Jews and Israel, Nation and State


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The Israeli Knesset passed on July 19 the contentious ‘Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People’ legislation with 62 votes in favour, 55 against, and two abstentions. The slim margin of victory is a good barometer of the divisions the law has exacerbated in the Israeli and Jewish communities, Arabs and Jews, sabra and Diaspora alike.

In essence, the Nation-State Bill (NSB) explicitly declares Israel as the “national home of the Jewish people” and is part of the Basic Laws that guide Israel as a constitution might other states. It further declares that the undivided city of Jerusalem is the capital of the Jewish state and that the state shall “encourage and promote” the “establishment and consolidation” of Jewish settlements. Other clauses of the Bill reiterate the status of Hebrew, the Sabbath, the anthem, national holidays, and the use of Jewish symbols by the state. Furthermore, Israel will remain open for Jewish immigration and strive to ensure the safety of Jews all around the world.

The Bill was first proposed by former Shin Bet director Avi Dichter in 2011 and has caused controversy ever since. The barrage of criticism has been loudest from Israel’s own post-Zionists and the United States, though Arab members of the Knesset and Europe have not been far behind in their hyperbolic condemnation of the law that heralds the birth of “fascism and apartheid.” The primary concern seems to be that such a law disturbs the equilibrium between Israel’s democracy and its Jewish identity.

There is a fundamental philosophical weakness in this line of argument and it is that it not only takes European social development as normative but also considers only the outcomes that conform to particular theories or ideologies. In doing so, it reaffirms the self-indulgent belief that a liberal politics is truly pluralistic and neutral whereas liberalism actually advocates a dogma of its own that is no less rigid or exclusive than others.

Despite the controversy, if there is one thing that most Israelis agree on, it is that Israel is a Jewish state. The bulk of the NSB – its reaffirmation of Israel’s national symbols and its designation as a safe haven for international Jewry – is de facto law and finds wide consensus among Israelis. The need to restate the obvious and enshrine it into law, however, comes from the equally widespread feeling that the Jewish character of the Israeli state has been gradually undermined by post-Zionist intellectuals, the New Historians, and an increasingly liberal activist Supreme Court beginning with Aharon Barak, president of the Supreme Court of Israel from 1995 to 2006.

The Basic Laws, which serve as the constitution of Israel, clearly establish the civil and political rights of its citizens and make an overt commitment to secularism and democracy. Although the Declaration of Independence unequivocally defines Israel as a Jewish state, what that constitutes was left ambiguous; the NSB remedies this lacuna by providing an anchor to the state’s Jewish heritage and identity.

The circumstances in which Israel was created in 1948, the Jewish experience in Europe over the preceding two millennia, and the status of the country as the sole Jewish state in the world merit some consideration in the Knesset’s desire to cement the state’s Jewish character. Despite the demonisation, much of what the NSB has proposed is no different from many Western democracies. If Israel’s observation of the Sabbath or prevalence of the menorah make it less secular, the same might be argued for Christian countries who observe Sunday as the day of rest and display Biblical symbols in their sigils.

Opponents of the NSB are worried that the reservation of the right to national self-determination in Israel only to the Jewish people (1C) may put the country’s sizable Arab minority at a disadvantage. Yet it is unfathomable that any sovereign state allow national self-determination to any group other than the dominant majority. Spain, for example, has little patience for Basque or Catalan national expression and Italy may not react well to the Alto Adige returning to Austria.

Related to self determination is the encouragement and promotion of Jewish settlements (7A). While foreign critics are worried that this spells a fresh wave of Jewish halutzim to Judea and Samaria, David Hazony, executive director of the Israel Innovation Fund, points out that the Hebrew word used – hityashvut – reminds Israelis of the Negev and the Galilee.

Another fear opponents have of preferential treatment given to Jewish settlements is that the law could cascade into further housing discrimination against Arabs. Again, this is unlikely as Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty passed in 1992 provide certain protections. The NSB, however, does weaken the ability of the court to intervene in mundane quotidian matters of budgetary allocations favouring Jewish population centres over Arab areas. It is important to note that there are already over 400 yishuvim – villages – in the Negev and Galilee that are preferentially Jewish settlements whose right the Supreme Court upheld in 2014 to appoint “acceptance committees” to vet candidates who wish to move to these settlements.

