I found this article about the Israeli Nation Bill which was going through the Knesset, which is an edited version of a speech made by Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin on 23 November 2014 in Eilat on Israeli minorities. He said the Bill strikes at Israel’s heart, where Judaism and democracy combine. In a landmark speech he warns of the dangers of a proposed law that would place Jewishness before democracy.
The headline of this conference, “To be a minority in our country”, alludes strongly to the words in the national anthem, “To be a free people in our land”. It demands that we address the question of whether there is a contradiction: does being members of a minority in the State of Israel mean that one is not a free citizen of the State? I want to offer a critique of the conference’s title, when close to quarter of the children in first grade are Arab, and close to a fifth are ultra-orthodox, the usage of the term “minority” in relation to these communities is flawed. When we raise the issue of the relationship between Israel’s Arab and Jewish communities, we must understand that we are seeking to clarify the matrix of the relationship between the State of Israel and more than a fifth of its citizens. These are citizens who are part and parcel of this country, and for whom this land is their homeland.
And now, we return to the question with which we opened: is there a contradiction between the vision of Jewish independence and sovereignty in the State of Israel and the freedoms of non-Jewish groups within it? It occurs to me that this question is nothing but another way of asking: can the Jewish State be a democratic State? Against a background of a range of efforts to enact a “National Law” – attempting to set down in Law the Jewish character of the Jewish state – it seems that this question has become more relevant than ever.
Friends, the declaration of independence – accepted as a basic charter, and meriting constitutional status as a result of a Supreme Court ruling – emphatically states the Jewish and democratic nature of the State of Israel. The formulators of the declaration, with much wisdom, insisted that the Arab communities in Israel, as well as other groups, should not feel as the Jews had felt in exile. Therefore, the declaration not only determines the complete equality of social rights for all its citizens, but also religious, language, educational and cultural rights. The founding fathers of the State of Israel envisioned a state whose Jewish nature and democratic nature were as one. Moreover, “social and political equality” was for them in keeping with the vision of the prophets of Israel. For them, it was an obvious outcome of the Jewish vision rooted in the values of freedom, peace and justice.
In the seventh decade of our independence, Jewish citizens of the state enjoy a strong and wonderful national home. We must always remember what has for our young men and women, already become something taken for granted. Citizens of Israel speak Hebrew. Israel’s holidays are celebrated publicly. The Israeli public education provides a rich Jewish and nationalist education. The flag and national anthem of Israel are seen and heard at sports competitions across the world. The symbol of the state, the Jewish Menorah, is emblazoned on the pages of the Israeli passport, with which Israeli citizens can enter 144 countries without a visa. The state of Israel is the national state of the Jewish people, “a free people in our land”.
A small, abhorred minority undermine this fact, both from within our own and from outside. So, we must ask ourselves seriously, what is the point of the proposed Law? Does the promotion of this Law not in fact question the success of the Zionist enterprise in which we are fortunate to live? Does this proposal not in fact encourage us to seek contradiction between the Jewish and democratic characteristics of the State? Does this Bill not in fact play into the hands of those who seek to slander us? Into the very hands of those who wish to show, that even within us, there are those who see contradiction between our being a free people in our land, and the freedoms of the non-Jewish communities among us?
With a heavy heart, while still speaker in the Knesset, I read the opinion of the Knesset’s legal adviser regarding the original proposal of the Basic Law of Israel as the Nation State of the Jewish people. “This proposal seeks to establish a new and different hierarchy, between the State of Israel being the National State of the Jewish people, and between being a democratic State.” He continued, “No longer would there be a horizontal balance between the two parts, but instead a disconnect between the two, and the creation of a vertical balance, so that following the acceptance of this proposal, at the top of the constitutional hierarchy would be placed the principle of the State of Israel as the Nation state of the Jewish people, and beneath it on the constitutional hierarchy would be placed the principle of a democratic State.”
Ladies and gentlemen, such a hierarchical approach, which places Jewishness before democracy, misses the great significance of the declaration of independence, which combined the two elements. Judaism and democracy, democracy and Judaism, said as one utterance, are combined – and continue to be so. These are not merely words. This is the beating heart of the State of Israel. A State established on two solid foundations: nationhood on the one hand, and democracy on the other. The removal of one will bring the whole building down.
When considering the possibility of changing the constitutional foundations of the state of Israel, it would be fitting to hold a full and comprehensive referendum to consider the ramifications. Such a deliberation must be undertaken with the necessary level of seriousness, and with long-term considerations. We must understand that the deep connection between the Jewish and democratic components is not artificial. Those who see the proposal of a Basic Law which cements Israel as a Jewish state to be a counterweight to the Basic Law on “human dignity and liberty” are simply mistaken.
Indeed, I ask you, is there a more “Jewish law” than the Basic Law on human dignity and liberty? In each and every legal text, this is the law that states most clearly the greatest assertion that the Jewish perspective brought to the world: “Beloved is man, for he is made in God’s image.” Every Law which weakens the greatest of Jewish laws – that of human dignity – not only weakens the Jewish character of the state of Israel, but at the end of the day will also weaken our national home. I call on all members of Knesset, on all citizens of Israel, Jews and non-Jews. Our combined efforts must be invested not in drawing differences between Judaism and democracy, but in the mutual development and empowerment to be found where they meet.
So, what does it mean to be a free, non-Jewish citizen in our land? If we are dealing with the freedom of the Arab public, and their equal rights in the State of Israel, then we must correct the ongoing discrimination which they endure. And when we are dealing with Judaism and democracy, we must state clearly that the severe discrimination against the Arab community is inconsistent with the democratic nature of the State, as it is inconsistent with the Jewish nature of the State.
And yet, even if we succeed in narrowing these inequalities and eradicating this discrimination we will not have realised the vision, and we will not have fulfilled the promises of the declaration of independence, so long as we still seek to cement into law the Jewish nature of the State in a way that places it above the democratic nature of the State. Specifically, in these days when brutal and murderous terrorism seeks to drive us apart, we must reiterate to ourselves – here, in the Knesset, in schools, in academia and in the halls of Torah study – that to be Jewish is democratic and democracy is Jewish. Only in this way can we know that brutal terrorism will not break us physically, or our spirit.
President Rivlin made this speech while I was in Palestine for the Palestine-UK Social Work Network and there was a great deal of coverage in the press for the Israeli Nation Bill. Already the previous President Shimon Perez had criticised the Bill for the same reasons. While Israeli Presidents have no constitutional powers President Rivlin criticism was significant. This is because he was challenging the right of the Knesset to make such a Law, in a British context it’s the equivalent of the Queen refusing to sign a Bill into Law which doesn’t happen here. Israel is having an early election where the general opinion is that Mr Netanyahu will remain Prime Minister with a different coalition. It’s likely too that the Israeli Nation Bill will be brought back again. I don’t agree with everything President Rivlin said, however if the Bill becomes law I think it will change the very nature of Israel’s flawed democracy, showing parallels with the legislation Hitler passed against Germany’s Jews when he came to power. As President Rivlin suggests the law could even threaten Israel’s existence.
I’m not going to write anymore. I’ve been thinking whether it’s possible to be objective about the Palestine Israel issues and have recently attended 2 events, one at Jewish Book Week, the other at the Tate Modern which have made me contemplate different views expressed. I’m back again at the power Israel has relative to Palestine and the effect it has on any possible solutions. I plan to consider these themes in my next Post which is starting to form itself.