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A Democracy Serving To Veil Ethnocracy

First published July 17th, 2018 in Middle East Sight Magazine

Note:  On Thursday July 19th 2018 the Israeli Knesset passed the Nation-State Bill into law as a component of the Basic Law by 62 votes to 55 with 2 abstentions.

On August 3rd 2011, a bill formulated and backed by The Institute for Zionist Strategies titled “Basic Law: Israel — Nation-State of the Jewish People”  was submitted to the Knesset by MKs Avi Dichter and Ze’ev Elkin of of the Likud Party. The purpose of the bill was to canonize “Israel as the Nation State of the Jewish People”. Although it was quickly shelved following harsh criticism, it was amended and resubmitted in 2013. In May 2017 the new bill was approved by the Knesset in an initial reading by 48 to 41, and on May 7th this year, the bill passed its first reading in Knesset by a vote of 64 to 50. The advancement of this bill, and the rare move by the Knesset Presidium to prevent a counter-bill from even being submitted, have sparked a debate about the nature and identity of the State and the nation. The Nation-State law seeks to amend the Basic Law, the Israeli equivalent of a constitution, to effect the following main changes:

  • Only Jewish citizens in Israel are entitled to the right to self-determination.
  • Hebrew will be the official language of the country, promoted over Arabic. All state symbols should be Jewish ones, and the Hebrew calendar is the official state calendar. Makes Independence Day and other Jewish holidays, events and memorial days into national law.
  • Jerusalem is the capital of the State of Israel.
  • Jewish civil law is given precedence over the power of the judiciary to rule on any abuse of civil rights.
  • Jewish religious law is authorised to be preferred in civil courts if Israeli law can find no solution, exacerbating an existing tension between religious courts and the civil courts.

In short, according to Dichter the law seeks “to enshrine in basic legislation the identity of the State of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, as well as adding a series of instructions to its constitutional framework dealing with the country’s fundamental characteristics as a Jewish state … as the insurance policy left behind for future generations.[sic]” The bill has received strong backing from current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who in a speech on November 26, 2014 stated that Israel is “the nation-state of the Jewish people and the Jewish people alone.” He later walked that statement back a little to add the caveat that civil rights would be protected for minorities. This came as little comfort for those who have seen Israel institutionalise apartheid in the occupied territories, and who are familiar with the ways in which Israel already unofficially practices discrimination and segregation of communities with over a thousand towns and villages, three quarters of the total, not permiting non-Jews to live in them. Protests over the bill and its implications have erupted inside and outside the Knesset, and look set to continue if and when the bill progresses through to the third reading. The world has also noticed, with increasing criticism.

A detailed report on the bill published by Molad (the Center For The Renewal Of Israeli Democracy) comes to the following six conclusions:

“…the proposed bill is inappropriate for a number of reasons:

  1. The proposed law seeks to ground the Jewish right to self-determination in Israel in the historic, and therefore exclusively Jewish, right to the land rather than in the natural, and therefore universal, right of national groups to self-determination. In doing so, the proposal seeks to deny the right of the state’s monitories to enjoy any type of self-determination in it.
  2. Discrimination against non-Jewish minorities in Israel is given concrete expression in the proposed law in the following ways: Preference given to Jews in Israel and abroad over the state’s own citizens; allocation of state resources for the fostering of Jewish heritage in Israel and abroad, alongside mere permission for the fostering of the heritage of the state’s other citizen communities; annulment of the status of Arabic as an official language of the state alongside Hebrew.
  3. The proposed law adopts a controversial view of the state’s character and the meaning of citizenship in it. This is one of the questions at the heart of any future Israeli constitution, yet the proposal before us seeks to address it via constitutional fiat, thereby radically narrowing the status of the Declaration of Independence on the one hand, and impeding ongoing open, constructive discussion on the other.
  4. As opposed to other Basic Laws, the proposed law is not satisfied with drawing general fundamental principles that will serve as guidelines for further legislation and adjudication; it details a set of instructions for shaping the state’s Jewishness and actively imparting it. A Basic Law is not the place for such instructions.
  5. The formulation of the Basic Law before us seeks to privilege it not only over standard laws in the Israeli legal code but also, and perhaps primarily, over other existing Basic Laws. It thus places itself above “Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty” which does not require a supermajority and is therefore not immune to modification or even annulment.
  6. The law contains sections whose purpose is to alter the existing balance between the judicial and the legislative branches in Israel’s governmental structure. It seeks to reduce the freedom of the judiciary on questions hitherto interpreted and governed by the normative Basic Laws and on the basis of the Declaration of Independence.

