The day before yesterday sixty-seven years ago, on November 29th 1947, the United Nations General Assembly voted to partition the territory of the Palestine Mandate into two states – a Jewish state and an Arab state.
With all the talk these days about recognition of a “Palestinian” state and the mantra of “Two states for two peoples”, it is interesting to note that the international community at the time, as personified by the United Nations General Assembly (not the Security Council, where the five permanent members can exercise the right of veto), did indeed recognise the existence of two peoples within the borders of the mandated territory – the Jewish People and the Arab people. NOT “the Palestinian people”. In fact, Section B Article 9 of the resolution makes it quite clear that the word “Palestinian” refers, not to members of an ethnic group or ethnos, but to all people holding citizenship of the Mandated Territory of Palestine.
“The election regulations in each State shall be drawn up by the Provisional Council of Government and approved by the Commission. Qualified voters for each State for this election shall be persons over eighteen years of age who are: (a) Palestinian citizens residing in that State and (b) Arabs and Jews residing in the State, although not Palestinian citizens, who, before voting, have signed a notice of intention to become citizens of such State.”
From the above paragraph, it is quite clear that “Palestinian”, in 1947, did not mean “Arab”, but referred to both Arabs and Jews. It is also evident that the intention of the United Nations General Assembly was to create yet another Arab state (there are currently over twenty Arab states, the exact number depending on whether you follow the UNESCO definition, that of Wikipedia or that of the Arab League) and one Jewish state.
Moreover, it is manifestly clear that, in 1947, when the United Nations spoke of “Jews”, they were referring to a nation or a people, rather than a religion, as “Jews” are set against “Arabs” and not against “Muslims and/or Christians”
This being the case, one is somewhat bemused by the hysterical reaction of the world – and of the Israeli Left – to the idea that Israel’s proposed “Jewish State Law” should open with a declaration that Israel is the national state of the Jewish people and only of the Jewish people.
Now, I think that before we enter into the thick of this discussion, we should agree on our definitions. Debates about the proposed law tend to confuse “nationality” with “citizenship” – and indeed, the two words are often used interchangeably. My British passport, for example, has a line devoted to “nationality” where it states that I am a British citizen. My Israeli passport, on the other hand, refers only to “citizenship” and states that I am an Israeli citizen. Israeli identity cards, on the other hand, have a line devoted to le’om (לאום) which is best translated as ethnos and which, for the purposes of this article and to avoid confusion, I too shall call by that name. Israeli ID cards list the ethnos of the card’s owner (Jewish, Arab, Druze etc.) and this is distinct from citizenship because all permanent and temporary residents of Israel are obligated by law to possess an ID card, whether they are citizens or not (this does not apply to short-term residents, such as tourists, or holders of a student visa).
Having defined our terms of reference, let us now return to the point at hand.
Two points leap to the fore when entering the fray here:
1) Hardly anybody has actually bothered to read the proposed law. Instead, they have derived their knowledge of its (supposed) content from the various reports in the mass media, and thus, their knowledge of the facts is coloured by the political leanings of said media. In short, each newspaper, website, or news broadcast emphasizes that part of the proposed law which tends to prove whatever the reporter, blogger or broadcaster wants to prove and ignores or glosses over whatever disproves the journalist’s point of view. How else can one explain the number of people interviewed in the media (I refer to the general population, not to the Knesset Members sponsoring the proposed laws) who reply, when asked for their opinion: “I haven’t read it, but from what I have heard, I think it is good/bad/racist/discriminatory/necessary etc.(take your pick)”?
Only yesterday, I asked a friend from my choir who was waxing indignant about the proposed law if he had actually read it. He replied (and I quote): “Do you think I’m going to read all that legal verbiage?”
We live in the age of Twitter and the sound bite. Of course I knew he hadn’t read it.
2) If one were to take the trouble to read it, one would see that it does not, in fact, change the current legal position at all, and it most certainly does not (as its detractors claim) turn the non-Jewish citizens of Israel into second-class citizens.
The proposed law does, indeed, proclaim, that the State of Israel is the national homeland of one ethnos only, the Jewish people, that the Jewish holidays are the official holidays and that the Jewish Sabbath is the official day of rest of the State of Israel. But it also expressly declares the right of minorities to enjoy their own festivals and days of rest. The Bill also reasserts the position of the blue and white flag with the Magen David in its centre as the flag of Israel, the seven-branched candelabrum as the symbol of the State of Israel and “Hatikva” as the national anthem of Israel. There is no change here. All this is already enshrined in existing laws, just as the essence of the State of Israel as the Jewish national home, the place where the Jewish People came into existence, is already clearly stated in the Declaration of Independence. The proposed law also declares the right of all Jews to return to the land of Israel and to receive Israeli citizenship. Again, nothing new – this right was already established in the Law of Return 1950 and its subsequent amendments. And while the law speaks of the state’s duty to promote Jewish culture, it also expressly extends protection to the rights of minority groups to develop their own culture.
