even if it does survive in some form, it will not be recognizably Jewish. The Jewish people can only survive as a distinct people in a Hebrew-speaking, Jewish-majority nation – although even here, there are no guarantees.
One way we could lose our Jewish national identity, even in Israel, would be if we gave up the idea of a Jewish state. It’s tempting to some to try to end the discord between Arab and Jewish citizens by changing Israel into a “state of its citizens,” like the US and other Western democracies. It would make so many things easier. We could stop worrying about maintaining a Jewish majority, since we would all be “Israelis.” The African migrants in South Tel Aviv would not be a threat, just another population to absorb and integrate into our society (and I’m sure we could do that successfully, given time). We could replace our Law of Return with a system of legal immigration, as they have in other democracies, like Canada. We could even absorb some Palestinian “refugees.”
I’m sure Gideon Levy and his publisher at Ha’aretz would applaud. But do you doubt that this would be the beginning of the end of a distinct Jewish people in history? Do you think that Europeans would shed their antisemitism? Would Muslims in the new “Israel” be happy with a Western-style democracy, or would they try to turn it into a shari’a-compliant state? I think you know the answers.
Zionism and the Jewish state came into being for a reason: to preserve and protect the Jewish people. It is still the only way to do that. This law was passed because there are those who would prefer a non-Zionist state (although not all of them would describe their position that way) and they are trying, little by little, to transform Israel into one. There is a Supreme Court which consistently values individual rights over the collective good of the Jewish majority, and which apparently sees no value at all in Jewish settlement. The law is intended to set a bottom line, to build a fence around the fundamental Zionist principles of the state and keep them from eroding. It also makes an explicit statement about what kind of state we are and aspire to be.
So in a way, while the immediate consequences on the ground are few, the importance of the new law in the long run is great. And that is why the anti-Zionist opposition to it is so strident.