Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Israel has always been a “Jewish State” - and there is nothing unusual or undemocratic about that

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Yesterday Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Israelis will be heading back to the polls, after he fired the heads of two centrist parties, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Finance Minister Yair Lapid, resulting in the break up of the coalition. The latest infighting was over a number of issues, including a major dispute about the budget between Netanyahu and Lapid. The one issue, however, most Australians would know about - because it was the only one reported here - centred on Netanyahu's plans to pass a controversial "Basic Law: Israel the National State of the Jewish People" which would reiterate and further clarify Israel's status as a Jewish State. Lapid and Livni refused to support the bill, despite its approval by Cabinet, demanding it be significantly changed.

Much of the uproar about the bill related to earlier drafts by Knesset members from the right. However, the Cabinet agreed to put forward a more moderate bill drafted by Netanyahu based on 14 principles, the first principle being, "defining the identity of the State of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people, and anchoring the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, in the spirit of the principles contained in the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel."

However, even a watered down bill remains controversial, and has been criticised by many within Israel, including Israel's President Reuven Rivlin and former President Shimon Peres. (To understand the arguments for and against the bill see Haviv Rettig Gur's "An idiot's Guide to the nation-state controversy", and Tzvi Fleischer's AIJAC Update.)

The debate over the bill has ignited commentary regarding the legitimacy of Israel being both a Jewish and democratic state. A common argument being made is that Israel defining itself as either a Jewish State, or in the words of the Cabinet decision "The nation-state of the Jewish people" is inherently undemocratic or even racist - and the consideration of this bill proves Israel is becoming an undemocratic society. However, the reality is that since its inception Israel has been defined as both a democratic and Jewish State, according to both Israeli law and international law.

In Israel's May 1948 Declaration of Independence, Israel's first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion declared the establishment of: "A Jewish State in Eretz-Israel [the Land of Israel], to be known as the State of Israel," which would ensure "complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex," and "will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture."

Moreover, Israel's Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty, passed in 1992, defines Israel as "a Jewish and democratic state" and enshrines in law that:"Fundamental human rights in Israel are founded upon recognition of the value of the human being, the sanctity of human life, and the principle that all persons are free ... in the spirit of the principles set forth in the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel." (It should also be noted that, contrary to some media reports, the proposed new Basic Law will neither change nor supersede the language of either the Declaration of Independence, or Israel's other Basic Laws, which form Israel's constitutional law.)

Israel's existence as a "Jewish State" is also recognised in international law, as a BICOM briefing notes:

"The State of Israel was admitted to the United Nations in May 1949, after declaring its independence as a Jewish state when the British Mandate ended in May 1948.

Israel's Declaration of Independence as a Jewish state came after the United Nations General Assembly approved in November 1947, with a two-thirds majority, a plan to partition British Mandatory Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. The proposal was accepted by the Jews but rejected by the Arabs, who then launched the 1947-48 Arab-Israeli War.

The British government committed to support ‘the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people' in the 1917 Balfour Declaration. This goal received international legal sanction under the League of Nations Mandate granted to Britain in 1922, which gave recognition to, ‘the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine and to the grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country.'"

Regarding the recognition of a "Jewish State" under the UN Partition Plan, JJ Goldberg writes in the Forward:

"Nobody suggested at the time that there was something undemocratic about a state being Jewish. It was understood around the world - though it's often forgotten today - that the Jews were not simply a confessional sect. Jews were first of all an ethnic group, not fundamentally different from Croats, Armenians or Tibetans except for the critical detail that Jews were landless. The U.N. partition vote was the world community's decision to fix that detail. On November 29, 1947, by a vote of 33 to 13 with 10 abstentions, the Jews were welcomed into the international community of nation-states. Done.

There were objections to partition, but they weren't over the notion that a state identified with a particular ethnicity or religion couldn't be democratic. Nearly all the ‘no' votes came from Arab and Muslim states that were themselves self-defined religious states. Their objections had to do with the state's location, on what they considered Arab soil...

Now, it's true that the Jewishness of the Jewish state is not merely an ethnic description. Judaism is the state religion. The history of the Jews is inextricably bound up with the Jewish religion. Even the most secular versions of Israeli and Zionist culture are rooted in the Hebrew language, the rhythms of the Jewish calendar, the imagery of the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic literature and a flag with a six-pointed star.

But this, too, is unremarkable. More than a quarter of the U.N.'s member-states have official state religions - 24 Christian, 25 Muslim and four Buddhist (Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Bhutan, if you're curious). They range from theocratic Saudi Arabia and Iran to open democracies like Sweden, Denmark and England. Nobody seriously contends that the mere fact of an established religion inherently strips minorities of their democratic rights. Democracy is in the way you do things.

