Jerusalem — Monday’s Memorial Day ceremony at the Efrata elementary school in Jerusalem took place against a billboard painted with a memorial candle, a Jewish star and the number 66, in honor of Israel’s 66th birthday.
The children and their parents stood perfectly still as an air raid siren wailed.
The principal recited the prayer for the well-being of the State of Israel as scores of flags with the Star of David fluttered in the breeze. At the end of the service the crowd sang “Hatikva,” Israel’s national anthem, which speaks of the “yearning of the “Jewish spirit” to be “a free people” in the Land of Israel.
Full of Jewish symbolism, the ceremony, and countless others across the nation, was a confirmation that Israel is a country with a predominantly Jewish character.
Yet even with all this symbolism, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his supporters want to codify that character by passing a controversial bill that declares that “the right of national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.”
If the bill passes, the principal would become one of the country’s Basic Laws, which the bills’ detractors say will legalize discrimination against Israel’s non-Jewish citizens.
Netanyahu believes the proposal declaring Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People is the only way to safeguard its national Jewish identity.
“Unfortunately, as we have seen recently, there are those … who seek to appeal the historical, legal and moral justification for the existence of the state of Israel as the nation-state of our people,” Netanyahu said during a visit to Israel’s Independence Hall last Thursday. “I see it as one of my basic missions as prime minister to fortify the state of Israel as the nation-state of our people.”
Contrary to popular perception, there is relatively little in Israeli law that actually defines Israel as a Jewish state. Since the country lacks a constitution, its legal system is largely based on a dozen Basic Laws, just three of which anchor Judaism into law.
The law’s advocates say it is long overdue given the many attempts by Israel’s detractors to delegitimize Jewish links to everything from the Temple Mount to falafel, and especially after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas refused to recognize Israel as the Jewish homeland before peace negotiations collapsed.
On Sunday Netanyahu told his cabinet the law is intended to “define the national right of the Jewish people to the State of Israel.” It will do so, he said, “without harming the individual rights of all Israeli citizens in the State of Israel.”
Among other things, Netanyahu said, the law would fortify the Law of Return as a Basic Law and “anchor” into law the national symbols, including the Israeli flag, “Hatikva” and the Hebrew language.
Arabic would have a “special status” but not as a national language.
It would also make the Hebrew calendar the official state calendar; make Independence Day “the national holiday of the state”; and establish Shabbat and the Jewish holidays as the country’s days of rest, while stating that people from other ethnic groups recognized by law “shall be entitled to refrain from work on their holidays.”
Population groups would have the right to create communities with a specific character, meaning that Jews could exclude Arabs and vice-versa.
Netanyahu said it is hypocritical to deny Israel the right to identify itself as a Jewish state while demanding the creation of a Palestinian state.
Such people “want a national home for the Palestinians to be established alongside us, and that Israel will gradually turn into a binational, Arab-Israeli state, inside shrunken borders,” he charged.
Gershon Baskin, a left-wing activist who helped negotiate the release of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit, said Israel “is what it is by the nature of what it does and not what some law says. It won’t change anything except piss off the Arabs, the Palestinian citizens of Israel and everyone who hates Israel.”
Furthermore, Baskin said, the bill “raises the issue of the balance between the Jewish and democratic values of the state, which is a finely tuned balance and should not be upset.”
Baskin said the people championing the bill — including Netanyahu’s Likud and the Israel Home party — are “the most right wing elements” and that their motives are “nationalistic.”
Instead of making Arab citizens feel “marginalized,” he said, “we need to discuss how the Arab citizens of Israel can be partners in their own state, which is also the nation state of the Jewish people.
“I am not afraid of collective national minority rights,” he added. “In fact I want them, because I hope that in the future there will be a Jewish national minority in the Palestinian state and I want them to have collective national minority rights.”
Yedidia Stern, a law professor at Bar-Ilan University and vice president of the Israel Democracy Institute, is also against the law “because it might undermine national solidarity.”
A self-described nationalist, Stern, an expert in Jewish law as well as religion and state issues, said he nonetheless fears any substantial change in the status quo.
“It’s not that I don’t want Israel to be the home of the Jewish nation. At the same time, one has to realize that since we don’t have a constitutional full bill of rights, the universal aspect of human rights isn’t guaranteed in the way Americans are used to.”
Unless the Jewish State Basic Law is counterbalanced by a Human Rights Basic Law, “the Jewish aspects of the state will be enhanced and the Jewish/Democratic balance could be disrupted,” Stern warned.
Stern said the bill is far from a done deal, even though it needs only 51 percent of the vote to be passed. He believes all 120 members of the Knesset will be present for the vote, assuming it comes to that.
Tsippi Livni’s Hatnuah party opposes the bill, and the Labor Party and Yesh Atid will likely oppose it as well.
For Efraim Inbar, director of the BESA center at Bar Ilan University, the bill is long overdue.
“We see attempts by the Arab minority to change Israel’s self-understood character” of Jewishness,” Inbar said, noting that some want to delete the Jewish content from Hatikva.
Israel, Inbar said, must have the right, anchored in law, to integrate Jewish symbols into its national symbols, just as several European countries have integrated crosses into their flags.
“It’s about time,” he said, that “Israel had a law stating it is entitled to have a Star of David on its flag and Hebrew as its national language.”