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‘Jewish state’ law furore misses the point: Israel already discriminates

The proposed ‘Jewish nation-state’ bill has prompted a huge amount of discussion and controversy within and outside of Israel.

But missing in most of the international coverage is the extent to which Israel already defines itself as a Jewish state, and in so doing, institutionally and legally discriminates. Here are three key ways in which Israeli law has created an ethnocracy, not a democracy.

One. In the first few years after the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, the Knesset passed three laws that established the foundations of a Jewish state at the expense of the indigenous Palestinians (most of whom had been ethnically cleansed and prevented from returning).

The combined effect of the Law of Return, the Absentee Property Law, and the Citizenship Law meant the following: any Jew in the world could move to Israel and become a citizen, while expelled Palestinians were stripped of their citizenship and their properties expropriated by the state.

Two. There is no such thing as Israeli nationality, with “the Population Registry’s use of the term ‘nationality’ referring not to citizenship but rather to ethnic identity.” In October 2013, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled against an effort to establish an Israeli nationality distinct from a Jewish one.

In doing so, the judges affirmed a 1972 Court decision that affirmed “there is no Israeli nation separation from the Jewish nation”, and that to create one “would negate the very foundation upon which the State of Israel was formed” – that is, as a Jewish state.

Aeyal Gross noted in Haaretz that this distinction, along with “the identification of the state with one specific national group, creates a hierarchy and exclusion” expressed not just with “symbols” but also “in terms of allocating resources, governmental power, jobs, discrimination (formal or informal) and the need to indicate in the Population Registry who is a Jew and who isn’t.”

Three. There is no guarantee of equality for Jewish and Palestinian citizens enshrined in Israeli law. As the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) reported in 2012, there is neither a “definition” nor “prohibition of racial discrimination.”

The closest it gets is Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty (1992), but this contains no specific commitment to equality – or, in the words of Justice Aharon Barak, “not all aspects of equality” are “included within the framework of human dignity.”

In fact, the Basic Law itself includes a crucial caveat, or limitation clause, that allows the “rights” contained within it to be ‘violated’ by laws “befitting the values of the State of Israel” – namely, “as a Jewish and democratic state.”

On these foundational elements, and others, are built a host of discriminatory policies and practices. These serve to protect a Jewish majority created through the mass expulsion of Palestinians, and ensure benefits and privileges for Jews at the expense of those Palestinians who remained.

This affects land allocation, housing, regional and municipal planning, citizenship rights, the family, education, dissent, and a host of other areas of life. Even the U.S. State Department acknowledges that Israel practices “institutional and societal discrimination” against its Palestinian citizens. (For more, see my book ‘Palestinians in Israel: Segregation, Discrimination and Democracy‘).

Reporting on the new bill, The Times ran with the headline ‘Israel wavers on 2nd-class Arabs law‘. An editorial in The New York Times claimed that “Israel’s courts and laws” have consistently given “equal weight” to Israel’s definition as both ‘Jewish and democratic’. This is simply not true.

It is absurd, as the New York paper put it, to suggest that “Israel’s very existence…has been based on the ideal of democracy for all of its people.” Palestinians have always been second-class citizens (at best), and Israel already defines itself as a ‘Jewish state’ rather than a state of all its citizens.

So yes, the new wave of far-Right legislation signals something new – but let’s not forget that what we are witnessing is an intensification of racial discrimination, not its emergence.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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