From The Economist - July 18 - 2018
Jewish or democratic?
Israel is still arguing over how to balance its two identities
“THIS is a pivotal moment in the history of Zionism and the state of Israel," said Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, in the early hours of July 19th. Israel's parliament, the Knesset, had just passed a law stating that the right of national self-determination is "unique to the Jewish people". Israel's non-Jewish citizens were excluded. The nation-state law, as it is known, was necessary "to ensure the foundation of our existence", said Mr Netanyahu. But Arab Knesset members called it the "law of Jewish supremacy" and chanted "apartheid".
The nation-state law seems designed to offend Israel's minorities. It repeats clauses from other laws, but eschews the section of the declaration of independence that commits Israel to the "complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex". Israel has always struggled to balance that pledge against its status as a Jewish state. Unofficial discrimination has existed for decades, in that Arabs receive fewer state resources than Jews. What is new is that lawmakers in Mr Netanyahu's coalition are seeking to codify inequality in law.
In fact the nation-state law is not as sweeping as Mr Netanyahu's grandiose language suggests. In lieu of a constitution, the Knesset has, over the years, passed a series of "basic laws". One, from 1992, enshrines the same civil rights for all citizens. The new measure, also a basic law, does not change that. Harder-line drafts were watered down during years of political wrangling. A clause that would have promoted Jewish-only communities was replaced with a vague commitment to "Jewish settlement". Another specifies that Hebrew is Israel's "official language", while Arabic, spoken by a quarter of the population, merely has "special status". Yet the use of Arabic in the public domain has grown on Mr Netanyahu's watch.
In arguing for the nation-state law, Mr Netanyahu may have been motivated by the search for votes rather than by state-building. Anxious to win a fifth term in elections that must be held by late next year, the prime minister looks set on repeating his strategy from 2015, when he exhorted nationalists to "protect the state of Israel" against "the Arab voters moving in droves to the polling stations". To keep his coalition together, he has often acceded to his ultra-Orthodox and nationalist allies. But many are still frustrated. Because the nation-state law is only declaratory, few think it will sway Israel's Supreme Court, which often rules in favour of democratic values over Jewish nationalist ones.
Critics of Mr Netanyahu's government, one of the most right-wing and religious in Israel's history, say the nation-state law is indicative of its efforts to make Israel less democratic and more illiberal. It has passed laws aimed at weakening the courts and stifling the press and civil-rights groups. It has kowtowed to conservative supporters, exacerbating tensions within Israeli society. And it has made little effort to seek peace with the Palestinians. But Mr Netanyahu is under little pressure to change his ways. President Donald Trump has backed him, for example by recognising Jerusalem as Israel's capital. Much of the Arab world is working with Mr Netanyahu to counter Iran. And the Israeli opposition is too weak to pose a credible threat to the government.
Despite the new law, Israel's democracy is robust. The Knesset contains a wide range of views (the nation-state law passed by 62 votes to 55). The legal system holds power to account-in recent years it has sent both a prime minister, and a president to prison for criminal offences. Mr Netanyahu himself is facing numerous investigations over corruption. The Israeli press is free and refreshingly irreverent towards politicians. Efforts by the government to stifle dissent have been diluted or failed because of judicial and media opposition and a lack of support within the ruling coalition, which commands a small majority.
On the same morning the new basic law passed, police detained a progressive rabbi in Haifa for carrying out Jewish marriages without the approval of the state Rabbinate, which is ultra-Orthodox. A day earlier Mr Netanyahu was forced to vote against a measure, which he had previously endorsed, that would have allowed gay men to have children with surrogate mother. His reversal was a sop to his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners. The new law does not resolve these conflicts. Even Israelis themselves cannot agree on what it means to be a Jewish state ■
ONE THING I KNOW---- ISRAEL WILL NEVER BECOME A RELIGIOUS STATE BASED ON THE JEWISH BIBLE - Keith Hunt