The law recently approved by the Israeli Knesset, reaffirming that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, sparked a heated controversy not only inside Israel but also throughout the world. Some of the things that have been said about this law though, are inaccurate and, therefore, it is necessary to carefully analyze what the law is really about as well as the reasons behind its approval.
First of all, it is important to understand that, unlike the United States, Israel does not have a written Constitution. But it does have a number of “basic” laws, which have been given a “quasi-Constitutional” status over the years. The recently approved Nation-State Law is one of them.
Until this law was enacted, there was no legislation in Israel referring to Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. But what exactly does this means?
Actually, this is nothing but the basic principle of Zionism and the very foundation of the creation of the state of Israel. It means that Israel is the realization of the right of self-determination of the Jewish people in their ancestral homeland. It also means that it is the place that every Jew in the world can call home, and where any Jew can go to in case of persecution.
This concept is also the basis of the almost universally supported two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When the United Nations General Assembly recommended, back in 1947, the partition of Palestine into two states, one Arab and one Jewish, this is exactly what it had in mind. Israel was always meant to be the nation-state of the Jewish people.
So what is it that bothers some about this law? Many believe that the inclusion of the "Jewish" character of the state in a basic law could have a detrimental effect on the rights of Israel’s non-Jewish minorities, particularly the Arab minority, which today constitutes 20 percent of the population. But the truth is that Israel has always defined itself as the nation-state of the Jewish people, and this has never affected the individual rights of its non-Jewish citizens. This is so because Israel is not only a Jewish state but also a democratic one and, therefore, all Israeli citizens have the same individual rights, regardless of race or religion.
What is also important to understand is that when we refer to Israel as a Jewish state, the word “Jewish” does not refer so much to religion but to a much broader concept: the concept of Jewish “nation.” In this regard, to say that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people is no different than saying that Spain is the nation-state of the Spanish people or France the nation-state of the French. And in fact, unlike many other states, Israel does not have an official religion.
But why is it that the Israelis felt the need to translate this concept into a law? The answer probably lies in the fact that today, more than ever, many Israelis feel that the Jewish identity of the state is under attack. There is a movement, led by the Palestinians but supported by many around the world, which seeks to delegitimize Israel’s existence. They say they are in favor of a two-state solution but categorically refuse to recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people. In other words, they seek to establish a Palestinian state but want Israel to stop being a Jewish one.
This is so because they promote the so-called "right of return" of the Palestinian refugees to what is now the state of Israel. And by Palestinian refugees they not only mean the surviving refugees of Israel’s 1948 war of independence but also their paternal-line descendants, numbering today more than five million people.
Naturally, the “right of return” is something that no Israeli government would ever accept, as it would mean the end of Israel as a majority Jewish state. The Palestinian refugee problem (a problem that started because the Arab countries decided to fight a war against the newly created state, Israel, with the intention of annihilating it) has to be resolved inside the future Palestinian state, in the same way the problem of the Jewish refugees (who were expelled from the Arab countries where they had lived for generations when Israel was born) was resolved mostly inside Israel. (It is estimated that the original Palestinian refugees were about 700,000 while the Jewish refugees were approximately 800,000).
But the right of return of the Palestinian refugees to Israel is fully supported by the United Nations, as the current debate on UNRWA (the United Nations Refugee and Works Agency) underscored. While UNHCR, the U.N. agency that deals with all the other refugees of the world, strives to reduce the number of refugees by resettling them in the countries that received them (when repatriation is not possible), UNRWA does not try to resettle the Palestinian refugees. It maintains that, until a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is reached, their refugee “status” should not only continue indefinitely but also pass from generation to generation. It is for this reason that today, the children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren of the original refugees are still considered “refugees” by UNRWA, and the U.N. continues to promote their return to Israel.
The recent decision of the Trump Administration to stop the funding of UNRWA was, in this regard, a step in the right direction. The "right of return" that this entity promotes (a “right” that has no real basis in international law) constitutes today the single most important obstacle to the achievement of a two-state solution.
But UNRWA is not the only problematic U.N. entity when it comes to this issue. The Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People (which was created by the U.N. General Assembly in 1975, together with the infamous resolution that declared that Zionism was equal to racism), and the Division for Palestinian Rights (which was established within the U.N. Secretariat in 1977 to assist the Committee) are two entities that actively promote the right of return while engaging in the most radical anti-Israel propaganda activity throughout the year, in the name of the U.N. The funding for these entities is renewed – year after year – by the U.N. General Assembly and is something that should be disrupted.
All of these clearly explain why so many Israelis felt the need to secure the Jewish character of the state through the enactment of a basic law. It was clearly a reaction to the increasing attempts to transform Israel, the world’s only Jewish state, into another Arab state. It was also a reaction to some of the decisions of the Israeli Supreme Court, which have been perceived by many as not safeguarding the Jewish character of the state.
Many well-intentioned critics though, feel that the law is missing two important words, which, in their view, would not detract from all that is right about it. After a thorough analysis of the text, I agree that perhaps the words democracy and equality should have been mentioned, even when these concepts are already enshrined in Israel’s brilliant declaration of independence and also embodied in other basic laws. Because this is a law that defines Israel’s identity, it might have been advisable to mention not only its Jewish character but also its democratic nature. This would have made the Druze minority, for example, feel less uneasy, and the law would have probably gathered wider support at the Knesset.
Having said that, the international criticism of the law was absolutely out of proportion, as is often the case with every piece of news that involves Israel. Israel has been accused of racism and apartheid, and there were outrageous comparisons between Israel and Nazi Germany. All of these characterizations of Israel are nothing but vicious manifestations of anti-Semitism. Israel, with all of its flaws and imperfections, is an extraordinary democracy, the only true democracy in the Middle East, and this will not change with the enactment of this law.
Adriana Camisar is B’nai B’rith International's Special Advisor on Latin American Affairs. A native of Argentina, Camisar is an attorney by training and holds a Master’s degree in international affairs from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University.
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