However, conservatives might want to reconsider giving legal force to communal segregation. The right to create exclusive communities does not sit well with a modern cosmopolitan democracy and can only be a recipe for turmoil in the future. They might still work at a smaller scale of an apartment complex but entire mono-cultural settlements could easily be polarised pockets simmering with radicalism and instability. Problems need not arise just from Jewish communities excluding Arabs but even other Jews from Haredi settlements, for example.

The Zionist project was undoubtedly secular, even atheistic perhaps, but it was not seen as hostile to Judaism, its raison d’etre, until recent intellectual developments. There is the obvious case to be made that the NSB is a backlash against the potential Progressive capture of state institutions before it is too late. Yet to call it a frontal assault on the secular nature of the Israeli state is to have too slavish a devotion to the European experience rather than the Jewish story.

An intriguing interpretation is presented by Eyal Benvenisti, a professor of international law at the University of Cambridge, and Doreen Lustig, a senior lecturer at Tel Aviv University, who argue that the fears surrounding the Nation-State Law must be tempered with other Basic Laws on Human Dignity and on Fair Employment. Furthermore, reading the Nation-State Law in conjunction with the February 2017 Judea and Samaria Settlement Regulation Law, it appears plausible that the Likud and its coalition partners are laying the groundwork for an inevitability they have realised – a Jewish Israel and an autonomous, Islamic Palestinian region as part of a single state.

The Western keening for Israeli democracy is at least puzzling if not downright hypocritical. Most established nations have used force to forge a national identity and protected it with the banal acts of everyday nationalism and immigration controls; the only difference is that Europe and the United States had achieved this a century ago while Israel is a newer nation. As waves of Muslim refugees threaten European shores, the backlash is already discernible in policies and voting patterns. Israel, though a Jewish state, lives with a multicultural population whose demographics threaten to weaken the core of its identity – an ipseity its people have been persecuted for over the centuries like no other. One cannot fault Israeli lawmakers for a passionate defence of their homeland’s essential Jewish character.

The Asian in Europe


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France are not done celebrating their recent success at the World Cup in Russia but football fans already have their eyes turned towards Qatar, the hosts of the biggest tournament in sports for 2022. FIFA, or the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, the international governing body for football, has declared its intent to expand the competition to 48 countries from the present 32, which was itself an increase from 24 until 1998.

Attention is fixed on the tiny Gulf monarchy and the World Cup it intends to host for another reason – the average temperature during June and July, when the World Cup is usually held, can soar up to 50°C, making it not just difficult but dangerous for players to perform. The proposal is to shift the event to late November when the weather would be more amenable but this clashes with club football season in Europe and South America; FIFA has been in negotiations with them to accommodate the World Cup and allow players to go and represent their countries. To the relief of fans, the Islamic country is also setting up dedicated zones for fans around the stadia where alcohol consumption is not prohibited.

The selection of Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup is interesting not just for the change in the format of the tournament it promises to bring or the reworking of the logistics of international football but also because it also brings to the fore the internationally less condemnable iniquity of anti-Semitism. During the bidding process, to strengthen its chances of being selected as hosts, Doha had to categorically state that the Israeli team would be allowed on Qatari soil were they to qualify for the championship. To be fair, were Israel to qualify, it would not be the first time Israeli athletes have competed in Qatar though it remains exceedingly rare. Qatar does not officially recognise the State of Israel though trade relations were established in 1996; business, however, remains around a paltry $1 million.

Listening to passionate fans discuss football may well be a lesson in geopolitics for the uninitiated, if not at least history. Israeli football takes that to an altogether different level. The Jewish state joined the Asian Football Confederation over the protests of many of its Muslim member states in 1954. In response, a large number of Asian Muslim countries boycotted Israel’s football team in tournaments. This created embarrassing situations such as in 1958 when Israel qualified for the World Cup without having played a single match after Turkey, Indonesia, and Sudan chose to forfeit their matches against Israel. FIFA hurriedly arranged for a play-off between Israel and Wales so that the qualifier would have played at least one game on the way to Sweden, the hosts that year; Israel lost and failed to qualify.

Israel were runners up for the AFC Cup in 1956 and 1960, finally winning it in 1964 but only after 11 of the 16 participants pulled out – the Jewish state’s hollow victory came from defeating minnows like India, Hong Kong, and South Korea. Iran, who had refused to play Israel that year, ironically won the first of their three consecutive Asia Cups by defeating Israel in the finals in 1968. In a promotional video about the history of the Asia Cup released by the AFC in 2015, the organisation shamelessly made no mention of the tournament in 1964.

