Old stones, new laws: Israel’s messy democracy

Old stones, new laws: Israel’s messy democracy

Demonstrators attend a rally to protest against the 'Jewish Nation-State Bill' in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv on July 14, 2018. Since become a 'Basic Law', it declares that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people. Getty Images
Demonstrators attend a rally to protest against the 'Jewish Nation-State Bill' in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv on July 14, 2018. Since become a 'Basic Law', it declares that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people. Getty Images

The sun beat down mercilessly as my husband and I climbed the stone steps near the Western Wall on our way into the heart of Jerusalem’s Old City. We had come in the middle of July to vacation in Israel, aware of the country’s hot summers, but not knowing that we would also be hit by a brutal heat wave. “I feel like the Israelites on their way to the Promised Land,” I complained. “All I want to do is go back to where there is water and shade.” Happily we soon found some respite from the heat under the umbrella of a local café.

Finding relief from the political heat that gripped the country, however, was another matter. We had arrived in the midst of a bitter debate about the controversial nation-state law then awaiting a final Knesset vote. Arguments concerning such a law had been going on for years, but now they had come to a head. On the face of it, there would seem to be nothing controversial about the law, which declares that “Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people.” After all, it has been clear since the nation’s founding that it is a Jewish state, and other laws had long ago established the Israeli flag and confirmed “Hatikvah” as the national anthem.

But that is just the point, said its critics. Given the reality, why was it necessary to institute this legislation, except as a way to sideline Israelis who are not Jewish? For example, the law states that the right of national self-determination is “unique to the Jewish people,” thus excluding the country’s non-Jewish citizens. It also specifies that Hebrew is the nation’s “official language,” downgrading Arabic to “special status.” 

Among our friends in Israel, those on the right generally supported the law, while those in the center tended to see it as more symbolic than practical. The courts will continue to uphold democratic values over narrow nationalist ones, they insisted. Moreover, they pointed out, the final version of the bill eliminated some of the most contentious clauses that had been proposed. One, for example, would have permitted segregated “Jewish only” communities to be built. Another would have used halacha, Jewish religious law, in dealing with some matters, imposing theology on the legal system. Nevertheless, our friends on the left argued, this law moves away from democracy toward racial and religious discrimination against the nation’s minorities. Indeed, the words “democracy” and “equality” do not appear in it. Nor does it include guarantees incorporated in the country’s Declaration of Independence, giving “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants, irrespective of religion, race, or sex.”

The nation-state bill passed into law on the day we left Israel. Since then there have been vociferous protests against it. Some have come from such intellectuals as David Grossman and Amos Oz; others from minorities, like the Druze, who have been consistently loyal to the state, but now feel themselves treated as “second-class citizens.” Yet nobody
really expects the law to be amended soon — Benjamin Netanyahu needs it to strengthen his standing with his coalition’s extreme right-wing as he prepares for next year’s elections.

Israel is as politically polarized as the United States, with the right continuing to assert its power and the left without cohesive leadership. Isaac Herzog gave up his position as head of the Labor Party to chair the Jewish Agency. Avi Gabbay, its current head, and Tzipi Livni, leader of the opposition, don’t seem to inspire many people. Despite party differences, however, everybody worries about the violence in Israel’s South. While they might disagree on how vehemently Israel should respond to border attacks from Gaza, one thing all recognize: the fiery balloons, burning tires and other incendiary devices being hurled across the border are not harmless toys. These devices have destroyed thousands of acres of agricultural fields, polluted the air for miles around, and put the Jewish population in grave danger. What the future holds is unclear.

On this visit, as always, my husband and I were caught up in the pressures of everyday Israeli life. But we were also conscious, as always, of the wonders of this land — the vibrancy of its democracy in spite of controversial laws (just look at the press, with some of its virulent attacks on the nation’s politicians); those stones in old Jerusalem, where prophets and sages once walked, much as we did; Tel Aviv’s tree-lined Rothschild Boulevard, with its Independence Hall, where David Ben-Gurion’s voice can be heard declaring the State of Israel; and the people, disagreeing, arguing, yet coming together to keep this nation flourishing, 70 years after its founding. How fortunate we are that those complaining ancient Israelites never did turn back, but created a homeland for ages to come.

Francine Klagsbrun’s biography, “Lioness: Golda Meir and the Nation of Israel,” was named 2017 Book of the Year by the National Jewish Book Awards.

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