There is no connection between the substance of
Israel’s newly passed Nation State of the Jewish People law, and the
debate its passage unleashed.
On the one hand, supporters of the law led by Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu insist that the law is a vital step in entrenching and
protecting Israel’s Jewish identity. After the law passed last Thursday
night, Netanyahu declared, “This is a pivotal moment in the annals of
Zionism and the annals of the State of Israel. 122 years after [Theodore]
Herzl published his vision [of a Jewish state] we affixed in law the
founding principle of our existence.”
On the other hand, Arab members of Knesset theatrically condemned the law
and claimed that with its passage, Israel had officially embraced
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Israel is the heir of Nazi
Germany. PLO chief Mahmoud Abbas and his deputies said the UN should
reinstitute its definition of defined Zionism, the Jewish national
liberation movement as a form of racism.
Israeli leftists, including members of Knesset, the supposedly center-left
Zionist Union Party, backed by Haaretz, parroted the Arab-Turkish talking
points with Hebrew accents. The American-Jewish leadership, like the New
York Times, argued that the passage of the law is proof that Israel is on
the verge of rejecting democracy.
Given the unreconcilable claims of the Right on the one hand and the
Arabs, the Left and American-Jewish leadership on the other, it is
imperative to read the text of the law itself. In reading you discover
This a nothingburger without a bun, or a patty, a plate or a pickle.
It does nothing new and it says nothing new.
Israel was the Jewish state for 70 years before the law was passed and it
remains the Jewish state a week after it passed.
The clause in the law which is supposed to render Israel an
“apartheid” state deals with Jewish settlement of the land of Israel.
Its language is weak and declaratory. It refers to Jewish settlement as
“a national value.”
In contrast, the League of Nations 1920 Mandate for Palestine explicitly
enjoined the British mandatory government to “encourage... close
settlement by Jews on the land.”
Because it does nothing, the Nation-State Law is like a hologram. It means
whatever you want it to mean. Which means that the maelstrom surrounding
it tells us more about the sides to the argument than it tells us about
What does the vacuous law tell us about the nationalist camp that has
championed it since its first draft was written 14 years ago?
It’s possible that members of the nationalist camp that promoted the law
didn’t understand what they were doing. They thought that by legislating
the obvious, they were, in the words of George Orwell, performing “the
first duty of intelligent men.” They thought that by legislating that
“The land of Israel is the historic homeland of the Jewish people, where
the State of Israel was established,” would protect Israel’s status as
the Jewish state from those who deny its right to exist.
The problem with the Right’s narrative – that Israel’s Jewish
identity is under attack and that steps must be taken to protect it – is
not that it is wrong. Israel’s Jewish identity is under assault from
post-Zionists and anti-Zionists in Israel and abroad. The problem is that
far from protecting Israel’s Jewish character, the Nation-State Law
serves as a red flag for Israel’s detractors, inviting them to attack
This brings us to the law’s three groups of opponents: the Arabs and
their would-be savior Erdogan; the Israeli Left; and the American Jewish
The Arab members of Knesset, like Abbas and his deputies are using the law
as a means to sell their rejection of Israel’s right to exist. Erdogan
uses his hostility and rejection of Israel’s right to exist to advance
his goal of leading the Sunni Arab world.
While there is nothing new about their positions, the law has given the
Arabs an excuse to ratchet up their assaults. The distressing fact that
Arab lawmakers have convinced many of Israel’s Druze citizens and its
Arab citizens who seek to integrate into Israeli society that the law
harms their civil rights redounds directly to the Arab Israeli
lawmakers’ cynical, but predictable exploitation of the law to bash the
The amazing thing about the rhetoric of leftist Israeli lawmakers is its
radicalism. Without the Israeli accents, it would be hard to distinguish
statements by Meretz leader Tamar Zandberg and editorials in Haaretz from
denunciations of the law by Arab Joint List leader Ayman Odeh.
The close resemblance of the Left’s talking points with the Arab
narrative reflect a profound, and fast-paced process of radicalization
that the Israeli Left has undergone over just the past few years. Case in
point is the self-proclaimed “Zionist Union” Party’s response to the
In 2014, Zionist Union MK Shelly Yacimovich wrote a letter regarding the
then circulating draft of the law to the bill’s author, then-Kadima MK
Avi Dichter. The draft bill circulating then was more substantive than the
law passed last week.
Yacimovich told Dichter that while she couldn’t see anything
objectionable about the law, she couldn’t understand why its passage was
necessary given that it was merely an aggregation of laws that were
In her speech in the Knesset plenary ahead of the law’s passage last
week, Yacimovich did a full about face. She referred to the law that
simply aggregates previously passed statutes, “racist” and
“xenophobic.” Likewise, Zionist Union leader Tzipi Livni condemned the
law she once supported in the most extreme language.