Israel qualified for the World Cup in 1970 but again, its path was marred by politics – North Korea refused to play in Israel and was disqualified. Although Israel finished at the bottom of their group, they managed to hold Sweden and football powerhouse Italy both to a draw in Brazil.

In 1974, Israel was expelled from the AFC after a motion led by Kuwait found 17 supporters against 13 naysayers and six abstentions. In 1994, Israel was finally admitted into the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) but not before they played in World Cup qualifications in East Asia for 1978, Europe in 1982, and Oceania in 1986 and 1990. Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority has been trying for years to have Israel expelled from FIFA altogether.

The two other anomalous members of UEFA are Turkey and Kazakhstan: the first might be understandable as it is, technically, a transcontinental state, but the latter, as a landlocked Central Asian state who shifted from the AFC to UEFA in 2002, remains a bit of a mystery.

Israeli football officials remain adamant that they are not interested in returning to the AFC but the fact remains that Israeli footballers have faced occasional anti-Semitism during their matches in Europe. In 2003 in Bosnia, for example, spectators chanted “Sieg Heil!” and in 2013 in Budapest, the crowd shouted “Heil Benito Mussolini” and called the team “stinking Jews.”

From the angle of the sport itself, Israel’s chances of qualifying for the World Cup from Europe diminish significantly because the continent is home to most of football’s powerhouses – just England, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain have won between themselves 12 of the 21 titles since the beginning of the tournament in 1930. Some of Europe’s teams who fail to qualify could easily win against the best teams of Asia despite FIFA’s regional representation calculus allocating over thrice the spots (six times before 2006) for Europe than for Asia. Israel’s record against Asian teams, on the other hand, has been much better.

Israel’s footballing story ought to lay to rest any notion that sports help build bridges and mend fences between hostile nations. International attention is no less motivated and focused on issues of political convenience. For example, while FIFA has generally kowtowed to the majoritarian impulses of the Muslim members of the AFC, there has been no outcry over the daily human rights abuses in the same countries that call for Israel’s boycott.

For a month and a day, the world revelled in the beautiful game in Russia. Yet a closer look at the World Cup and its history reveals the ugly tentacles of non-conventional warfare Islamic states and their fellow travellers have long waged against Israel without any reprobation from the international community. The message is clear – there is no purity of sport, nor is there any cost for targetting the Jewish state in any way whatsoever.

Modern Political Shibboleths


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When Winston Churchill described the Soviet Union as a “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,” in an October 1939 radio broadcast, the British prime minister might as well have been describing the future state of Israel. Outwardly European in many ways, the tiny Jewish state remains far closer socio-culturally to its Middle Eastern neighbours much like it plays football in Europe while sitting in Asia. Officially, Israel is a secular state although with interesting caveats that explicitly emphasise its Jewish identity. Similarly, the Jewish State is a democracy but more so for its Jewish citizens than others.

It is not as if these contradictions of the Middle East’s only functional democracy are new or were just noticed. Several factors contribute to the recent focus on the apparent weaknesses of the Israeli polity: the receding of the immediate, existential threats faced by the new state; the removal from power of the founding generation of socialist Zionists; and the growth of a segment of Israeli society that is more traditional and religious. An external source of alarm has been the Jewish Diaspora, particularly in America, whose numbers and financial contributions to community causes gives them a loud voice, that have felt increasingly alienated from the Jewish homeland as a result of its policies.

There is, however, no need to panic just yet unless, of course, we are hidebound by doctrinaire definitions of ideas. Israel’s intriguing strains of democracy, secularism, and identity are indeed correlative to the country’s history and socio-political circumstances but are not as unique as they are sometimes portrayed to be. In fact, Israeli politics falls well within the normal behavioural parameters of nations and states that are presently unfashionable thanks only to the vicissitudes of public politics.

Let us take the example of secularism in Israel. Although the state recognises Islam, the Druze, and Bahá’í as well as ten sects of Christianity apart from Judaism. Nonetheless, a menorah has the pride of place on the country’s sigil and the weekend falls on the Sabbath; government buildings are decorated for Hanukkah and the national anthem, the Hatikvah, is replete with Jewish motifs; public institutions such as El Al, the national airline, and the Israeli Defence Forces observe kashrut, and Hebrew, the language of Jewish scripture and the bearer of its culture, is the national language.

