Over It—Israel is the Jewish State
Wall Street Journal
July 20, 2018
Let the hand-wringing and denunciations begin. On Thursday
Israel finally expressed in constitutional law the basic achievement of Zionism:
Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people. In the seven years since the
new provision was first proposed, it has attracted a barrage of criticism from
the U.S. and Europe. Foreign politicians have demanded Israel not pass the law,
and they have not been mollified by the removal of most of its disputed
provisions. A Monday headline at Foreign Policy warned that Israel was
“debating democracy itself.” Arab Knesset members ripped up copies of the
bill after its passage. One called it “the official beginning of fascism and
In reality, Israel’s Basic Law would not be out of place
among the liberal democratic constitutions of Europe—which include similar
provisions that have not aroused controversy. The law does not infringe on the
individual rights of any Israeli citizen, including Arabs; nor does it create
individual privileges. The illiberalism here lies with the law’s critics, who
would deny the Jewish state the freedom to legislate like a normal country.
The nation-state law declares that Israel is a country
established to instantiate the Jewish people’s “right to national
self-determination.” It constitutionalizes symbols of that objective—the
national anthem, holidays and so forth. There is nothing undemocratic or even
unusual about this. Among European states, seven have similar “nationhood”
Consider the Slovak Constitution, which opens with the
words, “We the Slovak nation,” and lays claim to “the natural right of
nations to self-determination.” Some provisions are found in places like the
Baltics, which have large, alienated minority populations. The Latvian
Constitution opens by invoking the “unwavering will of the Latvian nation to
have its own State and its inalienable right of self-determination in order to
guarantee the existence and development of the Latvian nation, its language and
culture throughout the centuries.” Latvia’s population is about 25% Russian.
The new Basic Law also establishes Hebrew, the primary
language of 80% of Israel’s population, as the official language. Previously,
Israel relied on a holdover British Mandate provision that gave official status
to Hebrew, Arabic and English. Far from undermining democracy, the Basic Law
puts Israel in line with other Western nations. Most multiethnic, multilingual
European Union states give official status only to the majority language.
Spain’s Constitution, for example, makes Castilian Spanish the official
national language, and requires all citizens to know it, even if their mother
tongue is Basque or Catalan.
Another controversial provision of the law declares “the
development of Jewish settlement” to be a national value that the government
should promote. It is understood to refer to encouraging population dispersion
into the periphery of the country. This essentially restates policy adopted by
the international community in 1922 in the League of Nations Mandate for
Palestine, which sought to “encourage . . . close settlement by
Jews.” Again, the provision is only declaratory of values, and does not
prescribe or authorize any particular policies. By contrast, the state
constitution of Hawaii authorizes land policies to promote homesteading by
ethnic Hawaiians, and provides preferential land policies for them.
Moreover, the measure comes against a backdrop of land
policies that discriminate against Jews. The Israeli Supreme Court has ruled
controversially that Arabs have a right to create residential communities in
Israel that exclude Jews. A separate case denied the corresponding right to
Jews. In Jerusalem, the Palestinian Authority prescribes the death penalty for
Arabs who sell land to Jews. The new Basic Law does not even negate either of
those injustices; it merely creates a normative counterweight.
Nor does Israel have official religions, and nothing in the
new Basic Law changes that. In this respect, Israel is more liberal than the
seven European countries with constitutionally enshrined state religions.
Perhaps the best evidence that Israel needs a constitutional affirmation of its status as the sovereign Jewish nation-state is the eagerness of so many to denounce as undemocratic measures that are considered mundane anywhere else.