On July 19, Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, voted into law the Nation-State Bill. As Israel has never had a constitution, the bill became the latest iteration of the country’s Basic Laws, in the form of Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People. To many, this seemed like stating the obvious. Had not Israel been created in the first place for that very purpose? The only question was, “Why had it taken 70 years to turn the obvious into law?” Well, perhaps not the only question. The next one was “Why did 55 Knesset members vote against it, with two abstentions, with a narrow majority of 62 in favour?”
Once word got out to the outside world that the Israeli parliament had dared to enact such a definition of their state, it was, for many, as if the end of the world had taken place. As if they had never known that, since the time of the Bible, the land now called Israel was home to the Jews.
Just about everybody went out to condemn the bill as racist, discriminatory, anti-democratic, and opposed to Jewish principles of egalitarianism with non-Jewish citizens. NBC News ran a headline stating: “Israel ‘nation-state’ law prompts criticism around the world, including from U.S. Jewish groups”. On the very day the bill was passed, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, claimed that:
“We’ve been very clear when it comes to the two-state solution, we believe it is the only way forward and any step that would further complicate or prevent this solution of becoming a reality should be avoided.”
She did not say why Israel’s being a Jewish state with equal rights for non-Jews would interfere with a future two-state solution. Rejection of such a solution has always come from the Arab and Palestinian side, never the mainstream Jewish side. Instead, Mogherini planned a meeting for September 4 with Israeli Arab lawmakers — these being another group vociferously opposed to the new law. She does not appear to have invited any Jewish lawmakers to an equivalent meeting.
The European Union, a supra-national conglomeration that has done much good in advancing the rights of individual nation-states that emerged after the fall of the Soviet Union as a means to preserving peace on the continent of Europe, has for many years taken an anti-Israel position that serves only to encourage Palestinians who launch wars and terrorist attacks precisely to prevent a two-state solution, all the while demanding the right to abolish Israel and create an exclusive Palestinian state “from the (Jordan) river to the (Mediterranean) sea”, a call for massive ethnic cleansing or genocide.
Opposition to the nation-state law was also strongly expressed by Israeli Arabs, Israeli Druze, and many Israeli and American Jews, including the Jewish Federations of North America and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews — in clear defiance of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, even though, for example, the United Kingdom officially exists as an Anglican state, without mistreating, at least officially, any of its minorities.
In Israel, artists, authors and purported intellectuals called for the cancellation of the law. Sometimes, the language used to describe the law passed the bounds of common decency. British Jewish socialist David Rosenberg, a close ally of Jeremy Corbyn, spoke in vile terms about three Jewish UK Labour Party MPs before slurring Israel’s new law:
“If [Margaret] Hodge and her sisters in struggle, [Ruth] Smeeth and [Juliana] Berger, were not craven opportunists and selective anti-racists and defenders of human rights, they might have been speaking out more, or even at all, about the disgusting and openly racist nation state bill that the Israeli government has just approved…”
One Israeli Arab member of the Knesset, Zouheir Bahloul, resigned, predicting that other Arab MKs would follow suit. He claimed falsely that the law discriminated against non-Jewish minorities. On August 4, many Israelis, organized by Druze leaders, gathered in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv to protest the law. It later emerged, however, that the rally was paid for and directed by the left-wing Anu group, a grantee of the New Israel Fund. According to Breitbart Jerusalem:
Daniel Sokatch, CEO of the New Israel Fund, issued a divisive statement calling the legislation “tribalism at its worst,” a “slap in the face to Arab Palestinian citizens of Israel,” and a “danger to Israel’s future.”
In other words, anti-Zionists tried to weaponize the new law to promote their existing agendas.
By contrast, in Saudi Arabia and the Maldives, only Muslims are allowed to be citizens. In both those countries, the open practice of any religion other than Islam is forbidden — even Christianity and Judaism, which are supposedly accepted by Islam. In Israel, members of all religions and ethnic groups are full citizens.
