By Alex Shkurko
Staff Writer

Various versions of the proposed “Basic Law: Israel as the Nation State of the Jewish People” have received much press over the last few months and have largely been met with outrage and disdain. They attempt to define the State of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people and enshrine its symbols in Israel’s ‘basic laws’, which hold constitutional-level standing. Furthermore, they uproot a fragile balance between democracy and Jewish identity, and threaten the status and rights of Israel’s minority citizens. The three versions of the bill vary in the degree to which they push the boundaries of democracy and additionally posses certain distinctions and incongruities (these will be discussed in the paragraphs below). However right in their intentions, global responses to the proposed laws largely reflected a misunderstanding of the subtle political dynamics that characterize the two original versions of the bill, which were presented by individuals from two right-wing groups. The third bill, proposed by Prime Minister Netanyahu to temper the other, more extreme bills, is in essence a pared-down version. It is this subtle and dangerous political dynamic that we wish to explore further.

It was the original two bills that piqued international curiosity due to their insulting demotion of Arabic from an official language (one that appears adjacent to Hebrew on street-signs) and the general implication that these bills would usurp rights and constitutional standing from Israel’s Arab and Palestinian populations, and other smaller minorities. The proposals raise long-fought-over questions about Israel’s Jewish and democratic character, and the sensitive balance between equality and preferential treatment for Jews.

The first two versions were put forth by members of two right-wing entities, Ze’ev Elkin of Likud and Yariv Levin, Ayelet Shaked and Robert Ilatov, of Likud, Jewish Home and Israel Beyetenu parties, respectively; their bills differ fundamentally from Netanyahu’s edited version, in how they contextualize Israel’s democratic nature. Netanyahu declares Israel to be a “Jewish and democratic state” while the original right-wing bills identify it as having a “democratic” form of government. Critics have derided the latter as alluding to Israel solely having a democratic election process and not being a state committed to liberal democratic principles. Furthermore, Elkin’s bill defines Israel as the “nation-state of the Jewish people” and reaffirms Israel’s Jewish symbols and its commitment to being a homeland for the Jewish people.

Due to the absence of a constitution and the divisive nature of Knesset, the Israeli Supreme Court has often been tasked with ruling on fundamental state matters. Contained in Elkin’s bill were additional controversial clauses. For example, one would have allowed “members of a single religion or national, to establish a separate communal settlement” which would have prevented certain groups from restricting other groups from migrating to their neighborhoods; this was struck down in court. The original right-wing versions also attempt to reduce Arabic to a special status, a demotion from its current position as an official language. This clause, in particular, pokes at Israeli-Arabs and Palestinians. In the competing edited bill submitted by Netanyahu, after the initial right-wing bills were proposed, Netanyahu stepped away from the demotion of Arabic to a special status.

To understand the greater implications of these bills, we must discuss the role Israel’s supreme court plays in their government. Lacking a constitution, the government operates on a set of ‘basic laws’, one of which is called the Basic Law of Human Dignity and Freedom, which was passed only recently in 1994. It guaranteed not only the protection of life, body, dignity, property and privacy, but also declared Israel as both Jewish and democratic. This has been a fundamental part of Israel’s identity and the proposed bills draw upon redefining the state in a way that emphasizes its Jewish character. It is known that Jews are the majority in Israel, with Arabs and Palestinians making up 25 percent of the populace, thus it is reasonable to call Israel a Jewish state simply because of the makeup of its citizens. However, these bills are attempting to solve questions of identity and nationalism and demographics with a blunt stroke of the pen, eroding equality with it. If the Arab and Palestinian minorities were to grow, would Israel still be a Jewish state? This question is on the minds of many around the world; the conservative right sees it as an existential threat, which explains their rather blunt response to the question.

Basic laws are notoriously difficult to amend, but even more than that, they hold a legal weight that is unparalleled in Israel. Up to this point, the Israeli Supreme Court has been holding Jewish and democratic principles at equal weights, much to the chagrin of Israel’s right-wing Knesset members. It’s their intention to change that cycle.

