Israel’s Knesset Is Debating Democracy Itself

A new law before the Israeli parliament would demote Arabic as an official language — and undermine equality.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Education Minister Naftali Bennett in Jerusalem on August  30, 2016. (Abir Sultan/AFP/Getty Images)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Education Minister Naftali Bennett in Jerusalem on August 30, 2016. (Abir Sultan/AFP/Getty Images)

On May 14, 1948, the new state of Israel proclaimed its independence as a democracy with a promise to “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants.” That pledge was always more of a promise than a rule. In practice, members of Israel’s Arab minority have suffered various degrees of discrimination since 1948 — but there has never been an attempt to formally define them as second-class citizens until now.

The Knesset, Israel’s parliament, will vote this week on what’s known as a basic law, a type of legislation that helps form Israel’s de facto constitution. This basic law is titled “Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People” and would promote and enshrine Jewish nationalist aspects of Israeli governance at the expense of the democratic value of equality among all citizens. It is expected to delineate the government’s goal of driving settlement for Jews and, barring last minute changes, to define Hebrew as the state language while demoting Arabic from its longstanding official status.

The bill has stirred consternation, both within Israel and in the global Jewish community.

Clause 7b of the law as it was first drafted (it has since changed) has been the most controversial. As originally written, it stated, “The state is able to allow a community, including those of members of one religion or one nationality to maintain a separate communal settlement.” That would have given full legal standing to the creation of residential areas for Jews only, from which Arabs could be barred. At a meeting of the Knesset’s constitutional committee I attended on July 10, Knesset Member Bezalel Smotrich of the far-right Jewish Home party argued that the law is essential because Arabs are threatening to take over parts of the country, including the Galilee region in the north.

But, also on July 10, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin took the unusual move of presenting his opposition to the settlement clause in a letter to Knesset members. “I am concerned that the broad manner in which this article was formulated, without balances,” he wrote, “is liable to harm the Jewish people, Jews throughout the world and the State of Israel, and can even be used as a weapon by our enemies.”

Two days later, 14 American Jewish organizations wrote to Knesset opposition leader Isaac Herzog opposing the bill. “The defining characteristic of a modern democracy is its promise to protect the rights of all people,” the letter read. “This bill would remove that democratic basis and give constitutional protection to policies that could discriminate against minorities, including women, Palestinian citizens, racial minorities, LGBT people, non-Orthodox Jews, Muslims, Druze, Christians, and others.”

On Saturday night, several thousand Israelis took to the streets of Tel Aviv to protest the bill.

Rivlin’s objections were met with similar concerns from Knesset legal advisor Eyal Yinon; the combination of these protests may have had some impact. The Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz reported on July 15 that Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett had worked out an agreement with the ruling Likud party on a new formulation of the clause. The new phrasing does not blatantly sanction communities that are off-limits to Arabs but it still explicitly defines the development of settlement for Jews as a function of the state. It now reads: “The state views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation.” Amir Fuchs of the nonpartisan Israel Democracy Institute told Haaretz this would still pave the way for discriminatory housing policies and runs counter to the Israeli Declaration of Independence’s pledge that the state would strive to develop the country for the benefit of “all its inhabitants.”

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Israel has always been a hybrid between a democracy and an ethnically based polity with certain theocratic elements, both a Jewish state and a state of all citizens, but this new basic law will tip the balance firmly toward one side.

Israel does not have a constitution but a series of what are known as basic laws, of which this new law would be one. These foundational laws serve as core legal guidance in lieu of a constitution. But this proposed basic law represents a radical change for Israel. Legal scholar Mordechai Kremnitzer, writing in Haaretz on July 11, called it a “revolution.” If passed, he wrote “the idea of an Israel committed to universal and liberal values — whose origins can be found in Israeli culture and other world cultures, even if their implementation in practice is not perfect — will reach its end.”

The same claims that Arab citizens are eating away at the state are reflected in another part of the bill: the elimination of Arabic as an official language alongside Hebrew. “There is sharp opposition against the Arab population and mainly the Arab Knesset members using the language as a way to gnaw away at the status of the state of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people,” Adi Arbel, who represented the Institute for Zionist Strategies, a right-wing think-tank, in deliberations over the nationality law, told me.

Yoni Mendel, the author of The Creation of Israeli Arabic and a scholar at the liberal Van Leer Institute think-tank in Jerusalem, rejects that opinion. If Arab citizens are to be equal to Jews, Arabic’s use should be promoted, he says.

But Arabic’s status in Israel has always been tenuous. Authorities typically only correspond in Hebrew, and government websites are often similarly monolingual. Arab rights organizations have petitioned the courts to enforce and promote the language’s use, scoring a victory in 2002 when the Supreme Court ordered that road signs in mixed cities include Arabic. Such accommodations would be less likely if Hebrew were elevated to the status of the state language and Arabic were demoted to an as-yet-undefined “special status” under the law. At the time of this writing, Arab legislators were lobbying ultra-orthodox lawmakers in the coalition in a last-ditch effort to foil the change.

As Leslie Susser, the former political editor of the Jerusalem Report, told Abu Dhabi-based newspaper the National, “By playing the anti-Arab card, [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is] able to get votes for free, he’s able to get support from the Israeli right, which is most of Israel.”

Right-wing politicians have taken or amplified anti-Arab stances because they resonate well. For example, at the July 10 Knesset meeting, Smotrich warned the Knesset that the town of upper Nazareth, where many Arabs have moved in recent years, will “fall” due to the influx, meaning it will no longer be a Jewish-majority town. The implication is that Arab citizens are a demographic enemy.

Other examples aren’t hard to find. In December, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman called for a boycott against the Arab city of Umm al-Fahm after a large protest was held there following U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

In February 2017, Housing Minister Yoav Galant argued for relocating Bedouin Arabs and “[concentrating] Bedouin settlement into permitted areas where there will be building for height and quality of life.”

When forest fires raged in November 2016, both Netanyahu and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan baselessly blamed them on Arab arson. And on election day 2015, Netanyahu darkly painted an image of swarms of Arabs descending on the polling stations, saying they were voting “in droves.”

While far-right Israeli lawmakers warn of an Arab threat gnawing at the core of the state, army bulldozers in the occupied West Bank are poised to demolish the Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar and transfer its residents against their will to a site near a refuse dump in the Jerusalem suburb of Abu Dis. Human rights groups have warned this will be tantamount to a war crime.

The two issues — the law and the village — are connected. In the case of Khan al-Ahmar, the Bedouin are to be driven out for the benefit of expanding the Jewish settlement of Kfar Adumim — which would also drive a neat wedge into any potential Palestinian state’s territory in the West Bank.

In May, the Israeli Supreme Court rejected a Bedouin appeal against demolition, upholding the state’s argument that their shanties were illegally built on state land. In fact, permission is virtually impossible to obtain because of discriminatory Israeli planning policies. Khan al-Ahmar predates the existence of Kfar Adumim, whose construction and expansion violate international law. But here too, fervent Jewish nationalism is poised to prevail at Arab expense.

If the nationality bill is passed as currently formulated, the long-claimed status of Israel as the Middle East’s only democracy will look even more tenuous.

Ben Lynfield is a former Arab affairs correspondent at the Jerusalem Post. He has written for the National, the Independent, and the Christian Science Monitor.

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