For that matter, close to two dozen nations have Christian crosses on their national flags, including nearly half the states of democratic Europe. Another dozen national flags feature the Islamic crescent or the tawhid, the Muslim declaration of faith.

What do we learn from all this? Two things: First, there's nothing remarkable by international standards about Israel being a Jewish state. Second, Israel doesn't need to pass a special law to make itself a Jewish state."

Moreover, Barry Shaw who is a consultant on delegitimisation issues, criticised the double standard applied to Israel, writing in the Jerusalem Post that many European nations "still cling to the founding values that created them. Almost all are based on religious, mainly Christian, Catholic, Lutheran characteristics that can be seen today" highlighting examples from countries including the UK, Greece, Malta, Norway, Switzerland, Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark, Iceland, Spain, Cyprus and Portugal.

Shaw writes, "With all the trappings of religious dominance, none can be called racist nations, or condemned for holding to their religiously-based national characteristics. So it is troubling that Israel is exclusively criticized, and worse, for declaring itself to be what it is - the Jewish State."

Blogger Elder of Ziyon has also attacked the hypocrisy of Arab and Muslim countries that constitutionally define their nations as Islamic or Arab or both, yet criticise Israel for being a "Jewish State", offering concrete examples from the constitutions of Jordan, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Yemen, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Tunisia, Algeria, Bahrain, Oman, Tunisia, and Iran. He also notes that Article 1 of the Constitution of "Palestine" states:

"Palestine is part of the large Arab World, and the Palestinian people are part of the Arab Nation. Arab Unity is an objective which the Palestinian People shall work to achieve."

While Article 4 states:

"1. Islam is the official religion in Palestine. Respect and sanctity of all other heavenly religions shall be maintained. 2. The principles of Islamic Shari'a shall be the main source of legislation."

Meanwhile, noted Israeli academic Prof. Alexander Yakobson has looked at claims that Israeli nationalism is somehow unique, different from other forms of ethnic self-determination expressed by other democratic states around the world because of the "the extra-territorial" character of the Jewish people and Israel's ties with the Jewish Diaspora (expressed, most controversially, in the Law of Return) and the strong connection between the Jewish religion and the prevalent notion of Jewish people. He finds there are actually many examples of both in the identity and legal structures of countries as diverse and democratic as Ireland, Italy, Greece, Denmark, Iceland, Finland, Norway, Poland, Bulgaria, Armenia and Tibet.

However, this debate also reveals what lies at the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The two-state solution framework recognises the rights to self-determination of Jews and Palestinians. Israel has often claimed that negotiations with the Palestinians have failed over the Palestinian leadership's refusal to accept its existence as a Jewish State. This point was recently reinforced when Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said, "We will never recognize the Jewishness of the state of Israel", and is also why Hamas, which runs the Gaza Strip will not recognise Israel in any borders.

The self-determination of the Jewish people is the raison d'etre for Israel's existence, and is consistent with the normal practice of democratic countries around the world, as Israeli peace negotiator Tal Becker articulated in an interview in 2012:

"The Jewish people realising their right to self-determination is not a principle that is contrary to democracy. It is a universal legal principle. Many states around the world are both national homelands for a majority ethnic or racial group and democracies. In fact, I think most democracies are nation states in this way. These states realise and express the rights of the ethnic majority to self-determination, but they are still democracies because of their systems of government and because the rights of the minority are protected in terms of equality before the law and so on.

Something that is often not recognised is that the right of the majority to have its identity reflected in the public square, in the public culture of the state, is as much an expression of democratic principles as the need to preserve minority rights. This is true in Israel no less than any other state that has ethnic minorities, be it Britain, Germany, Italy, France or any other country.

In our case, people are often under a misapprehension, in that they think a ‘Jewish state' means a theocracy based on the Jewish religion in the way that Iran is a Muslim state. When we talk about a ‘Jewish state', we do not mean a theocracy and the laws in Israel make that clear. This is a misunderstanding of the peculiar character of the term ‘Jewish' as referring both to a religion and to a people. But anyone visiting Israel will appreciate immediately that most Israelis relate to the Jewish identity primarily in national and cultural terms. Israel is Jewish in the sense that it is the place where the Jewish people, as a people, express their right to self-determination. That is itself a democratic idea, but it also must be balanced by a duty to respect minority rights both individual and collective."

Of course, there is certainly room both within Israel and without to debate the necessity, effects and specific wording of the proposal for "Basic Law: Israel the National State of the Jewish People", as many in Israel are already doing.  However, it is simply ignorant or wrong to argue that Israel is doing anything new by calling itself a Jewish State or Jewish national homeland, or that, in doing so, there is any reason to believe that this status is inherently incompatible with democracy or unusual among democratic states.

Sharyn Mittelman




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