One would suspect that there are greater motivations to pointed language than to simply reaffirm what was already known: if the bills were to be passed, they would impede Israel’s Supreme Court from interpreting matters of national identity, religion’s role in society, etc. per the overarching legal power of the Basic Law of Human Dignity and Freedom which affirmed Israel’s democratic and Jewish identity.

Unfortunately the word “equality” appears nowhere in Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s version of the so-called “Jewish Nation-State Bill”. While affirming certain founding principles that declare the State of Israel as the national home of the Jewish people and declaring that the right to self-determination inside the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people, the bill also declares that the State of Israel “is a democratic state, established on the foundations of liberty, justice and peace in light of the vision of the prophets of Israel, and realizes the individual rights of all its citizens under law.” This may be particularly enraging to those that are indigenous to Israel. While being otherwise straightforward, the omission of equality as a fundamental principle of the state is alarming and leads to the question of what motivates one to exclude it in a basic law bill of great importance, despite the “spirit” of equality perhaps appearing throughout, as Netanyahu has argued in response to critics.

Founded as a Jewish state in 1948, the Declaration of Independence suggested that democracy would be balanced with the categorically Jewish endeavor of the Zionist enterprise. Along with a commitment to democratic principles, social and political equality was explicitly guaranteed to all its inhabitants. Democratic principles were not placed above its Jewish character, which has allowed for both the Law of Return, the automatic granting of citizenship to Jews if they wish to immigrate to Israel, and the 1992 Basic Law on Human Dignity and Freedom, which guarantees liberal democratic rights such as free movement, body, property and privacy, and codifies Israel’s identity as both a Jewish and democratic nation. Israel uniquely has never had a constitution and instead operates on a set of basic laws that function as guiding principles in lieu of a codified constitution. The “nation-state” bill is attempting to be another basic law that carries with it a hefty legal gravitas that will inform judicial rulings ad infinitum.

The omission of the concept of equality, while perhaps being implied and obvious in the spirit of Netanyahu’s version, is still notable due to its implications for Israel’s non-Jewish citizens in future Supreme Court rulings, on questions of property for example, which are fundamental in Palestinian-Israeli conflict. One mustn’t think too hard to foresee challenges to Israel’s definitively unequal Law of Return that only allows Jews and not Palestinians, who fled or were kicked out, to return with the promise of citizenship and benefits. Other claims of inequality may be made (for example, the disproportionate funding of settlements in the West Bank and the lack of aid for Palestinian inhabitants). While Jews receive tax benefits and subsidies, Palestinians there live in increasingly dire conditions.

Furthermore, it’s troubling to see Israel’s democratic nature be usurped by politically motivated nationalism. In an increasingly fractured society characterized by hostile relations between Jews and Palestinians and Arabs, it’s hard to see this as a positive foretelling of future relations. Arabs and Palestinians will only feel more antagonized. More than that, though, there would be the shedding of a unique doctrine that has guaranteed rights to all citizens while retaining Israel’s unique Jewish character. David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding Prime Minister, chose to imbue the state and its citizens with a sense of equality before the law. 68 years later, it seems counterproductive and even severely damaging to take steps back from those basic principles of equality.

Presently, the proposed right-wing bills have been superseded by a Netanyahu bill that is responsible for ending the Knesset session and prompting elections. It has blown up Netanyahu’s coalition and has put him in a place of weakness due to the combined popularity of his opponents and their new coalition. This bill has still not been voted on conclusively due to the elections taking place later this year. Despite that, it holds an important role in Israeli politics and serves as a litmus test for Israeli-Arab relations at present and the hopes of Israel’s right. The upcoming elections will not only determine the ruling coalition and the country’s next Prime Minister, but also resolve the question of the “nation state” bill. With a left-wing coalition, the bill will likely be thrown out or redacted, but if Netanyahu’s new coalition wins the elections, we will finally see a Knesset vote on the matter.

