How does Israel’s choice of faith as marker for national identity stack up?

While the passage of this bill does not directly clash with the two-state solution, the viability of the same has been put to serious doubts

Getty images
Getty images

Tathagata Bhattacharya

As Israel’s Parliament last week passed The Basic Law: Israel as the Nation State of the Jewish People, people across the world have been wondering whether Israel has finally embraced theocracy instead of democracy and pluralism. Israel’s first PM David Ben-Gurion had in 1967 warned the state of the same in the aftermath of the euphoria over Israeli victory in the Six-Day War. He had called upon Israel to withdraw from occupied lands. It seems a half a century later, Israel’s PM has thrown Ben-Gurion’s warning out of the window.

Benjamin Netanyahu has praised the bill’s passage as a “defining moment” in his country’s history. “A hundred and twenty-two years after Herzl made his vision known, with this law we determined the founding principle of our existence,” Netanyahu said in a reference to Theodore Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism. “Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people, and respects the rights of all of its citizens,” he added.

While the passage of this bill does not directly clash with the two-state solution, the viability of the same has been put to serious doubts. Israel has already occupied a lot of Palestinian areas and have built settlements in considerable parts of the West Bank. There are parts of this legislation which calls “complete” Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

The legislation defines Israel first and foremost as a Jewish state. Among its 11 provisions, it describes Israel as “the national home of the Jewish people” and says the right to exercise national self-determination there is “unique to the Jewish people”. It reiterates the status of Jerusalem as the capital of a future state - as the “complete and united... capital of Israel”.

It singles out Hebrew as the “state’s language”, effectively prioritising it above Arabic which used to be recognised as an official language alongside Hebrew. In one clause, the law stresses the importance of “development of Jewish settlement as a national value”. It is unclear if this includes settlement in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

According to Israel’s Arab minority which comprise 20% of the population, Israel is downgrading their status. They have equal rights under the law but have long complained of being treated as second-class citizens and of discrimination and worse provision than Israeli Jews when it comes to services such as education, health and housing. Civil rights groups have denounced the law and some critics described it as apartheid. Thousands of Israelis had taken to the streets in Tel Aviv before the bill was passed, demanding it be scrapped. They said it promoted separation, was undemocratic and excluded the Arab minority. Even Israeli President Reuven Rivlin had warned against the bill. Arab MPs, as expected, reacted furiously in Parliament, with one waving a black flag and others ripping up the bill. But none of this stopped Parliament from passing it.

I had the fortune of visiting Israel as part of an editor exchange programme in 2010 and almost had a premonition of this. Israel is a modern state, its achievements in fundamental science enviable, its motorways easily comparable to Europe’s. But, the basis of its existence always came across as mythology. No, Israel is not a theocracy. But it has set faith as a demarcation for national identity. I had interactions with politicians, parliamentarians, clerics, journalists, writers, filmmakers, cabbies, bartenders, hotel bell boys and was amused to see the ease with which almost all of them would wade into 3000-yearold history and the fanatical rigidity that prevented them from revisiting the 1948 borders. I know there are a lot of dissenting voices in Israel who do not approve of the actions of the Israeli state and the human rights violations by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) but I guess since it was a state-sponsored visit, I ended up meeting people who shared the government’s view. It is the same fervour that the ruling Likud Party has exploited to pass the bill. I was also taken to the office of Israel’s largest newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, where I met the top editors of the newspaper.

Coming from India, I was surprised to know that the Israeli media censors itself on 16 subjects, lest they damage the credibility of the State. Looking at the media in India now, it no longer seems so surprising. When jingoism takes over, everything else takes a backseat. However, it’s not hard to understand the timing behind such a move. Israel has the strong backing of US President Donald Trump who exhibited nothing short of maverick belligerence when the US shifted its Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and the US pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal in the same month of May this year. The trajectory of the Syrian Civil War has also brought Russia, another major player in West Asia, and Israel to a quid-pro-quo arrangement with Israel pledging not to disturb the Assad regime in return for Russian assurances that Iranian elements will be kept away from its borders.

Russian nonchalance about Israeli airstrikes against Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria in spite the presence of top-notch air defence systems on the ground are clear pointers to this effect. With US and Russia firmly on its side, this was perfect timing for Israel to transition into a identity-driven State from one determined by democracy and pluralism. But what was the reason for passing this law apart from the Likud Party consolidating its vote bank? Roni Pelli of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel probably has got it spot on when he told The Washington Post, “This bill is not about law or justice, it is all about normalizing the Israeli occupation and blurring the difference between Israel and the occupied territories that are under military rule.”

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