Israel’s Nation State Bill and the Declaration of Independence

“Being a free people in our land” brings with it responsibility for its democratic functions and Jewish character in equal measure.

The Declaration of Independence describes the historic journey towards May 1948 and the vision for the nascent Jewish state known as the State of Israel. Its power rests in the aspirations the Jewish people have for self-determination in the face of thousands of years of exile, continuing settlement in the land and devastating events of the 20th century. A vision of democracy and Judaism hand in hand.

The narrative behind the new Nation State bill is altogether different. It downgrades the role of the Arabic language and appears to give a greenlight to single ethnic and religious groups to create communal settlements to the exclusion of others. And all that is besides other complex issues of how minority groups are regarded.

The narrative behind these laws seems to be fundamentally conflicted. On the one hand there is a vision of Israeli Jewish culture being more important than anything else – be it Jewish culture in the diaspora or culture of other minority groups in Israel.  At the same time, the vision is one of a perceived existential internal threat constantly destabilising the Jewish character, leading to a chronic case of cultural insecurity.

Good laws should be set within a vision of how the world might be and how it should be. My vision for the State is not one wrought up in confusion of its own significance, with an inferiority complex and where rampant religious and ethno-centrism permits the establishment of mono-ethnic/religious communal settlements and even the suggestion of lesser status of minority groups.

Rather, the soaring democratic vision of the Declaration of Independence must be a more compelling narrative. As Dr Michael Livni, a Reform Zionist educator in Israel wrote back in 1987, “The western democratic tradition of civil rights and liberties that guarantees freedom of religion and conscience has not been realised in Israel in spite of Israel’s Declaration of Independence which is, however, declarative only and not legally binding….Ultimately, the realization of the idea of the Jewish state, the development of meaningful Jewish content for this and future generations, is not something that can be legislated…this is the task of committed social process, of community and perhaps of a community of communities based on free will and conscious of their Zionist Shlichut (mission).”

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This article was first written for the Jewish News published on 25 May 2017, but they misspelled my name and cut Michael Livni’s quote quite strangely, so felt it important to repost here.

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