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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 17 November 2018

Israel can no longer hide behind the illusion of liberal democracy

As the Nation State Bill and others pass into law, the Jewish state's public relations campaign will suffer, writes Joseph Dana

Demonstrators attend a rally to protest against the 'Jewish Nation-State Bill' in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv. Jack Guez / AFP
Demonstrators attend a rally to protest against the 'Jewish Nation-State Bill' in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv. Jack Guez / AFP

Eight years ago, a journalist friend and I had an idea for a YouTube video. We were living in Jerusalem and the Israeli Parliament was about to hear a reading of a loyalty oath bill.

The bill, which targeted Palestinian citizens of Israel, was part of a wave of right-wing legislation designed to entrench the Jewish character of the country at all costs into the country’s public institutions.

The political climate was toxic. A nominally democratic state was drunk on nationalism and sliding towards fascism. Given the nationalist sentiment flying around, would people on the street happily read a loyalty oath used by fascist governments on camera if the terms Israel and Jewish were inserted into the text? Had the nationalist fever reached such a level?

The answer was yes. As we walked around the centre of West Jerusalem, everyone we approached was happy to read our oath and most people enthusiastically added their own lines slamming Palestinians and Arabs.

When we told them they were reading from a 1930s fascist loyalty oath, few seemed to care. That was nearly a decade ago and the seed planted in those earlier bills has blossomed into fully fledged parliamentary laws.

This month the Knesset passed the so-called Nation State Bill as law. Among other provisions, the bill enshrines the rights of Jewish citizens of Israel, above all others.

Legally speaking, self-determination is now the sole domain of Jewish people in Israel. Arabic, which had been an official language since the founding of the country, was demoted to a “special status”.

Because Israel lacks a constitution, this bill will have far-reaching implications across society and could be used to enact further legislation eroding the rights of Israel’s minority citizens.

This will be clear in the work of the Israeli high court. In the absence of a constitution, the court often determines exactly what “Jewish and democratic” mean in practice.

This law gives the country’s Jewish character far more weight than its democratic one and that will likely be reflected in future high court rulings.

Unsurprisingly, minority groups have strongly pushed back against the legislation. The Palestinian-led Joint List party pushed for its own “State of All Its Citizens” law, which attempted to “anchor in constitutional law the principle of equality for every citizen while recognizing the existence and rights of two national groups, Jews and Arabs, who live within the state’s internationally recognized borders”. The bill was rejected by the Knesset.

Highlighting the intent of the nation state law, early versions of the bill allowed communities to be segregated along religious and national lines. That language was removed because of its obvious similarity to segregationist legislation from the Jim Crow era in the US.

Since the founding of the country, a deep tension over how an ethno-religious state could function as a democracy, with provisions for all its citizens, has hung over the Israeli government.

One reason Israel never formally established a constitution was to avoid having to resolve this tension.

The current right-wing leadership, propelled by an American president willing to support all of Israel’s worst tendencies, believes the time for hollow talk about democracy is over. Israel’s leaders don’t care about the condemnations emanating from the international community – and why should they?

Israel’s colonisation project over the Palestinians has accelerated over the last 25 years with no clear penalty. In practice, the country has annexed most of the West Bank while isolating Gaza from the rest of Palestine and the world.

Despite effectively destroying the two-state solution, Israel has been awarded de facto American recognition of its control over Jerusalem.

Israel has never been interested in creating an equitable democracy for all its citizens. The Palestinians that ended up as Israeli citizens in 1948 have been subject to the same forms of discrimination as their brethren in the West Bank.

While it is tempting to claim the nation state bill is a sign that Israel is sliding towards apartheid, in which separate and unequal is enshrined in law, the fact is that nothing has fundamentally changed since 1948.

Israel has been a Jewish and democratic state for Jews since its founding. Palestinian citizens of Israel have faced institutional discrimination from the beginning.

West Bank and Gazan Palestinians have been deprived of their basic human and civil rights from the start. The nation state bill is a step towards codifying this process.

As similar bills pass into law, it will become more difficult for Israel to hide behind the illusion of liberal democracy. Nothing much will change on the ground but Israel’s public relations campaign will suffer.

From this vantage point, the lawmakers who passed this bill have done a great disservice to the Israeli state project and given the country’s critics all the ammunition they need to reveal the true face of Israeli “democracy”.

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