In essence, Israel is as secular as any liberal democracy. Whether it is France, the United States, or some other example, even liberal democracies cleave fiercely to their heritage, which, for historical reasons, has seen religion in a paramount position. Where Israel goes beyond other secular democracies is in its policing of the boundaries between religions. For example, the state allows Jews from anywhere in the world to return to the Holy Land and obtain citizenship without question. This, however, is not entirely remarkable because dozens of countries offer jus sanguinus citizenship and have leges sanguinus; Israel is not unique in this respect even though the ethnocentricism may be politically offensive to some.

Israel also officially recognises only Orthodox Judaism, and marriage, divorce, and inheritance is based on halakha. Marriage between the different denominations of Judaism are not recognised, nor are inter-faith marriages with Jews. However, the state accepts any marriage that occurs outside Israel’s borders and it is estimated that some 10 percent of marrying couples travel abroad, usually to Cyprus, for their big day.

These policies have come under fire from secular activists for fostering a strong presence of religion in Israeli public life and for being at odds with democratic principles. The Diaspora, a large portion of whom are Reform or Conservative, are also incensed with their official status in the eyes of the Chief Rabbinate that considers them as sufficiently Jewish to make aliyah but not for religious purposes. The Knesset’s purpose for having such laws, however, is to maintain the Jewish character of the Israeli state the value of which is often forgotten in debates over abstract notions.

It is easy to overlook the necessity of a Jewish state, especially as outsiders. The world of academic discourse and international politics, albeit using a vocabulary of liberal pluralism, still bears a strong majoritarian accent of European historical experience. Israel is the only Jewish state in the world, and as such, must bear the responsibility of preserving its ancient culture. Christian and Muslim states have the luxury of flirting with various social movements and ideologies and the sheer number of their sovereignties, not to mention the faithful masses, ensures that there remains a traditional core or anchor. On the other hand, Jews are more susceptible to attenuation through inter-faith marriage, conversion out of the fold, or atheism – a problem compounded by the fact that Judaism has stringent procedures for those who wish to embrace it.

Another necessity of a Jewish state is that there must always be a place that can serve as a safe haven for international Jewry. The fact remains that anti-Semitism still thrives the world over if with a little more discretion, such as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. On the brighter end of the spectrum, Emancipation removed any lingering doubts that Europe was first and foremost a Christian realm and Jews would perennially remain die Ewigen. The uglier face of the same phenomenon is the Shoah during World War II. It becomes incumbent upon Israel, as the world’s lone Jewish state, to defend that identity of its tribes that have made them such targets.

Israeli democracy can serve no role that is different from its secularism – it must be as inclusive and equitable as possible without in any way endangering the core identity upon which the state itself was demanded and built. Israel extends universal adult suffrage to all its citizens and does not bar any profession to certain faiths or ethnicities. There are non-Jewish members in the Knesset, the civil service, and even the military. Activists do, however, point to the discrimination in building permits and resource allocation between Jewish and Arab citizens. From the Israeli perspective, however, this has to do with retaining demographic control over the holy city of Jerusalem (and other religious sites in Judea and Samaria) and falls under the broad rubric of preserving the national heritage. Besides, Arabs had denied Jews access to their religious sites when the area was occupied by Muslims.

As abstractions, democracy and secularism are laudable principles perhaps. Yet the reality of Israeli circumstances demand that they serve only as beacons rather than absolute mandates. Much is made of Israel as an innovative country of startups and the technologically gifted. As true as that may be, the country also serves as an example for innovation in counter-terrorism, legal frameworks, and social policy to countries that do not enjoy the luxury of nearly monolithic cultures and live under constant threat.

By carping about the ostensible failures of Israeli democracy and secularism, critics appear devoted to how we might best serve these ideas rather than the more important question of how these ideas may best serve society. The Western one-size-fits-all model of development – be it material or social – clearly does not hold. Interestingly, the flow of immigrants from cultures that are substantially different from European and American societies has resulted in similar fissures in the West and has led to several leaders (David Cameron, Angela Merkel, and Nicolas Sarkozy) announcing the death of multiculturalism. It is worth bearing in mind that Israel, on the other hand, has lived with these fissiparous tendencies since its inception.

As Israel celebrates its 70th year of existence, it is time to reflect on the trials and tribulations the tiny state has undergone in that period. Only the local context will inform us whether the Jewish state has succeeded in living up to its promise, not hoary theories of political systems.