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Israel’s New Nation State Law: What’s the Big Deal?
When Israel’s Knesset (parliament) passed a law it called “Israel: the Nation-State of the Jewish People” in July 2018, the world went crazy, decrying the absolute gall of the Jewish state to call itself “a Jewish state”!
Al Jazeera wrote, “Israel’s parliament on Thursday adopted a law defining the country as the nation-state of the Jewish people, provoking fears it will lead to blatant discrimination against its Palestinian citizens.”
Ayman Odeh, who sits in the Israeli parliament as the head of the Arab Joint List (an alliance of four predominantly Arab parties), said, “It has passed a law of Jewish supremacy and told us that we will always be second-class citizens.”
Ahmed Tibi, another of Israel’s Palestinian legislators, said, “I announce with shock and sorrow the death of democracy.”
Hassan Jabareen, General Director of Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, called the law a bid to advance “ethnic superiority by promoting racist policies …. The Jewish nation-state law features key elements of apartheid, which is not only immoral, but also absolutely prohibited under international law.”
These are just a few of the noisy and, frankly, absurd complaints against the new ‘Basic Law’ that defines Israel’s essential character as a national homeland of the Jewish people.
It is ironic that some of the people mentioned above, who railed against the loss of democracy, are themselves serving in Israel’s Knesset as duly elected representatives of their people.
That is not ‘apartheid’, as they like to call it. That is democracy.
So what is their beef?
As much as they would hate to admit it, this new law is, in fact, nothing new. Israel has always been the home of the Jewish people.
It was in the tenth century BC when King David, the second king of the United Kingdom of Israel, ruled over the Jewish people for 40 years.
It was true in the first century AD, when the Romans conquered much of what is now Israel and named the entire area that was ruled by or chiefly inhabited by Jews, “Judaea”. This was a much larger area than the Judea that exists in Israel today, which refers only to the West Bank. According to Tacitus, a Roman historian, the area of Judaea extended from the Galilee and the mountains of Lebanon and Syria in the north to Gaza in the south.
And it is true today, when Israel is truly the home of the Jewish people; when the State of Israel is governed by the Jewish majority, under a democratically administered parliamentary system in which its members are duly elected by the people, who are thereby represented in the Knesset.
When did the idea of the Jewish homeland become such an issue?
On May 15, 1948, David Ben Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel, “declare[d] the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz-Israel, to be known as the State of Israel….[B]y virtue of our natural and historic right and on the strength of the resolution of the United Nations General Assembly, [I] hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz-Israel, to be known as the State of Israel.”
The concept of “the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State” was written into Israel’s history more than 70 years ago, and only reiterated in July 2018.
The new law reads, “The land of Israel is the historical homeland of the Jewish people, in which the State of Israel was established. The State of Israel is the national home of the Jewish people, in which it fulfills its natural, cultural, religious and historical right to self-determination. The right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.”
What’s wrong with a Jewish State?
There are six Islamist countries around the world (Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Mauritania, and Yemen), where Islam is not only the official religion of the state, but where all the people are governed under sharia. There are 20 more countries (Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Algeria, Malaysia, Maldives, Morocco, Libya, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, Somalia, Brunei, and Libya) which are not Islamist by definition, but where Islam is considered a state religion. All together, there are 47 countries, including these, where more than 50% of the population is Muslim. The Muslim population in the world is estimated to be more than 1.8 billion.
There is only one small Jewish country, with a population of 8.5 million, which is now under international condemnation because it chose to proclaim its fundamental Jewish character. Despite this, the Declaration of Israel’s Independence beseeched the Arabs then living in Israel to stay and build the new state together. “We appeal – in the very midst of the onslaught launched against us now for months – to the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve peace and participate in the up-building of the State on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions.” It did not happen.
Israel’s Independence and Arab Flight
May 14, 1948 was an eventful day in the history of the region. In the morning, the British pulled their last remaining personnel from the British Mandate of Palestine, which they had governed since 1920. In the afternoon David Ben Gurion declared the establishment of the State of Israel and became its first Prime Minister. In the evening, Egyptian planes began an assault on Tel Aviv, and Israel’s War of Independence began.
Israel barely had an army, and what it had was largely manned by civilians, facing the military might of five Arab states: Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. Despite those overwhelming odds, Israel’s rag-tag army prevailed and, in the final armistice that was reached between Israel and the Arab states in July 1949, Israel took legal possession of its land.
The founding document promised, “The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”
The new law doesn’t remove any promises that the original Declaration made. It simply underscores the essential Jewish nature of the state.
The Flight of Arabs, and the Ingathering of the Jewish People
In 1948, an estimated 750,000 Arabs fled from the new state of Israel to neighboring countries, where rather than be absorbed, they were placed in refugee camps. It is shocking that many of these camps are still operating today under the auspices of UNRWA, a UN agency set up especially for these refugees. UNRWA recognizes all those who fled the new State of Israel, and all their descendants in perpetuity, as refugees from Israel. While only about 30,000 of the original refugees are thought to still be alive, UNRWA estimates that more than 5 million descendants are still considered ‘refugees’ and eligible for UN support.
At the same time, in 1948, some 800,000 Jewish refugees fled from Muslim countries throughout the Middle East to escape the persecution they faced there, the confiscation of their property and the deadly anti-Jewish riots, instigated by the governments themselves.
Of those refugees, more than half a million fled to Israel, although there was no UN agency to care for them. Instead, they were absorbed into the Jewish community and ultimately became an integral part of the Israeli population. That was the beginning of the “ingathering”.
Later, in the 1980s, over a million Russian Jews immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union, where they had been held captive as “prisoners of Zion” for decades. Overall, since 1948, more than three million Jewish immigrants, fleeing from tyranny and rabid anti-Semitism, found refuge in Israel, where they found safety and freedom in the Jewish homeland. Israel was the only place in the world where all Jews were welcome without preconditions.
Israel – The Mouse that Roars
Today, more than 70 years later, Israel is still fighting for its legitimate place in the world. In seven decades it has become a leader in technology, a military force to be reckoned with, and a democracy in a sea of kingdoms, dictatorships, and autocracies. Its Arab citizens represent 20% of its total population. Its citizens – Muslim, Christian, and Jew – sit together in the parliament and argue about policy and politics. In 2015, the number of Arab members of 120-seat Knesset jumped from 12 to 17. In the summer of 2017, there were two Arab judges sitting on the three-judge Supreme Court. Israel is the only country in the region that has this kind of diversity in it governance.
Yet, Israel is accused of being an “apartheid” state, and both Hamas in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank carry out terrorist attacks with impunity in an effort to destroy the Jewish state.
Are there inequities in Israeli jurisdiction over the Arab and Druze minorities? Of course, just as there are in any society where different cultures clash over opposing life views. In many countries, it is just a difference of opinion. In others, it can be a matter of life or death. Mostly, though it is usually something in between.
But when one of the players is determined to completely destroy the other and will stop at nothing to accomplish its goal, there is no middle ground, no place for peace.
Like any other country in the world, Israel has the right to define its identity, to decide on the laws of the land under which it will exist. Israel has no need to apologize for being a Jewish state. Those who would deny Israel that right are likely to be disappointed. Israel is here to stay. As a Jewish homeland and a refuge for Jews everywhere.
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