This past week by a vote of 62 to 55, Israel’s Knesset passed legislation called “Israel as a Nation-State of the Jewish People.” Heralding the passage of the bill, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described it as “a defining moment in the annals of Zionism and the annals of the state of Israel…We have determined in law the founding principle of our existence. Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, and respects the rights of all its citizens.”
In reaction, Israeli hardliners and their supporters in the US celebrated the legislation as “clarifying”, while more liberal voices lamented “the damage the bill does to the ‘Zionist vision.'” This is one debate where I cannot take the side of the liberals because, in reality, the “Jewish Nation-State” bill is in fact “clarifying” as it merely establishes in “Basic Law” practices and policies that Israel has been implementing since its founding.
As I demonstrate in my little book “Palestinians, the Invisible Victims: Political Zionism and the Roots of Palestinian Dispossession,” even before the founding of the state, the operational goals of Political Zionism have been Jewish exclusivism and Palestinian dispossession. Since its establishment, the government of Israel has passed over 60 laws and implemented policies designed to realize those goals.
After 1949, for example, they demolished 349 Palestinian villages that had belonged to Palestinians who were forced to become refugees. Israel seized their lands, declared that these properties were “state lands” (totaling 93% of the land within their new state), and turned them over to quasi-governmental agencies for “Jewish only” development. By law, these lands cannot be transferred to non-Jewish control. In recent years, the Israeli Supreme Court upheld a law that gave Israeli Jewish communities the right to exclude applicants wishing to live there based on their ethnicity or religion.
Israel has operated in a similar way in the occupied West Bank and “East Jerusalem”. In these areas, they have built “Jewish only” housing for over 700,000 Jews, while demolishing over 10,000 Palestinian homes and allowing only limited Palestinian development. Additionally, in the occupied lands, there are Jewish-only roads, services, access to water, and now access to the judiciary.
Other laws that were passed after the founding of the state welcomed all Jews to immigrate and become citizens of Israel, while at the same time prohibiting Palestinian refugees from returning to their homes or properties. And even now, should a Palestinian citizen of Israel marry someone from outside (including from the West Bank), they are prohibited from bringing their spouse to live with them in Israel.
There are still other laws and policies which favor Jewish over Arab Palestinian citizens. There are, for example, “separate but not equal”: educational systems, social service benefits, funds for development and infrastructure, and policies regulating political expression.
And there is clear discriminatory intent in the punishments meted out to those who break the law. An Israeli who mercilessly beat an Eritrean refugee was sentenced to 100 days of “community service”; an Israeli soldier who shot to death at point-blank range a defenseless Palestinian was sentenced to 8 months in prison; while a young Palestinian girl who slapped an Israeli soldier after he had attempted breaking into her home was sentenced to 9 months.
Since these policies and laws granting preferential treatment to Jews over Arabs have been in place, some since the founding of the state of Israel, two questions must be asked: why was Netanyahu so determined to pass this bill now? And why the liberal lament?
The answer to the first can be found in the political psychology of Netanyahu. Like populist nationalists elsewhere, he instinctively understands the racist inclination of his base. In the 1990’s he fired them up in opposition to the Oslo Accords promising to end the peace process (the widow of Yitzhak Rabin held Netanyahu responsible for the anti-peace incitement that led to her husband’s assassination). When he felt threatened in his last election he warned his supporters that “the Arabs were turning out in droves” to defeat him. And now, facing multiple indictments for various forms of corruption, he has resorted to naked nationalist appeal as a way to mobilize his base and divert attention away from his legal challenges.
At the same time, with US President Donald Trump and the Republican-led Congress under control, Netanyahu feels emboldened. Not only is he confident that he will not face any sanctions from the US, but this “Jewish Nation-State” law, coupled with others being implemented by his government, is paving the way for his eventual annexation of the West Bank.
What is confounding, however, is why liberals are suddenly concerned as Israel has written into law what they have been doing for decades with nary a protest. The explanation for this was best expressed by Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin (not a liberal), when he decried the language of the legislation saying that it “could harm the Jewish people worldwide and in Israel, and could even be used as a weapon by our enemies.” In other words, “we’ve been doing all this without anyone noticing for decades, just don’t formalize it in clear language. It makes us look bad.”
In this regard, the clarity that this “Jewish Nation-State” bill provides may be a blessing. It rips the mask off of the facade behind which Israel has hidden for years. What is exposed is the cruel apartheid system that is being implemented in Israel and the occupied Palestinian lands. The time has come for an end to hypocrisy and moral blindness. Israeli practices must be challenged and people of good will must work together to demand equality, justice, and human rights.