Nation-state bill pushes Israel toward fascism

Nation-state bill pushes Israel toward fascism

Israel is about to adopt one of the most controversial laws in its history; possibly even more contentious than its declaration of independence 70 years ago, which came at the expense of the Palestinians. The Israeli Knesset has passed the first reading of a bill that, if adopted, will set Israel aside as a state that is exclusively for Jews — an ultranationalist entity that discriminates against its non-Jewish citizens. 

The “nation-state” bill has been in the works for years; the brainchild of Israel’s rising far right. So dangerous is this legislation that even Israeli President Reuven Rivlin is against it; warning that it could “harm the Jewish people, Jews throughout the world and the state of Israel.” Israel’s Deputy Attorney-General Raz Nizri supported Rivlin, saying that the bill would “not accomplish anything while causing only damage to Israel as both a Jewish and a democratic state.” 

Three basic components of the nation-state bill are behind the growing opposition. The bill, which will have constitution-like status, making it almost impossible for future governments to repeal, allows for Jewish-only communities, removes Arabic as an official language of the state, and permits judges to rely on Jewish law as the precedent when there is no other. Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon wrote a letter to the chairman of the special committee for promoting the nation-state bill saying that “we have not found equivalence in any constitution in the world” to the clause suggested in the bill that allows for exclusive communities. 

Defining Israel as a Jewish state has been one of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s top priorities for years; even before he formed the most far-right government in Israel’s history in 2015. According to Haaretz, the legislation would prioritize Jewish values over democratic ones. One clause in particular would allow the establishment of communities that are
segregated by religion or nationality. Israel’s Attorney General’s Office has said the clause “is blatant discrimination” and that it means that residents of such communities have the right to hang up a sign saying: “No entry to non-Jews.”

Israel has never defined its final borders and, if its annexation goes into effect, the new Israel will emerge as the only apartheid state in the world 

Osama Al Sharif

Basically, this clause will target Israel’s biggest minority groups, the Arabs, who make up 20 percent of the population, as well as other minorities such as Druze, Armenians, Circassians, and Assyrians, among others. Arab lawmakers in the Knesset are fighting to present their own bill; one that defines Israel as a state for all its citizens. So far their efforts have been blocked. 

Despite domestic and international criticism of the nation-state bill, Netanyahu is pushing to get the Knesset to pass it before the summer recess. If passed, the bill would complicate Israel’s international position and would certainly erode its self-identity as a democratic state and an oasis of democracy. Netanyahu has repeatedly stated that, for negotiations with the Palestinians to resume, they must also recognize Israel as a Jewish state. President Mahmoud Abbas has rejected this demand, while critics have warned that succumbing to Netanyahu would put the fate of the 1.5 million Palestinians living in Israel in jeopardy. 

The timing of the controversial bill is important. It comes at a time when Israel has reneged on all of its commitments under the Oslo Accords. Hard-line ministers in Netanyahu’s cabinet reject the two-state solution, the right of return for Palestinian refugees and want Israel to annex most of the West Bank, while giving limited self-rule to Palestinian towns and villages. Israel has never defined its final borders and, if its annexation goes into effect, the new Israel will emerge as the only apartheid state in the world.

With Netanyahu enjoying unconditional support from the Trump administration, he does not seem to care about the repercussions of adopting the bill as law. Critics have pointed out that the bill has already affected ties between Israel and the so-called Jewish diaspora, especially in the West, most of whom are self-proclaimed liberals. Outgoing Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky said last week that, while he agrees with the broader sentiment of the proposed legislation, its details will widen the gulf between American Jews — the majority of whom are non-Orthodox — and Israel.

The Obama administration had criticized Netanyahu’s insistence on recognizing Israel as a Jewish state. Before leaving office in 2016, Secretary of State John Kerry said Israel had to choose; either be Jewish or democratic, it cannot be both.

The current debate in Israel, which is unlikely to alter much in the proposed bill, exposes the gradual departure of Israel over the last decades from the original Zionist dream envisioned by its founding fathers as a democratic, secular, socialist, multiethnic society into an ultranationalist and fundamentalist entity edging closer to fascism. In a letter to the Knesset, Rivlin called on lawmakers to “take a look at Israeli society and ask: In the name of the Zionist vision, are we willing to support discrimination and the exclusion of men and women based on their ethnic origin?” But few are willing to answer his question.

  • Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010
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