When the Netanyahu government passed a Basic Law this week enshrining a superior set of rights for Israel’s Jewish citizens, it ushered in a new era of open apartheid. To appreciate the significance of the new nation-state law, one must understand why the bill split Israel’s nationalist camp, and why demographic factors forced it to the fore.
After the final vote, ruling Likud lawmaker Avi Dichter, who sponsored the bill’s first iteration, explained its true purpose. “We are enshrining this important bill into a law today to prevent even the slightest thought, let alone attempt, to transform Israel to a country of all its citizens,” Dichter gloated after the law passed this week. “… The most [Palestinian citizens of Israel] can do is to live among us as a national minority that enjoys equal individual rights, but not equality as a national minority.”
While the law’s final text lacked the abrasive language of earlier versions, it firmly established that “the right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people”. Unlike Israel’s 1948 Declaration of Independence, which ostensibly commits the state to ensuring “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex”, the nation-state law omits any such promise of equality - and this was not accidental.
Failing to protect minorities
The Israel Democracy Institute noted that the new law has made Israel “the only country in the world to establish its legal status as a nation-state without ensuring that the bill protects equal rights for minorities”.
This distinction exposes the fault line between the two wings of Israel’s nationalist camp. While all Israeli nationalists want the state to accord preferential treatment to Jews, centrists want the law to preserve at least a veneer of equality, for the sake of public appearances, while rightists are willing to be more brazen about their demands for state-sponsored Jewish supremacy.
Ever since the state was founded in 1948, Israel has discriminated against its non-Jewish Palestinian citizens in a myriad of ways
Liberal Zionist lawmakers originally supported and even co-sponsored the nation-state law, hoping it would use lofty language and somehow resolve the inherent contradictions between the state’s definition as both “Jewish” and “democratic”. By contrast, right-wingers are willing to admit that the gap between these cannot always be bridged, and when only one set of interests may prevail, they insist that it must be Jewish.
Since the bill was passed as a Basic Law - the equivalent of a constitutional document - it will inform all future Israeli government decisions in which the two sets of interests are in conflict, ensuring that Jewish supremacy trumps democracy in every instance.
Of course, ever since the state was founded in 1948, Israel has discriminated against its non-Jewish Palestinian citizens in a myriad of ways.
Foremost among them are the country’s naturalisation laws, which grant any Jew in the world automatic Israeli citizenship, and make it exceedingly difficult for any non-Jew, Palestinian or otherwise, to acquire that same status. No less discriminatory are the state’s land laws, which forbid non-Jews from leasing state-owned holdings; this prejudicial provision applies to 93 percent of the country’s land mass.
So why would Israeli nationalists need a nation-state law now, in 2018? If Israel’s legal code ensured Jewish supremacy up until now - with more than 65 discriminatory laws, according to local rights group Adalah - why would constitutional clauses explicitly enshrining it be required 70 years after the fact?
More broadly, if Jews have always constituted an overwhelming majority of Israel’s citizenry, and if they show no signs of losing that status in the foreseeable future, how would continued Jewish rule possibly be in doubt?
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks in Jerusalem on 15 July 2018 (AFP)
The answer to this quandary lies in the territorial aspirations of the Netanyahu government, and their demographic consequences.
Although the number of Jews in Israel exceeds the number of Palestinians, this is only the case when one limits the count to Israel’s internationally recognised borders. When one counts all Palestinians living in the land from the river to the sea - including the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights, just as Jews living in all those territories are included in Israeli counts - Palestinians actually outnumber Jews, turning them into a minority.
Plotting population records from both the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority on the same chart reveals that Palestinians have outnumbered Jews in all Israeli-controlled territories since 2014. When one considers the numbers of foreign workers, African refugees, and other folks living in the land who are neither Jews nor Palestinians, Jews have been a minority population in mandatory Palestine for more than a decade already.
But Israeli hawks have long aspired to annex the West Bank, and once Donald Trump took office in Washington and appointed a far-right Jewish supremacist as his ambassador to Israel, the annexationists understood that the world’s single superpower would not stand in the way of such a move, no matter how many international agreements it would violate.
Now the right-wing’s only fear is that were Israel to go ahead and annex all the territories, the majority Palestinian population would demand equal rights under the law. Without any constitutional text elevating Jewish national rights over democracy, Israeli government bodies may feel the need to rule in favour of equal rights for all, even for Palestinians.
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Anticipating that demographic dilemma, the Netanyahu government pushed the nation-state law through this week, paving the way for continued colonisation of the West Bank and outright apartheid for Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line. Declaring that the rights of Jews must always supersede those of non-Jews, Israel just came out of the closet, now proud of what it has always been in practice - a racist state.
Left unchecked, that racist state will sooner or later encompass every inch of the land.
- David Sheen is an independent journalist and filmmaker born in Canada, now reporting from Israel-Palestine. His work focuses primarily on racial tensions and religious extremism. In 2017, Sheen was named a human rights defender for his reporting by the Ireland-based Front Line Defenders. His website is www.davidsheen.com and he tweets from @davidsheen.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: Demonstrators attend a rally to protest against the nation-state bill in Tel Aviv on 14 July 2018 (AFP)