In its current formulation, then, the proposed Basic Law is an extremely dangerous law.”

For those unfamiliar with the history of the contemporary reimagining and reconstruction of the ancient nation of Israel, the move to ‘constitutionally’ encode Jewish identity and ownership of a State set up specifically for Jewish people might seem an obvious or even redundant step (1). The rationale for re-establishing a State of Israel specifically for Jews was because of undeniable persecution the Jewish diaspora had suffered in exile for over two thousand years, eventually culminating in the Jewish Holocaust. Israel was to be established so that all Jews worldwide would have a home (again) where they could finally practice self-determination, protected henceforth from the ever-present scourge of anti-Semitism and its existential threat of genocide against the Jewish people. Is it not fair that a people hounded and scapegoated for the fact of their religious identity be allowed to establish a homeland of their own, in the place that holds the most historical, religious, and cultural significance for them?

This line of reasoning, the core nodal point around which the 19th century ethno-nationalist ideology of Zionism (2) was built and is still reproduced today, is beguilingly simplistic. As Jonathan Cook argues, “Zionism, was deeply opposed to civic nationalism and attendant ideas of a common political identity. Rather, it was a tribal ideology – one based on blood ties and religious heritage – that spoke the same language as Europe’s earlier ethnic nationalisms. It agreed with the racists of Europe that “the Jews” could not be assimilated or integrated because they were a people apart.” In contrast to civic nationalism, Cook explains how ethno-nationalism was based on the idea that “each state was seen as representing a separate biological people – or in the terminology of the time, a race or Volk. And each believed it needed territory in which to express its distinct heritage, identity, language and culture. In the space of a few decades, these antagonistic nationalisms tore Europe apart in two “world wars”.”

Balad Party Secretary-General Awad Abdelfattah also finds a theme of tribalism inherent in ethno-nationalism. He argues that “For the tribe, the Zionist and colonial character of the state is sacred. It is the supremacist thinking of the colonialist who expects the colonized to behave according to the rules of hospitality he has set down. He is the host, the owner of the land, and we the Palestinians, even those of us who hold Israeli citizenship, are the guests.” He argues that Zionism is an inherently racist ideology which seeks not to co-exist with the indigenous population but replace it entirely, and that this lies at the root of its problems. Talk of tribes and blood and soil sound worryingly familiar, especially to any historian of European nationalisms, yet this is exactly the language employed in the Knesset by supporters of the bill. When President Reuven Rivlin criticised the bill, Likud MK Miki Zohar responded by saying that “unfortunately, President Rivlin has lost it” and had “forgotten his DNA”. MK Betzalel Smotrich of the far right Jewish Home tore into Netanyahu for allegedly ‘castrating’ the bill and reminded fellow MKs that “Zionism has always been based on the establishment of Jewish settlement in all parts of the Land of Israel, out of recognition of the fundamental fact that where the plow passes, so do security and sovereignty.”

The founders of the State of Israel must have suspected that appeals to sympathy alone would not suffice in negating criticism of the legitimacy of their colonial settler project, especially given the violent nature of the way the state was established with terrorism and ethnic cleansing. In order to maintain support on the international stage, particularly from the hegemonic nations who were were vying for influence in the region, the fledgling state recognised, much like later days of the Qing Dynasty and the early Republic of China, that the institutional and external order of their re-formed nation needed at least a window-dressing of constitutionality and democracy, and an independent Judiciary to implement a workable balance of religious and secular law. This would both assuage internal dissent over the character and direction of the State (is it an Orthodox Jewish State or inclusive of all Jews? What of the Mizrahi and the communist Kibbutzim?). This window dressing would also provide a handy contrast with their orientalist framing of the ‘savage’ and ‘barbaric’ Arab nations threatening to invade across Eretz’Yisrael’s borders. Israel carefully and persistently crafted a founding mythos that became its own chimera: an image of itself as a Western-style democratic oasis in a literal desert of backward lawlessness, the glimmering moated temple of modernity buffeted on all sides by a sea of primitive and corruptible theocracy. Leader of the Labor Party Ehud Barak, who served as Prime Minister from 1991 to 2000, himself described Israel as the “Villa in the Jungle”.

