Ben White is an outstanding journalist with a new book out. He gave a speech last week in Geneva at a UN Human Rights Council side-event on Israel’s new Nation State of the Jewish People law. He has put up a transcript of the speech on his Facebook page, and it strikes me as one of the most concise, lucid and insightful appraisals of the history, the meaning and the portent of this new law, which is central in its quasi-constitutional status as a ‘basic law’.
Israel presents itself to the world as a model liberal democracy, but for Palestinians, the past and present reality has been very different. After Zionist militias and Israeli armed forces had expelled the majority of Palestinians who were living in what became the State of Israel, the Palestinians who remained were subjected to an 18-year-long military regime. From those early days of mass land expropriation and travel permits, through to this new ‘Jewish nation state’ bill, Palestinian citizens of Israel have never enjoyed equality – either de jure or de facto.
I first want to talk about the new law in terms of continuity.
It is important to recognise what hasn’t changed on account of the new legislation – or, to put it another way, how the ‘Jewish nation state’ law is a new addition to what has always been a discriminatory, ethnocratic structure – both legally and politically.
Israel’s institutional discrimination against Palestinian citizens is well-documented, including by the US State Department, and a host of independent rights experts. This discrimination impacts on many areas of life, including where citizens can live, family life and more.
As a UN special rapporteur put it in 2012, Israeli authorities have long pursued “a land development model that excludes, discriminates against and displaces minorities”. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has similarly noted “the enactment of a number of discriminatory laws on land issues which disproportionately affect non-Jewish communities”.
Indeed, the issue of Jewish-only communities, which featured heavily in the coverage and criticism of the Jewish nation state law, is often debated without reference to the fact that Israel already has hundreds of such segregated communities, thanks to the role of “admission committees”.
A decade ago, Human Rights Watch reported on how these committees – which filter potential residents in hundreds of rural communities – “are made up of government and community representatives as well as a senior official in the Jewish Agency or the Zionist Organisation, and have notoriously been used to exclude Arabs from living in rural Jewish communities”.
Indeed, in 2014, Israel’s Supreme Court upheld a law allowing for such committees, a decision that legal rights centre Adalah said “effectively legalize[d] the principle of segregation in housing between Arab and Jewish citizens, and permits the practice of racism against Arab citizens in about 434 communities, or 43% of all towns in Israel”.
Looking at the bigger picture beyond specific policy and practice, the Jewish nation state law states that “the right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people”. Now, while not always expressed quite so explicitly, this has always been the case – and, it is why, contrary to what some often argue, Israel is not ‘simply’ Jewish like France is French.
As the late Tony Judt explained in a 2003 essay for The New York Review of Books: “France is the state of all the French; all French persons are by definition citizens of France; and all citizens of France are…French”. Israel, “by contrast”, is “by its own account the ‘state of all the Jews’ (wherever they live and whether or not they seek the association), while containing non-Jewish (Arab) citizens who do not enjoy similar status and rights. There is no comparison”.
Israel, in other words, is not a state of all its citizens, and never has been. In fact, in June, a draft bill by members of the Knesset’s Joint List seeking to establish Israel as a state of all its citizens was banned from even being debated in the parliamentary chamber, on the basis that it constituted a rejection of Israel ‘as a Jewish state’.
Support for “Jewish self-determination”, not “Israeli self-determination”, is found across the political spectrum. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked recently claimed “the state should say that there is place to maintain the Jewish majority even if it violates rights”. But Tzipi Livni, a so-called ‘centrist’, also believes in “a state in which only the Jewish People have the national right for self-determination”
The new Jewish nation state law does not mention “democracy” once – but then neither does Israel’s oft-vaunted “Declaration of Independence”, which refers repeatedly to a ‘Jewish state’. And, as the Association for Civil Rights in Israel has noted, “the right to equality is not yet enshrined in laws regarding most aspects of life”.
According to Israeli newspaper Haaretz, the aim of the new law is to “lay the groundwork” for the Supreme Court “to give preference to Israel’s Jewish character over its democratic values should the two conflict in the courts”. But again, this is something the court already can do, and has done, most notably when interpreting a key clause in Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty in such a way as to give “significant weight to the nature of Israel as a Jewish state and its goals, at the expense of…fundamental rights”. As former Supreme Court President Aharon Barak put it, in a 1995 decision: “We are different from other nations. We are not only a democratic state but also a Jewish state.”
So, what is new?
While there is much continuity with law and practice to date, the new law does, however, represent an innovation, both legally and politically, as analysed by Adalah in a position paper published in July; enjoying the status of a Basic Law, the Jewish nation state law serves to anchor racist practices in the constitution.
“By defining sovereignty and democratic self-rule as belonging solely to the Jewish people – wherever they live around the world”, said Hassan Jabareen, Adalah’s general director, when the law was passed, “Israel has made discrimination a constitutional value”. Thus, for Palestinian citizens the new law could herald harsher, more explicit discrimination.
