By Tyler Bauer
For all of its history, Israel has functioned as a quasi-theocratic state. Now, its theocracy has become codified law.
Yesterday, the Israeli Parliament passed a basic law (the Israeli equivalent of a constitutional amendment) that “enshrines the right of national self-determination in Israel as ‘unique to the Jewish people.’” On the surface, this may sound like a good law. After all, Israel was created as a state for the then-stateless Jewish people after World War Two. The push for a “Jewish home” was understandable given what the Jewish people went through during the war. For this reason, the state of Israel was created in 1948, and has been an unofficial Jewish state ever since. (For the sake of brevity, I’m not going to get into the legitimacy of Israel – that’s another blog for another day.)
Israel’s status as a Jewish state has always been controversial – look no further than recent protests in the Gaza Strip for proof. This controversy is due to Israel’s makeup. Israel has always been a bit of a melting pot in terms of ethnicity and religion. The main ethnic groups are Jews, who practice Judaism; Arabs, who practice either Christianity, Islam, or Judaism; and a few other minor ethnic groups who practice one of the aforementioned religions. Jews outnumber Arabs by a ratio of about three-to-one, but the Arabs are a very vocal minority. (It is worth clarifying that the word “Jewish” in this law refers to the ethnic group and the religious group – someone who’s ethnically Jewish is not necessarily a follower of Judaism, but would still be protected by the law.)
The diverse makeup of Israel is precisely why this new law is bad. Granting Jews the right to self-determination in Israel is perfectly fine. However, granting only Jews the right to self-determination is problematic. Passing a law granting Jews the right to self-determination has the effect of excluding all other ethnic and religious groups from the right to self-determination. When this law passed, Arabs, Muslims, Christians, and any other non-Jewish group instantly became a second-class group. It’s not that Jews are now above the law, because they aren’t – the problem is that all other groups are now below the law.
Despite formerly being legally equal to their Jewish counterparts, non-Jews in Israel have long complained of being second-class citizens. With this law, non-Jews in Israel are now legally second-class citizens. Opponents of this law have compared it to Apartheid laws in South Africa, claiming that Israel has become a democracy “for Jews only.”
The overall effects of this law will probably be minimal. Many expect this law to be largely symbolic, not having a discernable effect on the daily lives of Israelis. Even if it is only symbolic, there is nothing good about this law. This law stripped all non-Jews in Israeli of their right to practice religion freely, identify freely, and even speak freely – this law removed Arabic’s status as an official language, leaving Hebrew as the only official language.
Sure, non-Jews may be able to go on practicing their religion or speaking Arabic, but in the eyes of Israel, their religion is the wrong religion and their language is the wrong language.