Israeli Nationalist Legislation and Democracy
Even the staunchest defender of Israel is troubled by the approval of undemocratic laws designed to maintain the Jewish nature of the state. For some time now nationalists have been challenging the good nature of Israel’s democracy by passing laws that restrict the rights of the minority community, namely Arabs, from expressing themselves even symbolically. Here are a few examples: Israel’s war of independence in 1948 is called the Nakba or the disaster by the Arabs and it is against the law to use state funds to commemorate the Nakba. Small communities have been empowered to prevent groups from moving into the community. Some have suggested loyalty oaths and there have been laws passed that prevent Palestinian citizens from seeking rights in the courts.
Many of these laws are objectionable to most Israelis and have been rejected by the Knesset. But a certain number of them appeal to a wide variety of people. Israelis fear the loss of the Jewish particularity of the state and even though they struggle with these laws some argue for their necessity. One Israeli leader even proposed legislation that suggested the superiority of the Jewish nature of the state over the democratic nature of the state, and this included rejecting Arabic as a national language in Israel.
What motivates this sort of action? There are a few prime motivators the most important of which is the essential Jewish nature of the state. Israel simply cannot be a strong liberal democracy and privilege Jewish particularity. It’s a contradiction in terms on one level. But on another level Israel has a right to remain Jewish. There is a sense in which the state of Israel makes no sense if it is not Jewish. The question is how Jewish? The answer lies somewhere betweenIsraelas a Torah state sealed in orthodoxy, and Israel as a secular democratic state with the separation of church and state. The balance between the Democratic and the Jewish nature of the state will have to evolve over time.
But there are other causes which include a failed peace process, a public tired of violence and rocket attacks, and the distasteful experience of watching Israeli Arabs cheer Hezbollah rockets. Increasingly Israelis see all Palestinians, even Israeli Palestinians, as the same and do not assume that Israeli Palestinians have any commitment to the state.
Of course, one answer to this reactionary legislation is the two-state solution. But that does not seem to be something bound for the near future; moreover, even with the establishment of a Palestinian state there will be a sizable Palestinian minority in Israel proper. This problem will not go away. This sort of reactionary legislation will not go away but it is more exposed than ever because it promises to threaten the democratic nature ofIsrael. Threats to free speech and the disempowerment of whole groups of people have placed the problem at the forefront of the public’s consciousness. Israeli Arabs are about 20% of the Israeli population and the number is simply too big to ignore.
Israel should guarantee the symbolic rights of all minority groups. The key word here is symbolic rights, the rights to express themselves through protest and the right to propose alternative perspectives on the state. Any culture has a right to protect itself from a genuine threat and Israelis no different. In the same way that the skinheads were allowed to march in the United States, as long as they were not judged to be overly provocative or violent, minority groups inIsraelshould also be allowed to express themselves through acceptable forms of protest. Protected speech is sacred to liberal democracies and, as the observation goes, the best response to unpleasant speech is more speech. Israel should have nothing to fear from the rights of Palestinians to express themselves – again, the right to express themselves peacefully and under conditions that do not promote imminent danger. Stubborn resistance to the rights of Palestinians will only cause the conflict to spiral downward and make the two-state solution even more difficult to achieve.