Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Netanyahu's Inflammatory Bill

This was published on the New Yorker site just before the government actually collapsed, hence the hedged language.  

As a symbolic gesture, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposed law establishing Israel as a Jewish nation-state is gratuitous at best, but not exactly new. It is making the same aggressive point to Israeli Palestinians that Netanyahu made to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during the peace negotiations conducted by John Kerry last year: the Jews are here; they must, as a society, be tolerated; get over it. But it is not merely symbolic. It is a law that aims to govern other laws: a “basic law,” which will have something like constitutional standing. And it is so charged, so offensive not only to the Arab citizens of Israel but even to some members of Netanyahu’s ruling coalition, that is it likely to collapse that fragile alliance and result in new elections.

The Israeli press, including Haaretz and Ynet, have reported that Netanyahu clashed with a key coalition member, Yair Lapid, the head of the Yesh Atid party, over the law, as well as other issues, including construction in Jerusalem and various tax measures. But it was the “Jewish nationhood” bill that was at the center of the late-night debate and the potential implosion of Netanyahu’s coalition. So what is at issue?

This takes some sorting out, since it is not clear exactly which draft of the Jewish nation-state bill that Netanyahu will present to the Knesset. The original bill, drafted by the ultra-rightist coalition partner Ze’ev Elkin, and which the cabinet approved in a fourteen to seven vote, defines Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people”—not, pointedly, of its citizens, a fifth of whom are Arabs. It demotes Arabic from being an official language to having some sort of special status. Minorities, by implication, would have no right to communal expression, though presumably their rights as individuals would be assured. All state symbols would be Jewish ones. Only Jews would have the right to immigrate freely and receive citizenship. The state would cultivate only Jewish heritage and traditions; Jewish law would serve as “inspiration” for laws. Former President Shimon Peres has said that the law would “destroy Israel’s democratic status at home and abroad.” Netanyahu has insisted that he merely wants to require all Israel schools “to teach the history, culture, and customs of the Jewish people.” In fact, he clearly sees a conflict between democratic standards and Jewish national privileges, which, in his view, needs to be resolved in favor of the latter. The judiciary—governed by democratic standards, and unconstrained by a legally binding national purpose—is his real target. His unstated argument is that the courts advance an abstract concept of citizenship, which, unchecked, will erode the concept of Jewish national self-determination. “The judiciary, which recognizes Israel’s democratic side, will also have to recognize that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people,” he said, in a statement about the bill, at a recent cabinet meeting.

If this law were, as Netanyahu mostly seems to want the public to believe, only about collective rights, it would be superfluous, irritating to the Arab minority, perhaps, but not inconsistent with democratic norms—and not even preëmptive of confederal relations with a future Palestine. Democracies everywhere protect their distinct national cultures and languages. The point is, however, that this new law is not really about conserving collective cultural rights, but rather about confirming individual legal privileges. Israel’s democratic freedoms are real, to be sure, but they coëxist with legalized inequalities between Jews and Arabs.

Read on at the New Yorker