Israel Mocks Its Founding Ideals

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Israel’s Knesset passed a Jewish “nation-state” law this week that diminishes the rights and status of Arab citizens, about 20 percent of the country’s population. It’s a venture into the kind of ethnic nationalism that’s been gaining strength in many parts of the world and will harm Israel’s efforts to forge alliances with Arab countries and recapture the allegiance of alienated American Jews.

From its founding, Israel has been torn between its identity as the Jewish state and a set of inclusive human rights ideals that many Zionist leaders also embraced. Israel has always privileged its Jewish majority over its Arab minority. But it has done so in indirect ways, notably by making certain rights and benefits contingent on military service in which most Jews participate and from which most Arabs are excluded.

Israel separates its 8.5 million citizens according to designated “nationalities,” including Jewish, Arab and Druze, for example. Israeli authorities can easily tell who is and isn’t Jewish because people are identified in all their basic identity papers. This formal distinction between nationality and citizenship has been the key to how Israel has tried to balance Jewish power and control with minority rights.

Also, with some notable exceptions, Jewish and Arab Israelis live in different towns and areas, and it’s hard for Arab citizens to move into what are, effectively, Jewish-only communities. That means it’s been easy for the Israeli state to spend more on social services, health and education for its Jewish citizens than for its Arab population.

However, Israeli Arabs have been allowed important political rights, which has meant that there have always been Arab lawmakers in the Knesset. Arabs also enjoy many individual and legal rights.

In recent years, however, as much of the world has drifted toward ethno-nationalist intolerance, often dubbed “populism,” Jewish supremacy and privilege inside Israel has become more aggressive.

The new law amplifies this trend. For example, it enshrines Hebrew as “the state’s language” even though Arabic had also been recognized as an official language since Israel’s founding in 1948.

The bill reiterates Israel’s claim to sovereignty over all of Jerusalem, including East Jerusalem, which was captured in the 1967 war and is regarded by almost all countries as occupied territory.

It also describes “Jewish settlement as a national value” to be promoted by the state. Presumably this refers to Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories, particularly the West Bank, a project that has been declared to be a violation of the fourth Geneva Convention by 126 of its 196 signatories.

Finally, and perhaps most egregiously, the bill declares that “the right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.” This bluntly declares that while others may enjoy certain civil and individual rights, national self-determination is restricted to the Jewish majority.

It could have been worse. Opposition from many quarters, including President Reuven Rivlin, resulted in removal of a clause that would have formalized and endorsed the creation of overtly Jewish-only communities. That’s significant because the de facto segregation in most of Israel, which is the linchpin of discrimination against Arab citizens, is at odds with much Israeli law, which seems to prohibit ethnic and racial discrimination. It is, therefore, possible that Arabs in Israel will be able to use the courts to win the right to desegregate and slowly erode the bulwark of discrimination against them.

The new law hasn’t ruled that out. But it has sent the message to the Arab citizens of Israel, and the whole world, that non-Jews are not, and never will be, real participants in the Israeli national project.

It will also make it harder for Israelis and their friends to point to the civil rights of its Arab citizens to counter accusations that Israel has imposed a version of apartheid, South Africa’s former policy of racial separation.

A more practical problem created by the new law is likely to be its effect on Israel’s outreach to the Arab world, including crucial Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, with which it hopes to make common cause against Iran. For an Israel that seeks to normalize itself in the Middle East, a happy, well-integrated community of Arab citizens would be an asset. Arab Israelis would be an ideal vanguard of outreach to new Arab interlocutors and potential partners. Enthusiasm for such a project among both Arab citizens of Israel and other Arabs will be inevitably discouraged by the new law.

Finally, codifying official discrimination so overtly in Israeli legislation puts relations with American Jews at risk, especially the many younger liberal ones already disaffected by Israel’s turn to the right in religious and political matters.

Intolerant ethnic nationalism is a global phenomenon, and Jewish Israelis are neither immune from it nor uniquely susceptible. But the new Jewish-state law damages Israel’s quest to reconcile both parts of its conflicted founding ideal of being a “Jewish democracy.”

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

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