Today that mythos is not only under threat, but is rapidly collapsing. The heirs and associates of former MK Meir Kahane’s US-imported murderous religious extremism, such as leader of the Israeli extremist far right group ‘Lehava’ Benzy Gopstein or Rabbi Yaacov Perrin who venerated the mass murderer Baruch Goldstein, are no longer content to remain in the shadows as Israel’s dirty secret. Their relatively unchallenged pressure upon public discourse has seen Israel’s public opinion shift in the last twenty years to the ideological far right. This shift has in large part been explicitly enabled by Netanyahu, who first came to office after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. Netanyahu has expertly manipulated the discontents of the settlers, and opposition to them, to stay in power for longer than any Prime Minister since David Ben-Gurion. At the same time, he has also continuously expanded the settlements and actively opposed implementation of the Oslo Agreements, making numerous coalitions with ever more radical and fascistic elements in extremist parties like Jewish Home. His bellicose statements domestically and on the world stage have foreshadowed the rise of demagogues elsewhere like Erdogan, Putin, and Duterte, and fuelled the far right’s capture of the State. This tectonic shift in Israeli public sentiment and its increasing visibility globally has also arguably had a disturbing impact outside the region, serving to encourage a re-emergence of ethno-nationalism and fascism across Europe and North America. The rise of white supremacist Trump in the US and racist Viktor Orbán in Hungary confirms that Nazism wasn’t defeated in 1945, it just went underground. In a bizarre twist of ideology, contemporary fascist movements, for example in Ukraine, have found in Zionism and Israel both an ally and a model to emulate.

The structure of Israel’s electoral system and democratic processes has in part facilitated the rising influence of the far right in Israeli politics and its legislative agenda. Israeli democracy has a number of internal contradictions that the Nation-State bill has readily exposed. One of these is that Israel has no written constitution as such since the implementation of one was at first delayed and then substituted for by a series of ‘Basic Laws’ passed by the Knesset. Israel’s Parliament is one of three in the world whose functions are not proscribed nor limited by a written constitution, the other two being the United Kingdom and New Zealand. The Basic Laws and their amended versions over the years were interpreted as forming a de facto constitution by Israel’s Supreme Court in the 1990s but they are neither regarded as inviolable nor as institutionally hard to change as the US constitution and its amendments. In theory the Knesset can pass any law by a simple majority, even one that might arguably conflict with a Basic Law. A super majority of eighty of the one hundred and twenty members could in theory vote in a law that abolishes all of the Basic Laws in one fell swoop. Furthermore, whilst Israelis carry Israeli passports, within the law there is no such thing as Israeli nationality, despite the existence of the 1952 Nationality Law. There is no contradiction then with the proposed Nation-State law which reinforces the concept that Israel does not belong to Israeli citizens, more than a fifth of whom are not Jewish, but rather to the Jewish people in general, about half of whom are not even Israeli. The law would allow eighty percent of the population to realise self-determination and leave the remaining number at the beck and whim of the majority’s continued tolerance of their presence.

A second contradiction became apparent when three members of the Joint List (Jamal Zahalka, Haneen Zoabi and Basel Ghattas) submitted their own private members bill on the 4th June titled “Basic Law: A country of all its citizens”. The response to this bill highlighted an apparent limit to democracy in Israel. In a rare move, the Knesset’s Presidium voted to prevent the bill being laid on the Knesset table (signifying its entry into the legislative process). The Presidium disqualified the law with a majority of seven MKs opposing it, while Meretz MK Esawi Frej and Joint Arab List MK Ahmad Tibi supported it. Aside from accusations that the bill would encourage “other inherently racist” submissions and was unrealistic, the stated reason for this move, only ever exercised four times before, was that Knesset Rules of Procedure Article 75(e) states that “The Knesset Presidium shall not approve a bill that in its opinion denies the existence of the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish People, or is racist in its essence.” The Joint List bill was deemed to have triggered this article because it sought to pass a Basic Law that would make for a binational Palestinian and Israeli state. Israel would therefore cease to be a Jewish State or the State of the Jewish People, the symbols of the State would not be Jewish and the Law of Return would be cancelled. Susan Hattis Rolef perhaps best summarised opposition to the ‘Balad Bill’, as it was dubbed by the right wing Jerusalem Post, by arguing that the bill was evidence of a breach of article 7a(a)(1) of Basic Law: the Knesset, which prevents lists and individual candidates from running in elections to the Knesset if they reject the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state which the High Court later defined as taking actions on this course not just talking about it. Rolef also cited article 57(i1) of the Elections to the Knesset Law that stipulates every candidate in a list running in the Knesset elections must declare in writing: “I undertake to remain faithful to the State of Israel and avoid acting contrary to the principles of article 7a of the Basic Law: the Knesset.” A less legalese explanation for the block was offered by Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein (Likud) who accused the Joint List MKs of provocation to gain votes. Possibly the strongest and most honest and direct condemnation came from another Jerusalem Post editorial which claimed the ‘Balad Bill’ was a “separatist formulation” proposed by a politician, Zahalka, who “exploits Israeli democracy to undermine Israel”.

