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Israeli Identity Politics vs. a Democratic Israel

Monday, July 23, 2018: New York , NY -- The Jewish Labor Committee deplores the divisive measures recently adopted by Israel ’s parliament. The Knesset has narrowly passed a new Basic Law (akin to a constitutional amendment) proclaiming that Israel is the “nation-state of the Jewish people,” where the “right to exercise national self-determination is unique” to Jews. Arab and Jewish members of the Knesset loudly denounced this law, some calling it “racist.” While we disagree with this assessment, we share their condemnation of this new law, and call on other friends of the State and people of Israel to do the same. At a time when democracy, respect for diversity, and solidarity are under threat around the world, and there is no visible movement towards a mutually acceptable negotiated two-state resolution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, the passage of such a law seems doubly ill-conceived and ill-timed.

In vague but jingoistic terms, the new law designates Hebrew as the “state’s language,” implicitly denigrating Arabic, the native language of nearly 20 percent of Israel ’s citizens. It then confusingly affirms the “special status” of Arabic and declares that “the status given to the Arabic language before this law came into effect” remains in force. It lists “the development of Jewish settlement as a national value,” and is silent on the state’s responsibility to develop the country on behalf of all its citizens, regardless of ethnicity, faith, or background, as stated in the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, proclaimed on May 14, 1948.

Reaffirming Israel ’s identity as a Jewish state in such deliberately provocative language, the new law offends and alienates the country’s Arab and other non-Jewish citizens. It serves no practical purpose – besides kowtowing to the most right-wing and chauvinistic elements in Israel ’s body-politic. The law needlessly undermines Israel ’s moral standing in the world as a liberal democratic society, needlessly alienates friends of Israel , and adds roadblocks to solidarity between Jewish and Arab citizens of the country.

This is the most egregious but by no means the only example of the current Israeli government’s descent to an illiberal democracy. Reportedly, in order to keep ultra-Orthodox Members of Knesset from bolting his coalition government, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has reversed his previously stated position in favor of extending the right of surrogate parentage to single men and same-sex couples. Instead, what was passed in the Knesset with the Prime Minister’s vote was a law that extends to single women, but not to men or same-sex couples, the right to utilize surrogate mothers to become parents.

Understandably, this has provoked outrage among LGBT Israelis and their supporters, who have responded with widespread demonstrations and a one-day general strike. Many businesses, including multinationals such as Microsoft, Apple, and Proctor & Gamble, have expressed support for the LGBT community in a variety of ways. Opposition extends to the ranks of his own party, and Netanyahu has reportedly agreed to support a measure reversing this discriminatory legislation in the upcoming session of the Knesset. And two Knesset members of his coalition, Likud MK Amir Ohana and Kulanu party MK Merav Ben-Ari, have already submitted a new version of the surrogacy law for the Knesset’s consideration. Still, playing to the political and religious right in Israel cannot engender anything but opposition to the Netanyahu Government both within the country and abroad.

These and other developments are moving the State of Israel away from the inclusive and tolerant vision of its Declaration of Independence. Defenders of Israel’s liberal ethos against vociferous charges of racism and “apartheid” often refer to this founding document, and especially the passage proclaiming that “The state of Israel will promote the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; . . . [and] will uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens without distinction of race, creed or sex.”

Still more progressive than any of its neighbors in the Middle East, and facing serious external threats to its security, Israel can ill afford to divide itself from within. Measures that threaten the status of law-abiding minorities, or laws that favor some categories of Jews over others — whether on grounds of religion or of sexual orientation -- can have no place in a country whose founding ideal is equality before the law.