In short, every section of the law which enshrines a particular Jewish right or supposed privilege, is followed by another section, protecting the civil and religious rights of minorities. This is in line with all the important international documents which preceded the establishment of the State of Israel, including the Balfour Declaration and the document establishing the Mandate for Palestine. The former spoke of “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” whilst, at the same time, protecting “the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”. The latter, in Article 2, required the Mandatory Power (ie. the United Kingdom) to establish conditions which would secure “the establishment of the Jewish national home“, while, at the same time, “safeguarding the civil and religious rights of all the inhabitants of Palestine, irrespective of race and religion.”
The meaning is clear. Israel is both a Jewish state and a democratic state, in which both Jews and minority groups will enjoy equal civil and religious rights.
This being the case, two questions arise:
1) Why is the Left so opposed to the proposed law? It changes nothing, after all.
2) Why is the Right so much in favour of it? It changes nothing, after all.
It is clear to me that the main objection of the Left – and of Israel’s detractors abroad – is the very definition of Israel as “a Jewish State”, even though this was the intention of the UN General Assembly right from the start. They claim that the very idea of an “ethnocentric” state is racist. Why? They are in favour of a “Palestinian” Arab ethnocentric state, and that, apparently, is not racist. Why is it such a racist idea for Jews to have their own state, where they can develop their own culture – without infringing on the cultural development of other ethnic groups? Isn’t the idea of “self-determination” valid for Jews? Only for other ethnic groups? They claim that to state loud and clear that the Land of Israel is the national homeland for one ethnos only is to discriminate against other ethnic groups. Yet Spain, for example (which recently voted to recognise the “Palestinian” state), when enacting a law which will supposedly make amends for the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, made sure to clarify that the law “is rewarding not the expulsion itself, but the ability to preserve links with Spain and Spanish culture.” In short, Jews who can prove they have preserved the language and culture of Spain (ie. those characteristics which define the ethnos) will be able to return to Spain – because Spain is a nation-state, for the Spanish ethnos, as well as being part of the European Union. And the EU apparently has no problem with that.
As for the Right, in his regular Friday afternoon programme on Israel Radio last week, Yehoram Gaon gave it as his opinion that the proposed law is intended principally for internal consumption, to remind those of us who seem to have forgotten, where we came from and why we are here, in this land. There is also another facet to the claim of “internal consumption”. Many people say that Prime Minister Netanyahu supports the enactment of this law, because he is trying to pander to his supporters on the extreme Right. There is something in that, also.
As for me, I think the proposed law is completely unnecessary. Although, in fact, it does not relegate Israel’s non-Jewish citizens to second-class status, it seems that many of them feel that it does. It is clear to me that there are interested parties who, to suit their own agenda, have been assiduously nurturing these fears amongst minority groups. However, when I hear the brother of Israeli Druze policeman Zidan Saif, who was killed in the Har Nof Massacre earlier this month and who gave his life to defend Jews, declare that if the bill which discriminates between Jewish and Druze blood passes, he would no longer encourage his co-religionists to enlist in the IDF – then I realise that perception here is all-important. I do not think it is any longer possible to convince Murat Saif and his Druze co-religionists that their perception is faulty. There is an alliance of blood between Israel’s Jews and the Druze population. There are other loyal, non-Jewish minorities in Israel, who serve in the IDF and whose fate is bound up with that of the Jews – the Circassians, for example, and (to a certain extent) the Bedouin. Why should we be perceived as slighting them, even if in fact, we are not? Are we to endanger the alliance between us, for a purely declaratory law, which changes nothing whatsoever of the existing legal situation?
Everything that the “Jewish State Bill” says has already been said – in the Declaration of Independence, in the Law of Return, in the Law of the Flag and the Symbol of State, and in a host of other laws. Israel is the national homeland of the Jewish People. It is vital that this fact be recognised by our so-called “partners in the peacemaking process”, but it is not necessary to pass an internal law to that effect and wound the susceptibilities of Israel’s minority populations. It serves no useful purpose and, since it changes nothing at all in the legal status of Jews or non-Jews in Israel, merely confirming existing laws, it is – although innocuous from the point of view of the actual legal status of the non-Jewish minority – hurtful to them (because of their own, albeit mistaken, perception) and therefore harmful to the Jewish majority.
If there are people in this country who need to be reminded of the Jewish and democratic nature of the State of Israel, there are sufficient laws already on the statute book for that purpose. They need to be enforced, not duplicated.