Not Just an Election Pretext: The Nation-State Law is Netanyahuism

Gershom Gorenberg

My new column at The American Prospect, explaining the political crisis over the nation-state law, went up a few hours before Benjamin Netanyahu announced new elections:

Israel’s government is on the edge of collapse. The prime minister and senior cabinet members are trading insults as if they are already campaigning against each other. OK, that’s fairly normal. Israeli coalitions are unstable partnerships of enemies. When they can’t compromise on an unavoidable issue—the budget, for instance, or peace talks—they threaten each other with going back to the voters. Sometimes threats become reality.

What’s abnormal is that for the past week Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has seemed determined to scuttle his current coalition of the right and center over an entirely avoidable crisis: his desire to pass a law constitutionally defining Israel as the nation-state of the Jews. His centrist partners see the law, correctly, as an assault on democracy. The law will inflame tensions with the Arab minority, and damage Israel’s already poor international standing.

Why go to the trouble? Over three-quarters of Israel’s citizens are Jews, who quintessentially display their Jewishness by arguing constantly about what “Jewish” means. Public life is conducted in Hebrew; schools and offices shut for Passover and Rosh Hashanah. The crisis looks so unnecessary that pundits have suggested that it’s a pretext: Netanyahu has decided that he’ll do better in elections now than later, and believes that the nation-state law will allow him to run as the candidate of patriotism.

This Machiavellian explanation is too kind. The bill is Netanyahu-ist, and that’s what really is frightening.

The nation-state bill was submitted by three Knesset members, including Yariv Levin, chair of the Likud delegation in parliament. Netanyahu has circulated a set of guidelines for softening the legislation once it’s in committee, but his changes wouldn’t alter the bill’s essence. The law would become part of Israel’s still-incomplete constitution. It would declare that Israel is the nation-state of the Jews, and that no other nationality has a right to self-determination within Israel. It would state that Israel is a democracy and that the individual rights of all citizens will be preserved—but even in Netanyahu’s amended version, the law would not refer to equal rights. This is only a partial list of the problems.

To avoid possible misunderstanding: This isn’t religious legislation; it doesn’t aim at creating a theocracy. The bill’s three authors are not religious, nor is Netanyahu. It defines the Jews as a nationality, a collective ethnic entity, and commits the state to preserving that collective and no other. Its roots may be found in the illiberal strands of European nationalism. It strongly implies that if a court is faced with a conflict between democracy and the purported interest of the nationality, it must give at least as much weight to the latter. It doesn’t create inequality between Jewish and Arab citizens; that already exists, institutionally and informally. Rather, it enshrines inequality, protects it against legal and political challenge.

And that’s what the right seeks. …

Read the rest here.