Photo by Israel Tourism



By Alex Shkurko
Staff Writer

Since Israel carried out ‘Operation Protective Edge’ in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip this summer, following the abduction and murder of three Israeli teenagers and the brutal kidnapping and immolation of a Palestinian, the state of affairs had managed to remain relatively calm. That is, until recently. The fatal shooting of an an Israeli Arab in the western Galilee town of Kafr Kanna, sparked riots and protest all over Israel. In an incident that was captured on a surveillance camera nearby, Kheir al-Din Hamdan is seen rapping on the windows of a stationary police van with an alleged weapon in his hand, after which an officer exits the van—with a pistol in hand—and shoots the 22-year-old as he walks away. Following his shooting on November 8 riots quickly spread throughout northern Israel, as well as in East Jerusalem, which is home to nearly 260,000 Palestinians. Stones and Molotov cocktails were thrown and a general strike crippled the economic activity of a majority of Arab cities in the Negev on the day following the shooting of Hamdan. At the same time an outbreak of stabbings and intentional hit and run attacks were perpetrated by Palestinians, one in the West Bank and the other in Jerusalem mere hours apart, with 14 people injured in the Jerusalem attack.

The rise in confrontations has been attributed to recent demand by right-wing Jews to be allowed to pray at the Temple Mount, the holiest of Jewish sites and equally revered by Palestinian Muslims as the al-Haram al-Sharif. Tensions have been progressively rising, with both sides feeling increasingly threatened: Israelis by the acts of violence and fears of another Intifada—or uprising—and Palestinians with the threat of losing control of the al-Haram al-Sharif and many of their homes in the aftermath of the destruction and death of the Israeli incursion. Tuesday morning’s attack on a West Jerusalem Har Nof synagogue, which killed five Israelis—four of them Rabbis—has been condemned by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, though he simultaneously asserted Israel is sparking a “religious war”.

Israel has responded with heightened security in Jerusalem, by deploying thousands of police personnel, and by reinstating a controversial policy of demolishing the homes of Palestinians who perpetrate terrorist acts. While originally deemed ineffective in preventing attacks, and subsequently phased out in 2005, this deterrence policy has reemerged as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent speeches have contained promises to settle “the score with every terrorist” who attacks Israel. Hamas has taken a more proactive approach in encouraging Palestinians to attack Israelis as retribution for Yousuf al-Roumani, the bus driver that was found hanged in his bus on November 16. His death—which further contributed to increased violence and collective resentment—was blamed on Israeli assailants by both Hamas and his family, despite initial Israeli police reports that indicated suicide as the cause of death.

Per the findings of a European Union report released in March 2014, 100,000 East Jerusalem residents are at risk of losing their homes due to increasingly stringent building restrictions imposed on them by Israel. Demolition of the homes of those Israel calls terrorists is in violation of international law that expressly bans collective punishment except when no other alternative is available. While Netanyahu may find this to be effective, it also allows him to present himself as hard on terrorism. This in turn helps to cement the foundation for a January 2015 coalition that will be dominated by conservatives in the Knesset. The homes of the recent Palestinian attackers have already been demolished or their occupants served with demolition warrants, which carry a 48-hour window for appeal. The question of effectiveness has been brought up, not only in terms of their ineffectiveness as a deterrent, but also for their potential to inflame resentment and anger in East Jerusalem—already dangerously high.

In the same light, the recent synagogue attack pose a unique challenge to Israel’s security forces: independent Israeli residents are now waging their own fight and there have been talks of expanding gun rights in Jerusalem. While Netanyahu has denounced Abbas’ speech as inciting further violence, he also criticized the implication that Jewish worship at the Temple Mount, which has been off limits to this point, could contaminate a site they themselves hold to be the most sacred. Abbas’ Fatah party has praised the attackers and called them “heroic”.

Despite repeated assertions that Israel’s longstanding policy of forbidding Jewish worship at al-Haram al-Sharif will not be repealed, they have provided little solace and hope: despite Netanyahu’s promises, members of his own Likud party have paid repeated visits to the site and publicly spoken out in favor of erecting a third Jewish Temple there. The movement is headed by the Temple Institute, whose stated mission is to “see Israel rebuild the Holy Temple on Mount Moriah in Jerusalem,” and have successfully fundraised more than $100,000—its original goal—through a crowd-funding website.

