by Ludwig Watzal
Sixty six years after the establishment of the State of Israel, even the most ubiquitous term employed to describe the political nature of Israel, namely as a “Jewish democratic state,” is becoming obsolete. The Netanyahu government and its right-wing coalition partners are preparing a law, which will exclusively define Israel as a “Jewish State” for the benefit of what they define as the “Jewish people”. For independent observers, who do not wear Zionist propaganda glasses, Israel was never a democracy in the classical Western sense of the term, but always a Jewish democracy or a democracy sui generis, i. e. full democratic rights for Jews only. Jewish and democratic just does not fit. It’s an oxymoron. Nonetheless, the Zionist propaganda (hasbara) has left no stone unturned in order to hammer this conceptual contradiction into the Western public mind. The Israeli Palestinians have always been treated as second class citizens. The Israeli political class regards them as a “fifth column” that cannot be trusted.
The proposed Basic Law shows that Israel, after 66 years of its existence, is in the dark about its identity. It is a proof of Israel’s shortcomings. From the Israel’s very foundation there existed a built-in contradiction: On the one hand, Israel was declared at its establishment as a “Jewish State in Eretz Yisrael” (Eretz Yisrael in Hebrew is equivalent to historical Palestine), on the other hand, the same Declaration promised to “ensure complete equality of (…) political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion”. It has turned out that Israel could not be both.
According to the “Law of Return” every bona fide Jew in the world could immigrate to Israel and automatically obtain Israeli citizenship. Other laws were enacted in parallel to prevent the return of expelled Palestinians and their right to their land. The contradiction was reestablished by the “Nationality Law” of 1952, which reads: “A person who, immediately before the establishment of the State, was a Palestinian citizen (…) shall become an Israel national”.
Under the presidency of former Chief Justice Aharon Barak, the Basic Law “Human Dignity and Freedom” was passed, which coined the phrase “Jewish and democratic state” for Israel. The right-wing parties are now up in arms about this construction and consider the High Court of Israel (HCI) in general far too liberal. Some extremists even want to abolish this institution and replace it by a religious court. Due to the significant Palestinian population within Israel, former Israeli governments downplayed the Jewish component in that formula. But since right-wing parties now dominate Israel’s political landscape and parliament, the public was led to accept and even approve of racism and open discrimination of Israel’s Palestinian minority.
As a consequence of popular racism, the Netanyahu cabinet has discussed several versions of a new Basic Law that will finally establish Israel as what has been termed a racist pariah state. The cabinet version was approved by 14 against 6 votes. Should this bill become law, Israel will be an overt ethnocracy. The question which would then arise for Israel’s friends in the US and Europe is, how to reconcile Israel’s self- definition as a Jewish State with democratic values. The West will probably also manage to explain this anachronism, as it has previously justified Israel’s human rights violations, colonialism, violations of international law and closed its eyes on war crimes and atrocities by the Israeli army against Palestinians. Western political elites will find ways to justify or at least explain away this institutional racism.
In Israel, the draft presented by the government caused an outcry by the liberal spectrum. Even President Reuven Rivlin spoke out against Netanyahu’s “Jewish state bill”. He called for a referendum and said “democracy and Judaism must remain equal”. He asked at a conference in Eilat: “Does promoting this law, not in fact, question the success of the Zionist enterprise in which we are fortunate to live?” Rivlin is a former Knesset member of Netanyahu’s Likud party with political scores to settle with the Prime Minister. Rivlin decried the elevation of Israel’s Jewish dimension over its democratic one, proposed in some versions of the intended new law.
The tainted atmosphere that led to this proposed law will neither vanish in the Knesset nor in the Israeli public mind. If the “Jewishness” of the State of Israel will prevail over the democratic one, the “Nation-State of the Jewish people” is going to admit that it is a theocracy guided by racist ideology. In future, the political discussion will have to revolve around the racial aspect of Jewishness and Jewish culture in Israel and less around colonial Zionism, that has hitherto served as a vehicle for Israeli Jewish expansionism. Israel has always been a Jewish state. It finally appears to admit that it has no interest in democracy. How will the US Empire and Israel’s European friends react to this new definition of the State of Israel?
At the end of the day, Israel has to choose between a Jewish state with some democratic embedded particles or a democratic state with a Jewish preponderance. It cannot have the cake and eat it, too. The critics of the term “Jewish democratic state” asked for a “Jewish state”. For some a “Jewish state” might be the solution of the Israeli dilemma, but for others this might be the nail in the coffin for the Zionist enterprise. As a state for all its citizens, the land is light years away.