1. Israeli State Law
In John 8: 44 Jesus is in dispute with religious authorities whom, he claims, purport to be descendants of a revered personage, or revered period of history, yet whose behaviour and testimony is entirely at odds with that stated authority. In a series of four blogs I want to highlight contemporary situations which are entirely out of step with the authority claimed to justify them. This passage highlights the reality that no edifice can be built and survive on untruth – an edifice so built is doomed for destruction.
On the 19th July the Israeli Knesset passed the ‘Nation State Law’. Israel has no constitution but special laws like this have constitutional status. In some respects, there is nothing surprising in this law, it continues a trend which has been clear for some time. The law states that Israel is a Jewish State and that Jerusalem its undivided capital. (Trump has already acceded this point by moving his embassy to Jerusalem). Instead of there being two recognised languages, Hebrew and Arabic, Hebrew is given heightened status. Settlements are declared to be an Israeli value. Where settlements might be built is left unclear. A section which would have required the judiciary to act in favour of Jewishness over democracy was excised.
The Israeli president and the Israeli opposition have expressed dismay about the passing of the law claiming it will hurt Israel and its reputation. Why so?
There are many reasons. First, one fifth of Israeli citizenry are indigenous Palestinian Arabs. They already suffer endless levels of discrimination from lost professional opportunity, to access for home ownership, to citizenship protection. Arabs whose living status is East Jerusalem, for example, have conditional residency which can be lost at any time. This law makes it clear that Israeli citizenship has entrenched inequality at law. Western values are that a nation state must provide equal status to all its citizens. How can we say, as our prime minister often does, that Israel and Australia share the same values? (In Australia we are painfully aware we have equal status at law, but in practice the indigenous population do not experience equal rights, falling behind on many well-rehearsed benchmarks).
Second, the formal declaration that Jerusalem is Israel’s undivided capital makes the two-state solution, the bipartisan position of Australian foreign policy, null and void. The loss of East Jerusalem to Palestine is not just symbolic, it is to lose upwards of one quarter of what is already a very impoverished economy. To state without definition that growing Jewish settlements is a national value, is in fact to entrench the building of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories which Israel refuses to recognise as occupied but rather ‘disputed’. This law makes clear Israel will never allow a genuine two-state solution, its version looks more and more like a series of ghettos or Bantustans around Nablus, Ramallah, Hebron etc. The PA under the leadership of Mahmoud Abbas has long recognised the right of Israel to exist. The recognition of Israel as a Jewish state which means accepting Arabs will be forever second-class citizens is of course unacceptable, and yet this is held against him as being ‘opposed to peace’.
Third, this law sets Jewishness and democracy against each other. The Arab members of the Knesset are not Israeli citizens in the same way that applies to Jewish members of the Knesset. While the most insidious clauses in the law were removed, it is nevertheless clear that the intention is for Jewishness to prevail over genuine democracy. Because Israel is making it clear that it will never allow a genuine two-state solution it means that much if not all the occupied territories will remain indefinitely under Israeli control. In the name of ‘security’ Palestinians are denied access. Practical apartheid applies. Apartheid and democracy cannot occupy the same space. For Netanyahu to claim that Israel is the only genuine democracy in the Middle East is a lie, it is not a democracy in the way western countries understand democracy.
In his rush to crow over the passing of the law Benjamin Netanyahu claims it fulfils what was begun by Theodore Herzl. In his younger years Herzl perceived anti-Semitism in Austria as a social problem that could be addressed if Jews integrated and were less isolated. This changed when he moved to France and found anti-Semitism deeply entrenched, of which the Dreyfus affair was a shocking but notable example. He became convinced that Jews needed their own homeland and wrote his ‘Jewish State’ in 1896. He went on to lead the first Zionist congress in Munich.
There was and remains strong opposition to Zionism amongst Jews. The Haskalah movement in the late 18th and early 19th centuries favoured integration of Jews and movement out of their isolation. It was known as the ‘Jewish Enlightenment’. Orthodox Jews and rabbis in the 19th century argued that God does not call them into a materialist, militarist state like other nations: that the creation of such a state would require violence being perpetrated against others, and that its maintenance would require the perpetuation of such violence. They argued that the most aggressive Zionists purposely provoked anti-Semitism in order that they might present themselves as its saviour.
Be all that as it may, there is no indication that Herzl would approve Netanyahu’s version of a Zionist state. Herzl undoubtedly believed in the virtue and values of Judaism. He clearly believed that Jews needed their own state, free of anti-Semitism, free to live their culture traditions and religion. However it is reasonable to assume he would believe those virtues and values to be strong enough to embrace diversity and equality, indeed to demand it. Netanyahu’s version of Jewishness appears to be a bonsaied version of a grand tradition. A version that is not confident enough to stand on its values and virtues. A version that has to maintain itself through military violence rather than the power of a civilised democracy. A version that needs to expand, not on the development of its own resources, but through the stealing the resources of others.
Netanyahu’s version is a lie. The Jewish tradition, culture, religion is rich enough and strong enough to live in company with others indeed in the Abrahamic tradition this was deemed to be its blessing. Common humanity overrides ethnic purity, indeed insistence on ethnic purity contradicts history. Common citizenship on planet earth overrides any national citizenship. A new political force needs to emerge which combines Palestinian and Israelis and which clearly believes that neither is a threat to the other, rather the reverse, that each will be forever enriched by journeying together.