The question of whether Israel is a Jewish state has inexplicably become a hot button topic over the past decade. It is something that seems indisputably self-evident – after all, the essence of the Zionist movement is Jewish sovereignty in the Jewish homeland – but the idea that Israel must be explicitly recognized and proclaimed as a Jewish state has gone from stating the obvious to a point of contention in Israeli affairs both foreign and domestic. While it has become a sticking point in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, with Prime Minister Netanyahu elevating it to a point of such primacy that he routinely lists it as a core Israeli condition for creating a Palestinian state, it is now bleeding over into purely internal Israeli affairs in a way that has the potential to be monumentally damaging.
The idea of encapsulating Israel’s status as a Jewish state into law has been a popular one in the past few governments. When Netanyahu fired Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid as ministers in 2014 in a move that brought down the coalition and led to the elections that created the current government, one of the reasons given was their refusal to back a Jewish state bill, which would create a new Basic Law and thus be part of Israel’s de facto constitution. The bill’s detractors claimed that the animating idea behind it was not only that Israel should be viewed as the state of the Jewish people, but that Jews should enjoy a privileged status not granted to non-Jews. Livni and Lapid along with the Knesset opposition took exception to the bill as discriminatory and alleged that it was an effort to discriminate against Israel’s Arab citizens that would elevate Israel’s Jewish character above its democratic character, and once new elections were called, the Jewish state bill went onto the back burner.
But in this Knesset, which has not yet seen a bill too controversial for it to try and pass, the Jewish state bill has naturally been revived, and it is now back on the Knesset agenda after being unanimously voted out of the ministerial committee for legislation on Sunday and then approved by the full Knesset in a preliminary reading yesterday. Some of the more controversial elements of previous iterations have been excised, such as the clause that established Jewish law as a “source of inspiration for lawmakers,” but the one that has been the particular focus of ire is the section of the bill that would establish Hebrew as Israel’s sole official language while granting Arabic a privileged status, making it lesser than Hebrew but greater than other languages. Despite the oft-repeated myth (probably stemming from Israeli street signs) that Israel has three official languages – Hebrew, Arabic, and English – Israel actually has no official language. The reason for the ubiquity of the current linguistic trinity is that the British government during the Mandate required that all official government orders and notices be issued in all three languages, and Israel just stuck with the system that it inherited. Should the new bill pass and become a Basic Law, Hebrew will become the legal official language of the land, and Arabic’s status will be legally enshrined as something below Hebrew. While this is already the de facto case given that Jews make up 75% of Israel’s population, the concern is that memorializing it in law will open the door to removing Arabic in all sorts of places where it now is, making it harder for Arabs in Israel to function on a basic level and making it easier to discriminate against them.
I unambiguously support Israel as a Jewish state. I frequently and purposely use the phrase in my writing as a matter of principle since I think it is important to repeatedly reinforce that Jews have a right to self-determination in their historic homeland, and that Israel is the embodiment of that right. As I wrote at the top, that Israel is indeed a Jewish state seems glaringly obvious given its demographics, the national symbols it employs, the existence (and corrupting unholy power) of the chief rabbinate, the nature of its founding…anyone looking at Israel would have a difficult time mistaking it for anything else. It is one of the reasons why I find the demand that outsiders recognize it as such to be such a silly one; if Israel defines itself as a Jewish state and structures its very existence around being a Jewish state, who cares whether a bunch of non-Israelis want to acknowledge that or not? No amount of infuriating denial about Israel’s nature can change that nature in practice. But when it comes to Israel enshrining that nature in law, it actually does have real-life consequences, and that is why the domestic angle to this – as opposed to the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations angle – is the far more important one.
It is entirely appropriate for Israel to be a Jewish state as defined by it being the nation-state of the Jewish people and the Jewish homeland. Where this crosses a line is when Israel as a Jewish state is defined as one that privileges Jews to the exclusion of non-Jews or tramples upon the rights of non-Jews. A Jewish state does not mean a state that is exclusively for Jews, and if that line of thinking is adopted into law, it puts Israel’s democratic status in jeopardy. One area where Israel has clearly violated this is with the Law of Return, in which Jews are given preference for immigration and citizenship purposes, but that is something that I will unwaveringly defend since it is what allows Israel to be a Jewish state. What is indefensible is treating Israeli citizens differently once they have that citizenship status, and this is why the Hebrew language component of the pending bill is so problematic. Once Arabic is placed a rung below Hebrew, it paves the way for education to be exclusively in Hebrew, for all manner of civic life to be conducted 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. It may never come to that, but it gives the government a powerful ability to disadvantage one quarter of its citizens, and in the process does not actually do anything to make Israel’s Jewish status any firmer. Hebrew will always be the language spoken overwhelmingly in Israel, and making it harder for non-Jewish citizens of Israel to go about their daily lives does not privilege the Jewish language so much as it punishes the non-Jewish one. It is a cruel gesture designed to put non-Jewishness down rather than to raise Jewishness up.
Israel can easily be a Jewish state and the national home of the Jewish people without disadvantaging its non-Jewish citizens. There is a Jewish state bill that can be crafted that does this, such as the alternatives pushed in the past by Benny Begin or Ruth Calderon. The current bill being considered does not meet this basic test.