One particular clause, for example, says: “The state views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation”. Already excluded from hundreds of Israeli communities by the aforementioned residential admission committees, Palestinian citizens will rightly suspect this article – originally worded as a far cruder endorsement of segregation – can only intensify the discrimination they face over land and housing.
The new law is also a fresh obstacle to a genuine two-state solution – as if any more obstacles were needed. The PLO leadership has always resisted Israeli prime ministers’ demand to recognise Israel as a “Jewish state” as a condition for talks (and note that this demand originated in recent times with Ehud Olmert, not Netanyahu). This law only confirms how such opposition is well-grounded.
Moreover, the law’s reference to a “land of Israel” in which “the state of Israel was established” is an instructive turn of phrase, and a timely reminder that a law which discriminates against Palestinian citizens could also prove significant if or when Israel annexes part, or all, of the occupied West Bank.
Finally, I would like to address the question of what this law is really about.
Why now? One factor is that Netanyahu is thinking ahead to elections that have to take place in 2019, and possibly in the first few months of the year. Thus far, his Likud party has looked strong in the polls, but Netanyahu wants to ensure there is no loss of votes even further to his right, such as to current coalition partner Jewish Home. The law’s origins however, go further back.
Politically speaking, this law can only be understood in the context of a concerted pushback against efforts over the last two decades by Palestinian citizens of Israel to assert their national identity, mobilise against discrimination, and, critically, to demand a state of all its citizens.
In 2006-2007, a number of documents, or position papers, were issued by leading organisations representing Palestinians inside the Green Line. These included Adalah’s “Democratic Constitution”, as well as “The Future Vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel” (The National Committee for the Heads of Arab Local Authorities in Israel), and Mada Al-Carmel’s “Haifa Declaration”.
Commenting on these developments at the time, Israeli journalist Uzi Benziman described their publication as a “turning point”, adding: “The documents are being woven like an orderly ideological and political doctrine challenging the current character of the State of Israel – the way it views itself, the structure of its government, and its Zionist identity”.
It was just a few years later, in 2011, that the road to the Jewish nation state law was begun by former Shin Bet head and current Likud member Avi Dichter, when the then-Kadima MK proposed a bill that would help thwart the aspirations of those seeking to “establish a binational state here”.
After the successful vote this July, Dichter declared that the law was the “clearest answer” to Palestinian legislators, explaining: “We are enshrining this important bill into a law today to prevent even the slightest thought, let alone attempt, to transform Israel to a country of all its citizen [sic]”.
This, then, is the often-omitted crucial context. The new legislation clearly is a disaster from the point of view of Israel’s Palestinian citizens, but its very existence is a testament to both the effectiveness of their political mobilisation, and to the power of a demand for real democratisation.
The response from the Israeli political establishment to a mobilised Palestinian citizenry demanding genuine equality has been to double-down on discrimination, and to defiantly and ever-more explicitly assert and legally protect the existence of a “Jewish state”.
This is not without its advantages, as highlighted by the furore over the new law. For what the draft legislation threatens is less the existence of a “democratic” Israel, but rather some liberal critics’ idea of a “Jewish and democratic” state (or at least the plausibility of maintaining this idea). That is to say, as a blunt instrument, the law threatens Israel’s ability to continue long-standing, institutionalised discrimination with no international cost.
Following the successful passage of the Jewish nation state law, Israeli journalist Orly Noy wrote in +972 Magazine about Israel’s “perpetual demographic war against its Palestinian citizens”, adding “If Israel seeks to be Jewish and democratic, it needs to actively ensure a Jewish majority”.
The “Jewish nation state” law is part of this historic and ongoing demographic war – one that is both a testament to the activism of Palestinian citizens and an effort to stifle it. As Israel consolidates the de facto single state between the river and the sea, this will not be the last attempt to see the apartheid reality on the ground further reflected in legislation.
I think Ben White’s is a magnificent appraisal because it relates to how this law is actually both new and old – not a completely new policy, yet overtly expressing a de-facto policy, and serving as yet another firewall against that looming existential threat – a state of all its citizens – as Israel continues in its steps to make Israel great, and greater. That really means more Apartheid.
This reminds me very much of a recent article I read by Robert Fisk in The Independent, where he interviewed Israeli journalist Amira Hass and toured Palestine with her. It’s titled “I asked Israel’s only journalist in Palestine to show me something shocking – this is what I saw”. Hass says:
“The wall is about how strong is the need to be pure – and how many people participated in this act of violence? They say it’s because of the suicide attacks, but the legal and bureaucratic infrastructure for this separation wall existed before The Wall. So The Wall is a kind of graphic or plastic or tangible expression of laws of separation that existed before.”
That Nation State law is a kind of wall, but it’s based on an existing blueprint.
Many liberal Zionists have criticized the Nation State law as if it were anathema to the Declaration of Independence. Daniel Barenboim has done that too and said he was now ashamed to be Israeli. But Ben White cuts through that. The Israeli Declaration of Independence, with all its sugar-coating, held the fundamental seeds of Jewish exclusivity in the Jewish State, and now this has flowered into the Nation State law. We need to face that.
H/t Ofer Neiman