The rise in confrontations has been attributed to recent demand by right-wing Jews to be allowed to pray at the Temple Mount, the site of the Jewish temples, the last being the “Kodesh Hakodashim,” or the “Holy of Holies,” destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. It remains Judaism’s most revered and sacred place, which is said to have held the tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments. The very same site is also venerated by Muslims, who call it “al-Haram al-Sharif”—or Noble Sanctuary—and regard it as the third holiest site following Medina and Mecca. The Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque sit on this plateau and are equally revered for their connection to Mohammed’s ascension to heaven. Naturally, this is a site of contention between the two religious faiths. While Jews and Muslims may disagree about the name of the boy who—according to both faiths—was nearly sacrificed before God intervened, they both hold the Foundation Stone to be a significant vestige that bridges the heaven and the earth and also the site where Isaac or Ishmael almost lost his life.

Since the annexation of East-Jerusalem following the 1967 war, colloquially known as the Six-Day War, King Hussein of Jordan agreed to become the religious guardian of East Jerusalem and its religious structures—most notably the al-Haram al-Sharif. Jordan’s special role in holding religious authority was cemented in the Washington Declaration, which signaled a serious commitment to the future status of Jerusalem and the al-Haram al-Sharif. The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) regarded this agreement as illegitimate, since they believe the Palestinian people hold the rights to the holy site. More specifically, PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat viewed it as an attempt to extract political power from him and his movement. [1] Since the time of the agreement, Jews have been cautioned and warned to not pray on the al-Haram al-Sharif and are threatened by police removal if they attempt to defy the long standing status quo. Rabbinic scholars themselves, most notably Maimonides, argued that it is not permissible for a Jew to step onto the Temple Mount because of the possibility that they are standing on top the Kodesh Hakodashim.

What’s significant now is that both Abbas and Netanyahu seem to agree that the al-Haram al-Sharif and the Al-Aqsa mosque will remain standing and that no serious plans for destruction and the rebuilding of the third temple are realistic options. The furthering of opposing religious narratives is beyond toxic for two peoples that have found themselves at odds, not only politically but religiously as well. Naturally, Netanyahu must resist the temptation to further alienate East Jerusalem’s residents and the Palestinians; what recent events show more than anything is the near inevitability of an Intifada and a long war, with more blood spilt. Reinforcing their own positions, while important for their respective standing in their communities, need to take a backseat to the basic need for Abbas and Netanyahu to come together, with at least the blessings of their bases, in order to build a plan for moving forward. Even if such a course seems idealistic, the violence and demolitions will only escalate and magnify the intractability of the situation, and reinforce divisions many of their followers already feel and think.

However, in catering to their respective bases, both Netanyahu and Abbas have highlighted the potential for peace that still incredibly exists somewhere in the void between Fatah’s calls for violence and Netanyahu’s plans to erect more than 1,000 apartments in East Jerusalem. Israel has no better partner for peace than in Abbas: that 30 would-be attackers have been arrested in the West Bank is an act of good faith that might provide an opportunity for new dialogue. Netanyahu earlier this week jointly blamed Hamas and Abbas for providing the necessary fodder that led to Tuesday’s brutal attack on an ultra-orthodox synagogue, largely attended by non-Zionists. Abbas himself, after pressure from US Secretary of State John Kerry, finally condemned the Har Nof synagogue attack, and then faced significant opposition from Fatah leaders who refused to condemn the attack and instead said that it was the natural reaction to Israeli assaults. The dueling narratives, despite Al-Aqsa incitement and reactionary violence, must find a way to come together under a single roof—a space that has no room for accusations and recrimination, but instead looks for solutions that move beyond polemics and playing to the extremists on both sides.

1. Ahimeir, Ora, and Marshall Breger. Jerusalem: A City and Its Future. N.P. Web.

Photo by Etienne Valois