It probably should not be a surprise that many Arab and European leaders used the passage of the law as an excuse to further their anti-Zionist agenda, but the opposition of Israel’s Druze community, always the most loyal to the state, with a long and admirable role in the Israeli armed forces, as well as the anger of so many Jews both in Israel and abroad, came as something of a shock.
There is no doubt, however, that this simple law does not change anything for anyone.
On August 8, during a special Knesset debate on the law, Zionist Union party activists, led by a former Israeli foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, attacked the government, called for fresh elections, and “said the opposition would pass the Declaration of Independence as a basic law in lieu of the nation-state law.” Whatever the problems abroad, there is little doubt that the decision to make Jewish identity a core part of Israeli law has intensified political divisions at a time when unity of purpose is essential for a country that still faces existential threats on several fronts.
Readers should consult the full text of the law in order to reach their own conclusions. But it may help to consider one or two key clauses from it as a starting point for our understanding of it. In reality, the only contentious clauses are those in Article 1:
A. The land of Israel is the historical homeland of the Jewish people, in which the State of Israel was established.
B. The State of Israel is the national home of the Jewish people, in which it fulfills its natural, cultural, religious and historical right to self-determination.
C. The right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.
Surely we knew all this already. The passage of the law was done simply to give a firm legal basis for the creation of Israel in 1948 following the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine. Its preamble states clearly that:
Whereas the Principal Allied Powers have also agreed that the Mandatory should be responsible for putting into effect the declaration originally made on November 2nd, 1917, by the Government of His Britannic Majesty, and adopted by the said Powers, in favour of the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, it being clearly understood that nothing should be done which might prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country. [Author’s emphasis.]
As for “the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”, does not Israel’s Declaration of Independence (May 14, 1948) clearly state that the State of Israel “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions”, and has not Israel done exactly that, as the Druze, Muslims, Christians, Baha’is and other minorities, can attest?
Why, then, do so many around the world claim that reinforcing the fact that Israel is a Jewish state will harm the lives of its non-Jewish inhabitants? In Iran, for instance, the large Baha’i minority suffers massive persecution, including imprisonment, execution, and much more, While in Israel, they have their international governing body and their holiest shrines, and bring in pilgrims from round the world.
Accusations levelled against the new law often include outright falsehoods. Daniel Pomerantz of Honest Reporting has identified a series of, shall we diplomatically call, “myths” about the law published by the New York Times, including that “Israel is a country where Jews enjoy rights that others don’t have” and “a state in which Judaism is the only national expression permissible by law will, by definition, reject any minority member who wishes to be part of it”. Of course, Judaism is not “the only national expression permissible by law” and more than in England the Anglican religion is. Additionally, go tell that to any of the religious and ethnic minorities who live unmolested in Israel, who serve in parliament, in the judicial system, in universities and across all sectors.
Those false accusations against Israel, however, draw attention to something else that has been grievously neglected in this debate: Israel is being wrongly condemned for something that not one Muslim state has ever been condemned for: identifying its nationality with its religion — and in the case of those Muslim states, this is done frequently in a manner that excludes or restricts the rights, or even the very existence, of minorities.
There are currently four countries that officially identify as Islamic Republics: Iran, Pakistan, Mauritania, and Afghanistan. There have been four others, some very short-lived, in the past: the Comoros (1978-2000), the East Turkestan (1933), the Gambia (2015-2017), and the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria (1996-2000). All four of the current Islamic republics are dangerous places for non-Muslims to live, with laws against apostasy, against blasphemy (freedom of expression), and, in the case of Mauritania, prevalent slavery, all of which contradict international human rights standards. In those republics, as well as in monarchies with Islam as the official religion (such as Saudi Arabia), the persecution of heretical Muslims, Christians and Baha’is and others, is — in direct contrast to Israel — commonplace. The use of shari’a law to enforce human rights abuses banned under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, clamps down heavily on the lives of women, freethinkers, secularists, and all non-Muslims. Where capital punishments are carried out for non-criminal offences such as heresy, blasphemy and “sorcery“, or floggings and stonings-to-death are imposed for moral infringements such as alleged sex outside marriage, including having been raped, there is a huge imbalance between Western democracies and many Muslim states.
