Debate flares in Israel over bill to set exclusive national rights for Jews
BY SETH GALINSKY
Whether Israel should, for the first time, give exclusive rights to those it declares to be Jewish citizens — as proposed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — is a central issue in the upcoming elections there. If adopted, the Jewish nation-state bill would be a blow not just to forging unity in the Israeli working class of all national origins and religions and to the fight for Palestinians' rights and creation of a Palestinian state, it would also be a blow to the right of return of Jews around the world.
The bill contradicts Israel's 1948 Declaration of Independence, which says that the Jewish state "will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; … it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture."
The 1948 declaration also promised Arab residents "full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions." While Israel was created through the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, the rights enshrined in the country's Basic Laws are widely used today by Arab citizens to fight discrimination in jobs, housing and government services, and for the exercise of political rights.
Netanyahu fired two cabinet ministers on Dec. 2 after they opposed the proposal, broke up his alliance with Yesh Atid, the second largest party in the Knesset, Israel's parliament, and called new elections for March 17. An opposition coalition headed by Tzipi Livni, the ousted justice minister who heads the Hatnua Party, and the Labor Party's Isaac Herzog is challenging Netanyahu in the election.
The bill is backed by Netanyahu's Likud Party and another coalition partner, the Jewish Home Party. Defining Israel as "the nation-state of the Jewish people," it says the "right to self-determination" would be "unique to the Jewish people."
The Jewish-state bill says, "Jewish law shall serve as a source of inspiration for the Knesset." One version would demote Arabic from an official language alongside Hebrew to one having only a "special status."
The bill has provoked opposition across the political spectrum. Ruvi Rivlin, a Likud member and president of Israel, a largely ceremonial post, opposed it. "Does this bill not in fact play into the hands of those who seek to slander us?" he said in a Nov. 25 speech. "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 amongst us."
Livni first supported the proposal, but then reversed her position, posting part of the independence declaration on Facebook with all mentions of "all her citizens," "justice and peace" and "equality" crossed out.
Israel: multinational, secular
Israel today is a multinational country with a vibrant class struggle and the most secular country in the Middle East. About 20 percent of the population are Arab citizens of Israel; 10 percent are Haredim, ultra-orthodox Jews; and 15 percent are Russian immigrants. There are also tens of thousands of immigrant workers from Thailand, the Philippines and other countries, and more than 100,000 Ethiopian Jews. It is not unusual for Jewish, Palestinian and immigrant workers to walk picket lines together.
The question of who is a Jew is itself controversial in Israel. Under the Law of Return, anyone who has a Jewish parent, grandparent or spouse can move to Israel. But once there, only those with a Jewish mother or who are recognized by the Chief Rabbinate, which oversees Orthodox rabbinical courts, are officially considered Jewish. If all laws are to be based on Jewish religious law, would those the Rabbinate does not recognize as Jews still be allowed to become citizens?
Since there is no civil marriage in Israel, non-Jews, non-Muslims, or couples of different religions must either convert or go abroad to marry. Most of the more than 1 million Russian immigrants in Israel are not recognized as Jewish by the rabbinical courts.
Russian immigrants find conversion offensive, Israeli journalist Lily Galili told National Public Radio in January 2013. "They once suffered for being Jewish in the Soviet Union. Now they suffer for being Russians in Israel."
In fact, most Jewish Israelis are nonpracticing Jews. The point of the Law of Return, a key aspect of Israeli law since its founding, is not to foster religion, but to guarantee a safe haven for those facing Jew-hatred around the world.
While at the beginning of the last decade the number of Jews leaving Israel outpaced the number arriving, that has begun to shift. According to the online Times of Israel, "Jewish immigration to Israel hit a ten-year high in 2014, with over 26,500 people," a 32 percent rise compared to 2013. Most of those arriving are not recognized as Jews by the Chief Rabbinate.
The increase in immigration is due largely to a rise in expressions of Jew-hatred in Europe. More than 7,000 French Jews emigrated to Israel in 2014, the highest number ever. France has the largest Jewish population in Europe. In July last year, some demonstrators against Israel's war on Gaza targeted synagogues in Paris and its suburbs, chanting "death to the Jews."
Immigration from Ukraine has also nearly tripled from 2,020 in 2013 to 5,840 in 2014, mostly from the war-torn eastern part of the country.