It is hard to align Yacimovich and Livni’s positions with even the
lowest common denominator definition of Zionism. How can it be racist to
define Jewish settlement of the historic Jewish homeland as “a national
value”? Of course it is a national value. If it weren’t Israel would
never have been established in the first place.
This brings us to the American-Jewish leadership. The Jewish Federations
of North America lobbied strongly against the bill. In an email to
members, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the JNFA Richard Sandler
said the Jewish Federations, “were disappointed with the law that
The Federation’s Israel office sent out a detailed explanation of the
law to members. While the language was careful, it strongly intimated that
the law is racist for making Israel’s Jewish character explicit. The
Philadelphia Federation’s letter to its members alleged that the law’s
provisions “are a dangerous check on Israel’s democratic
Like the self-proclaimed Zionist Union’s condemnation of the law as
racist, the American-Jewish response marks a stark departure from past
responses of the Jewish Federations and other Jewish groups to Israeli
laws and policies. For Israel’s first 60 years, the Federations, like
the other major Jewish groups weren’t quick to air their disagreements
with Israel’s elected officials. Their gut response was to support
Israel and let others attack it.
Now the longstanding instinct has been turned on its head. Underlying the
Federation’s reactions to the law is a profound discomfort with the fact
that Israel is the Jewish state and intends to remain the Jewish state.
This pronounced discomfort speaks to a profound shift in Federation values
from Zionism to post-Zionism.
Moreover, as Sandler noted, the Federations were intensively engaged in
the legislative process. As a consequence, their representatives and
leaders knew the law changed nothing in the status of Israel’s
non-Jewish citizens. That is, they knew that the law was an anodyne
statement of principles that did nothing more than enshrine the situation
that has existed in Israel since its founding. And yet, they hate it.
From the nationalist camp’s perspective, it is hard to escape the
conclusion that the Nation-State Law and the controversy it sparked and
intensified demonstrates that its members and leaders have forgotten the
lessons of the past.
On July 30, 1980, the Knesset passed Basic Law: Jerusalem, Israel’s
Capital. The law declared that “Undivided, unified Jerusalem” is
Israel’s capital. But that declaration did nothing to change
Jerusalem’s status as Israel’s capital. Jerusalem has been the capital
of Israel since 1949. Its municipal boundaries were extended and the city
was united by government decision shortly after the 1967 Six Day War.
Then-prime minister Menachem Begin said the law would protect Israeli
sovereignty over unified Jerusalem. Instead, the law undermined Israel’s
control of the city.
Seizing on the law as an opportunity to condemn Israel, rabidly
anti-Israel then-US president Jimmy Carter orchestrated the drafting and
passage of UN Security Council Resolution 478. The resolution, which the
US abstained from, declared the Knesset law null and void and ordered the
nations who had set up their embassies in Jerusalem to withdraw them. In
short order, 14 of the 16 nations whose embassies were in Jerusalem
removed them from the capital.
To the extent the Israeli Left opposed the bill, like Yacimovich in 2014,
they did so not because they disagreed with its provisions but because it
had no substantive value.
The American-Jewish community was so angry with Carter for stabbing Israel
in the back that Jewish support for the Democratic president reached an
all-time low in the 1980 presidential election. Carter received a mere 50%
of the Jewish vote. Ronald Reagan received a whopping 35%.
This then brings us to the lesson the nationalist camp ignored from 1980.
Back then, Begin would have done far more to protect Israeli sovereignty
over unified Jerusalem if he had built new Jewish neighborhoods throughout
eastern, southern and northern Jerusalem and invested in road
infrastructure. Instead, Begin opted for a law that changed nothing in
relation to Jerusalem’s legal status and caused harm to Israel’s
Again, the nationalist camp is right to be concerned about protecting
Israel’s Jewish character. It is under attack both at home and abroad.
There are substantive steps that the Knesset can and must take to secure
it. The Knesset must undertake a significant overhaul of Israel’s legal
system. It must revoke the tax exempt status and other privileges of
political NGOs financed by foreign governments. It must apply Israeli law
to Area C in Judea and Samaria. These steps, taken separately and together
will do more to protect Israel’s Jewish character than a hundred
It’s too late for regrets. The milk has been spilled. The law has
passed. Amending it will only prolong the bloodletting and empower the
But the time has come – 38 years late – to finally learn its lesson.
Declarative laws do not protect Israel. Action protect Israel.