The good and bad of Israel’s Nationality Law

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Prime Minister Netanyahu speaking at the Knesset before the vote on the Nation-State Law (Photo: screenshot)

In a contested vote last week, Israel’s Knesset passed a new Basic Law, enshrining the Jewish character of the state into Israel’s constitutional framework. While the idea of the law is straightforward – it’s hard to argue that Israel isn’t a Jewish state – the actual provisions are controversial, discriminatory and possibly racist.

The gist of the new law provides that Israel is a nation state of the Jewish people, adopts certain Jewish symbols and holidays as national symbols, promotes immigration and settlement of Jews into the nation and encourages outreach to the Jews living outside of Israel. The biggest problem of the law is what is absent. Israel’s Declaration of Independence formulated the vision for the nation, i.e. a Jewish state that would provide equal rights to all of its inhabitants, which includes a sizable number of Arab citizens. The new nationality law is silent on equal treatment of its citizens, and the question becomes whether the provisions emphasizing the Jewish national character will trump the democratic values upon which the state was founded.

The good news of the law was that some its earlier more onerous renditions were changed. This included permitting settlements that could exclude others and mandating the use of Jewish law in the court system. The bad news is that all laws have unintended consequences. Since the founding of the state, Israel has been known as and acted as the nation state of the Jewish people. At the same time, it has built a thriving and prosperous democratic country, where there is a vibrant free press and an independent and active judiciary. In recent years more right wing political parties became upset with Israeli Supreme Court rulings that struck down laws that violated democratic principles embodied into other Basic Laws. These parties have been lobbying for a new Basic Law – to assert Jewish nationality over and above other values. The result was the passage of the new nationality law.

How this new law will affect the democratic character of the country remains to be seen. However, one egregious action occurred the day after the bill’s passage. A provision added to the law by the ultra-Orthodox ensured that Orthodox Judaism will be the sole representative of Jewish values disseminating from Israel to other Jewish communities around the world. Orthodox Judaism has a religious monopoly in Israel, whereas the vast majority of Jews living outside of Israel belong to more progressive branches of Judaism.

In a show case of their power, a rabbi of the Conservative movement was just arrested in Israel for performing an “unauthorized” wedding ceremony the other day. Only Orthodox rabbis are permitted to officiate at weddings. In this case the ceremony was never considered official. Rather, the rabbi was performing the ceremony in an unofficial capacity. It didn’t matter – at the insistence of the ultra-Orthodox, he was arrested. This is an extremely bad sign and signals that the motivation behind the nationality bill is to undermine freedoms throughout the country.

For Messianic Jews this new law could prove highly problematic. Messianic Jews are already discriminated against with respect to immigration. With the adoption of the new law, this could conceivably be extended to housing, jobs, access to the courts, meeting places, rights to build congregations and more. This current government is the most right wing government in Israel’s history. It is not a friend of Messianic Jews, and its outreach to the Christian world is highly hypocritical.