In response to this charge Esawi Frej observed that “The Jewish majority challenges the Arab minority on many counts, and one of those is the Nationality Law. Why are those supporting the Nationality Law allowed to do so, but Zahalka is not allowed?”  When I asked MK Hanin Zoabi about the bill and the underlying rationale for it she explained that “Balad proposed a de-colonialised alternative to the Zionist State, the only possible democratic, sane, human and respectful solution: a state for all its citizens.” She went on to argue that such a State “would be the only way for the Israelis to liberate themselves (and the Palestinians) from their privileged status. They should recognise the huge historical compromise the Palestinians are willing to make. The proposed law defines what this state should look like. It clearly represents a complete, ethical, and political contrast to the racist apartheid Nation-State law currently going through the Knesset [sic].”

In allowing the Nation-State bill to progress but blocking the ‘Balad Bill’ the Knesset has signalled that the current trajectory of the nation is headed in one direction only; a constant doubling down on Zionism at the expense of any democratic components attached to it. For supporters of the bill, the definition of the State is essentially a ‘two-tier’ Zionist entity whose democratic institutions and processes principally exist only to serve the interests of a Jewish demographic majority maintained by policy as a core element of the State’s raison d’etre. That, in theory and practice, is essentially the definition of an ethnocratic apartheid state, not a democracy. The Nation-State bill is just the latest piece of evidence exposing the ethnocentric heart of a colonial State failing in its efforts to maintain the illusion of a secular democratic nation. It is a nation whose transgressions against non-Jewish citizens and the millions they harass under military occupation liberal Zionist defenders are struggling ever harder to cover with a fig leaf of democracy and civic nationalism. As those who rationalise the claim that Israel has a right to exist and defend itself continue a vainglorious pursuit of a mythical and pyrrhic ‘two-state solution’, the project itself is coming apart at the seams, torn by the force of a violent religious settler extremism that was always the logical conclusion of the ideology which created the State. Its other conclusion is a need to ever more brutally suppress both Jewish and Palestinian opposition to the forced existence of a State that could simply not be maintained without the constant financial and military support of the U.S.

As Awad Abdelfattah has pointed out, the current government’s “insane and reckless” policies serve only “to fuel the fire in Palestine but also isolate Israel internationally”. The amazing growth in the support for BDS, most recently culminating in a historic bill passed by the Irish Senead to ban all goods produced in illegal settlements is testament to a swing in opinion in the heartlands of Israel’s traditional European allies. This has not gone unnoticed in Israel or amongst the architects of Hasbara who see their attempts to maintain control of the international narrative about Israel and the discourse on its behaviour rapidly eroding. The threat of the documentary series The Israel Lobby was sufficient for Israel to put immense pressure to prevent its full release Stateside. The UK edition of it forced a formal apology from the UK Israeli Ambassador and the resignation of an Israeli asset, Shai Masot, as well as launching an official Parliamentary inquiry into foreign interference. This, along with Labour Friends of Israel lobby group briefing to undermine the democratically elected Palestine-sympathetic leadership of their own party, has convinced many that the forces working to defend ‘the Middle East’s only democracy’, a ‘beacon of tolerance and freedom in the region’, are themselves not much invested in democracy and freedom on principle unless it serves to prop up and legitimise Zionist demand for lebensraum at the expense of anyone who objects. The Nation-State bill, and the rejection of the ‘Balad Bill’ demonstrate that the arc of the State of Israel’s evolution is now falling away from democracy and towards unabashed ethnocracy, and perhaps eventually, theocracy. Ultra -Zionist elements within Israel are using democracy to manifest their ultimately un-democratic image of a ‘pure’ Zionist ethno-state. As a result, the camouflage of democracy Israel has used to hide and reframe its internal contradictions is peeling away, revealing a dark underbelly of fanatical religious and racial fundamentalist supremacism. The veil of pretence has slipped. This is Zionism. This is what the State of Israel means.

(1) – It could be argued that since Israel’s Declaration of Independence includes the phrase “HEREBY DECLARE THE ESTABLISHMENT OF A JEWISH STATE IN ERETZ-ISRAEL, TO BE KNOWN AS THE STATE OF ISRAEL” there is no need for a nation-state law that attempts to constitutionally encode the same. However, the Israeli Supreme Court has ruled that the Declaration of Independence is not itself binding as a constitutional document.

(2) – Israel’s Declaration of Independence explicitly links itself to Zionism: “In the year 5657 (1897), at the summons of the spiritual father of the Jewish State, Theodore Herzl, the First Zionist Congress convened and proclaimed the right of the Jewish people to national rebirth in its own country”