Israel does not have a Constitution. Instead, it has a set of Basic Laws, and several of them refer to important affirmations contained in Israel’s Declaration of Independence.
However, a key Basic Law has been missing, one that asserts the Jewish nature of Israel, and that at the same time ensures its democratic values. With this in mind, on May 7th, Knesset Member Avi Dichter, a man respected for his integrity across Israel’s political spectrum, introduced a Basic Law to address this issue.
Following the introduction of this Law at the Knesset, this newspaper ran a headline that deemed Dichter’s law “controversial.” The radical left-wing party Meretz stated that the bill was “a declaration of war against Israel’s Arab citizens and against Israel as a democratic and properly governed society.” The Arab Joint List called the bill “apartheid at its finest.”
But is it really anti-democratic or discriminatory? If one reads Israel’s Declaration of Independence, you will find that this law is a mere reflection of it. Is then Israel’s Declaration of Independence anti-democratic or discriminatory?
Following are some excerpts of the Declaration:
– “…This recognition by the United Nations of the right of the Jewish people to establish their State is irrevocable. This right is the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State.” [my underline]
Note that the text does not say:
…the right of the Jewish people to establish a State
…be masters of their own fate, …, in a sovereign State
While this may appear to be a matter of semantics, it is much more than that.
There was a reason why the signatories of the Declaration of Independence made a connection between the Jewish people to their State and not to a State. The reason is proclaimed in the same Declaration of Independence:
“The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained to statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books.
After being forcibly exiled from their land, the people kept faith with it throughout their Dispersion and never ceased to pray and hope for their return to it and for the restoration in it of their political freedom.
Impelled by this historic and traditional attachment, Jews strove in every successive generation to re-establish themselves in their ancient homeland.”
The initiative proposed by MK Avi Dichter, was long overdue. Not only because it reasserts and puts into law Israel’s founders recognition and affirmation of the Jewish people’s inherent right to the Land of Israel, but also because it grants or reaffirms several rights that were asserted in the Declaration of Independence. Those rights are not anti-democratic or discriminatory. On the contrary, as seen in the following paragraphs:
In addition to making Hebrew the official language of the country pursuant to its historical and cultural identity, it grants a special status for Arabic in the country:
“The Arabic language has special status in the State. Those who speak Arabic shall be offered access to State services in their own language, as will be determined by the law.”
In other words, while every visitor to Israel sees Arabic displayed side by side with Hebrew in the vast majority of street signs in Israel and in documents, this law now gives Arabic a special status making it mandatory for state services.
Furthermore, to reassure that this law does not contradict or nullify anything that has been included in the existing Basic Laws, and to confirm the democratic character of Israel, it incorporates the following additional entries:
- All residents of Israel, regardless of their religion or nationality, are entitled to the right to strive for the preservation of their culture, heritage, language, and identity.
- Individuals belonging to ethnic groups that are recognized by law are entitled to refrain from work on their holidays.
- The holy sites shall be protected from desecration and any other type of harm or damage, and from anything that would interfere with the freedom of access of religious groups to places holy to them or to their sensitivities regarding said holy sites.
The bottom line is that the labels such as “controversial,” “discriminatory” or “undemocratic,” when it comes to this basic law, lie in the eyes of the beholder. The facts countering those labels are undeniable.
Avi Dichter’s Basic Law should be applauded and widely accepted as recognition of the right of the Jewish people to their state, and at the same time a document that asserts the democratic character of the state.