In Saudi Arabia and the Maldives, only Muslims are allowed to be citizens. In both, the open practice of any other religion, even those (Christianity and Judaism) that are accepted by Islam, is forbidden. In Israel, members of all other religions and ethnic groups are full citizens, who may vote, serve as lawmakers and judges, and more, worship in protected holy places.
It is important to add that few Muslim states are democracies in the full sense. Several are outright monarchies or emirates: Morocco, Jordan, Brunei, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait (an emirate where there is an elected parliament, but political parties are illegal), Qatar, Oman, and the 7-emirate United Arab Emirates. In the modern period, others have been or still are dictatorships: Syria, Iran (a theocracy, formerly a monarchy), Iraq, Libya, and Pakistan under Zia-ul Haq. It is only fair to state that the three most populous Muslim-majority nations (Indonesia, Pakistan, and Bangladesh) are all democracies, and that some others are democracies, yet often threatened by coups d’état or growing Islamisation. Lebanon, which was a decent democracy, is now controlled by Hizbullah. Turkey, the first Muslim secular democracy, is run today by Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who recently acquired massive powers.
Furthermore, Islam is the official religion of many states: Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Iran, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Somalia, Djibouti, Sudan, Nigeria, the Maldives, Brunei, and Malaysia. Article 4 of the 2003 Amended Basic Law of the Palestinian National Authority reads:
1. Islam is the official religion in Palestine. Respect for the sanctity of all other divine religions shall be maintained.
2. The principles of Islamic Shari’a shall be a principal source of legislation.
3. Arabic shall be the official language.
It is worth noting a couple of things here. By “all other divine religions”, the law means only Judaism and Christianity, which are the only faiths recognized in the Qur’an as divinely-revealed (though corrupted) beliefs. Israel does not impose such limitations on other religions. The elevation of shari’a religious law to a “principal source of legislation” can rule out democratic laws that contradict Islamic punishments for offences such as homosexuality, adultery, or blasphemy.
Israel, though a Jewish state, does not have an official religion — not even Judaism. As such, it imposes no religious conformity on any of its citizens. There are secular Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Muslims who become agnostics or atheists, even those who openly leave Islam or convert to another religion, are far safer in Israel than in any Muslim country. Israeli laws — for all of its citizens — are made by members of the Knesset; there, the laws are debated openly and given force by an independent judiciary, just as laws are in other genuinely democratic countries such as the USA or the UK.
Finally, one crucial question remains. Several people, including many patriotic Israelis such as Tzipi Livni of the Zionist Union party, the current leader of the opposition in the Knesset, or the Likud’s MK Benny Begin, have expressed the view that the law should have included the phrases “full equality of rights for all its citizens” and “Jewish and democratic state”, which might have reassured the non-Jewish population. The government, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, insists that it was not necessary to do this, given the presence of such affirmations in the Declaration of Independence and other Basic Laws. There are strong arguments for and against repeating it yet again, but for the moment, that debate and others related to it remain deeply divisive. Might it not be wise to consider another Basic Law in which the issue of full equality and democracy may be made even more explicit than they already are? That is for the Israeli people to decide.
 See Nazila Ghanea, Human Rights, the U.N. and the Baha’is in Iran, Oxford, 2003.
 For a detailed study of the clash between shari’a-based “human rights” legislation and universal values, see Ann Elizabeth Meyer, Islam and Human Rights: Tradition and Politics, 5th. Ed., New York, Abingdon, 2013; see also, Anver Emon, Mark S. Ellis, and Benjamin Glahn, Islamic Law and International Human Rights Law, Oxford University Press, 2015.