News has arrived that the Netanyahu Government coalition, less than 20 months old, is fragmenting, due, among other things, to tensions over the potential passage of a new bill before the Knesset. Titled “Israel, the Nation State of the Jewish People”, the proposed legislation is an attempt to finally produce the Israeli equivalent of a Constitution, establishing the guiding principles for the State’s governance. The document itself is short – barely a page long — and expressed in extremely simple language.
It affirms some very basic principles which have been widely recognized as fundamental to the State’s existence and have been largely taken for granted over the past 67 years; among them:
The Land of Israel is the historic homeland of the Jewish People and the place of the establishment of the State of Israel.
The State of Israel is the national home of the Jewish People in which the Jewish People realizes its right to self-determination in accordance with its cultural and historic heritage.
The right to realize national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish People.
The State of Israel is democratic, based on the foundations of freedom, justice and peace in light of the visions of the prophets of Israel, and upholds the individual rights of all its citizens according to law
Notice that these principles are stated without reliance on any other authority (in contrast to the 1948 Declaration of Independence which had relied on United Nations Resolution 181, the Balfour Declaration and other documents in part to affirm the right to self-determination) but draws on the Jewish peoples’ heritage and long historical connections to the Land of Israel.
The question: is why now? What has impelled Netanyahu to risk his government over something that is widely accepted in the country anyway?
The answer is multi-dimensional but if necessary can probably be redacted to a few key words: the need to set both a vision and a purpose for the country.
In rapid succession over the past 20 years the concept of the legitimacy of a Jewish state has come under pounding assault — first in the 1990s from the Israel’s post- Zionist historians, then from the Israeli Supreme Court under Chief Justice Aharon Barak; following that from a raft of post 9/11 campus radicals and finally from the Palestinian Authority itself, which is now successfully leading the world in delegitimization efforts. They have attempted to chip away at the foundational legitimacy of the Jewish state, declaring any religious affiliation of the State to be racist and buttressing accusations of a reversion to South African-style apartheid. Forgotten of course is that most Arab countries in the region define themselves as Islamic states and Israel is far and away the only country in the Middle East to extend true legal protections to its minorities.
From the state’s very beginnings it has been debated whether the Israel should be governed as a Jewish state or as a state of all its citizens. No one has forgotten that there is sizable minority — a little more than 20% — of non-Jews living in the country which now includes a broad mix of Arabs, Druze, Bedouin, Thais, Filipinos and Russians.
The question has never been completely resolved, and in the absence of a Constitution (which was once attempted but abandoned when the tension over the religious character of the state scuttled the effort) the country was legally held together by the passage of a series of Basic Laws which have governed such controversial subjects as Sabbath observance, marriage, death, conversions, and immigration.
But now, as one European country after another lines up to recognize a Palestinian state outside of an internationally sanctioned peace agreement, the Government of Israel can probably see the writing on the wall. Just as Palestinians have elected not to accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state, so will the international community be goaded into following suit when it finds Israel doggedly resistant to the demands for the establishment of an implacable foe on its doorstep.
The opponents of the new law have mounted a vigorous attack upon it, declaring that it is at odds with the democratic nature of the state.
It’s a curious argument since our modern understanding of the concept of democracy is government sanctioned by the majority. The democratic nature of a state is not destroyed when the majority elects a government which seeks to affirm the nation’s identity and character.
In addition, the bill which as it stands takes great pains to stress that the state will uphold the individual rights of all its citizens according to law; that the State will act to enable all residents of Israel, regardless of religion, race or nationality, to preserve their culture, heritage, language, and identity; and that members of recognized faiths shall be entitled to rest on their Sabbaths and holidays.
No discrimination against any non-Jews there.
But there is yet another important argument to make. There are those critics who portray democracy as if it is some sacred totem to which all human beings must bow in worship even when the existence of that ideal conflicts with the expressions of a nation’s identity or even its national security. However even the West’s greatest philosophers and most fervent proponents of democracy never believed that there was a perfect representative system which would ensure that the interests of all citizens within any given polity would be completely represented. How could it be logically so when democracy is the rule by majority vote? To put it starkly, in any democracy there will always be a tension between a majority mandate and minority aspirations. They are in constant balance and at times the balance will shift unfavorably against the minority.
We are well aware, after all, of the flaws in American representative government and how hard it is to guarantee that any law passed by Congress will not at one time or another be tipped against one particular minority or group of individuals. We cannot forget that a small country such as Israel, with a population 1/32nd the size of the United States, is a unique experiment in world history and as a Jewish sovereign democratic state — the first in 2,000 years — cannot and should not be expected to meet an impossible standard that even the most vigorous democratic nations have failed to achieve.
The vote in the Knesset to approve the bill Israel, “the Nation State of the Jewish People” has become essential for Israelis themselves to emphatically affirm that after centuries of persecution there now exists and will always exist a place of refuge for the Jewish people, one which guarantees, in the words of the country’s 1948 Declaration of Independence itself, ” the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, in their own sovereign state.” It is this unassailable right to self-determination, which draws its life blood from Jewish law and history, that lies at the heart of Israel’s founding — and not its opponents’ tendentious argument that protecting the sensitivities of minorities was and is primary. The twin ideals of Jewish nationhood and representative democracy have sometimes comes into conflict — that is true. But, as many Zionist thinkers have recognized, that tension might be the price to be paid for having any Jewish state at all.
This article first appeared at the American Thinker