Three members of Knesset, Israel’s parliament, who are of the Druze ethnic minority, are challenging the controversial new Basic Law in the Israeli courts. The Nation State Basic Law, which has constitutional status, has been criticized as being racist and against Israel’s democratic nature. The law states that only Jews have the right to self-determination within Israel and demotes Arabic from an official language to a “special status.” The law also includes language that said that it was of “national value” to promote Jewish settlement. Israeli settlements beyond the 1967 border delineating the West Bank have been deemed illegal by the international community, yet the Israeli state continues to promote their expansion. The Basic Law also included language that would allow communities to be legally limited to only Jews; however, this segregationist language was removed from the final draft. An earlier bill draft had further limitations on democracy, including language requiring the Supreme Court to consider the State’s “Jewish character” over its “democratic character.”
The three Druze legislators filing the suit come from both within the right-wing ruling coalition, and from the center and left-wing opposition. The three Druze MKs have served in the Israeli military and have been members of Zionist organizations. Labor MK Salah Sa’ad lamented that “for the Druze public, which gives of its blood and its sons for the State of Israel, the nation-state law is spitting in our face.” The legislators are not criticizing the law because they are against the Israeli state, but rather because they feel that they are just as much Israeli citizens who have given as much to the country as any other citizen.
MK Avi Dichter, who sponsored the Basic Law, stated that non-Jews in Israel “can be an equal minority, not an equal nationality,” showing that there are obviously deeper issues ingrained in the debate of this law, such as the religious and ethnic relationships among Israeli citizens. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated that the passage of the Basic Law was “a pivotal moment in the annals of Zionism and the State of Israel,” further stating that Israel “is our state, the Jewish state.” Netanyahu however claimed that Israel “respects the individual rights of all its citizens,” but the intentions of this piece of legislation to strongly emphasize the Jewish character of the state were very clear.
MK Shelly Yechimovich of the Zionist Union opposition party argued that it is not “nationality and the State of Israel that [the coalition is] interested in,” but rather a want to promote nationalism “that hates the Other.” The Arab Joint List party released a statement calling the Basic Law “anti-democratic, colonialist, racist and with clear characteristics of apartheid.” The leader of the Joint List, Ayman Odeh, believes that the Basic Law will condemn Arab citizens of Israel and other minorities to be “second-class citizens,” and promote “Jewish supremacy.” Odeh affirmed that the party was for “a future for all of us with democracy, equality, and justice.” As the Knesset debated the bill, the more liberal metropolis of Tel Aviv saw demonstrations against its content and the right-wing actions taken by Netanyahu’s government. The demonstrations included an array of participants, with organizers focusing on inclusivity stressing that “we are all equal citizens – Arabs and Jews, women and men, Mizrahim [Jews of Middle Eastern descent], Ethiopians, those of us from the former USSR, and members of the LGBTQ community.”
Eugene Kontorovich, a director of the conservative Kohelet Policy Forum, sees the Basic Law as “similar to provisions in many Western democratic constitutions, which provide for an official language and national character that reflects the majority of the population,” stating that criticism of it was trying to “single-out” Israel and hold it to a “double standard.” Contrarily, most of those abroad had a different viewpoint. The American Jewish Committee criticized the law saying that it “puts at risk the commitment of Israel’s founders to build a country that is both Jewish and democratic,” a view echoed by many in the American Jewish community. The European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini expressed the bloc’s concern on how this legislation would affect the two-state solution and peace talks with Palestinians.
Prime Minister Netanyahu supported this law, along with his governing coalition of right-wing parties. In order to maintain his government in the Knesset, Netanyahu relies on the support of conservative and more religious groups. Netanyahu entices their continued support by touting a nationalist agenda which promotes Jewish settlement in the West Bank and a hawkish attitude on security issues and international affairs. Opposition MK Tzipi Livni believes that the text of the Basic Law is so polarizing because “Netanyahu wants the law to create strife,” and it is meant to show that “he’s more patriotic than you.”
The Israeli government should not discriminate between its citizens, as creating further division in a country already troubled with conflict is toxic. Israel prides itself in being a strong democracy in a region characterized as authoritarian, but the Nation State Basic Law is anti-democratic as it has the potential to harm the equality of its citizens and to suppress dissent. Arabs make up around 20% of the Israeli population outside of the occupied territories, and along with other minority groups, they contribute to Israeli society in a variety of ways. The Israeli government should treat all its citizens equally and respectfully, regardless of religion or ethnicity. Limiting rights such as self determination to one group goes against this democratic value of equality and has the potential to divide citizens by their identities. Hopefully the Israeli judiciary will uphold the civil rights of all citizens of Israel and protect their equality before the eyes of the state by eliminating the Nation State Basic Law and working to recognize the equality of all citizens within Israel.