A proposal recently discussed in the Israeli Knesset and reported by Haaretz last month calls for a new Basic Law that would proclaim Israel a “Jewish nation state in ruling in situations in which the Jewish character of the state clashes with its democratic character.” The bill, prepared by MKs Avi Dichter, Zeev Eldin and David Rotem with assistance from the Institute for Zionist Strategies, has drawn support across most of Israel’s political spectrum, and is expected to be passed during the Knesset’s winter session.
The story of the inherent conflict stemming from Israel’s self-identification as “Jewish and democratic” actually has a long history, and this context is what makes the wide support for this new bill all the more interesting. While Israeli courts have generally taken an ambiguous approach to interpreting the problem, the most relevant legal precedent in which the Israeli Supreme Court attempted to resolve the matter came in a 1985 ruling relating to challenges by the leftist Progressive Movement for Peace (PMP) and Meir Kahane’s racist Kach Party. Both parties had challenged the issue with surprisingly similar logic, though from opposite angles, with PMP advocating a more democratic (and less Jewish) state and Kach a more Jewish (and less democratic) one. The court responded by outlawing all parties which challenged either the Jewish or democratic nature of the state, including PMP and Kach. In doing so, it denied any such contradiction between Israel’s Jewish and democratic identities, necessitating an awkward balancing act in the legal realm.
This new proposal, by contrast, appears to recognize the contradiction between Israel’s Jewish and democratic ideals, but calls for the law to give priority to the Jewish side of the equation when they come into conflict. As such, when considered against the 1985 ruling, the proposal appears to adopt a Kahanist interpretation, acknowledging and embracing that Israel’s Jewish character necessitates a subversion of democratic rights. That this legislation has won support not only from members of Yisrael Beitenu and Likud but also Kadima and, tellingly, Labor, indicates a dramatic shift to the right on questions of minority rights, and belies any suggestion of a trend toward greater openness in Israel.