Issued on May 14, 1948, Israel’s Declaration of Independence proclaimed “the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz Israel.” It affirmed the “natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State.”
Some Israeli lawmakers, quite understandably, feel this self-evident definition is under siege. Frustrated that the Palestinian Authority won’t recognize this fundamental fact, they have sponsored a bill, now headed to the Knesset, that would enshrine into law Israel’s status as a Jewish state. Supporters say it would strengthen the legitimacy of what the bill calls “the State of Israel’s identity as the nation-state of the Jewish people.” On practical terms, the law would become one of the so-called Basic Laws, which in the absence of a constitution guide Israel’s legal system.
And yet considering the crisis the law has sparked in Israel’s coalition, with center-left parties threatening to bolt the government and Israel’s civil rights sector and Arab minority crying foul, it is not quite clear why Israel needs a divisive law that affirms what is widely regarded as the status quo — earning in the process maximum symbolic turmoil for minimum practical value.
Even some of Israel’s closest friends in the Diaspora, like the Anti-Defamation League, are calling the legislation “well-meaning but unnecessary.” They worry that the law devalues another principle enshrined in the declaration: democracy. The 1948 declaration ensures “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race, or sex.” Writes Abraham Foxman of the ADL: “It is troubling that the foundational principle of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, a principle that has been so clear and natural since the country’s founding, has increasingly become a highly charged politicized issue.”
Israel’s supporters consistently describe it as the Middle East’s only true democracy, and the equality it strives for has always been a point of pride and mutual affinity. Jews in Israel and around the world should strive to strengthen Israel as a Jewish state though education, participation, and promotion of Jewish values at every level of society. At a moment when the world seems eager to pounce on any Israeli misstep, we hope the Knesset takes into account the concerns of its friends.