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‘Jewish nation state’: How Israel enshrines apartheid into law

On Thursday, the Israeli government formally passed the “Jewish nation state”law. With the Knesset’s summer recess on the horizon, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu managed to pass the law ahead of the break.

“This is a defining moment in the annals of Zionism and the history of the state of Israel,” Netanyahu told the Knesset after the vote.

The initiative has risen to the top of the news agenda in Israel, with high-profile interventions from opponents and supporters. Last Tuesday, President Reuven Rivlin warned in a public letter of what he believes are the dangers inherent in the law – especially an article designed to protect and promote the existence of Jewish-only communities.

Lobbying efforts

Ahead of the vote, a number of Jewish American leaders have strongly urged Netanyahu to reconsider, intensifying their lobbying efforts to prevent the bill’s passage.

These responses have, regrettably but predictably, been characterised by a failure to understand or take sufficiently into account how Israel’s status as a “Jewish state” has always been reflected in legislation and practice, and, crucially, how this has impacted on Palestinians since 1948.

Many discriminatory laws are already on the books, and legal ways to create segregated communities in Israel already exist. There is no right to equality, and Israel is not a state of all its citizens. The much-heralded Declaration of Independence is not a constitutional law, and the Basic Law already privileges the protection of a “Jewish state” over equality for non-Jewish citizens.

As a UN special rapporteur put it in 2012, Israeli authorities already pursue “a land development model that excludes, discriminates against and displaces minorities”. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has similarly noted “the enactment of a number of discriminatory laws on land issues which disproportionately affect non-Jewish communities”.

Indeed, the issue of Jewish-only communities, which has dominated recent criticism over the law passed on Thursday, is often debated without reference to the fact that Israel already has hundreds of such segregated communities, thanks to the role of “admission committees”.

Traced back to the Nakba

A decade ago, Human Rights Watch reported on how these committees “are made up of government and community representatives as well as a senior official in the Jewish Agency or the Zionist Organisation, and have notoriously been used to exclude Arabs from living in rural Jewish communities”.

Such decades-old institutionalised discrimination, which can be traced all the way back to the Nakba, makes a mockery of the claim by the Israel Democracy Institute’s Mordechai Kremnitzer that the new law would somehow constitute “the end of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state”.

The new law does, however, represent an innovation, both legally and politically, as analysedby legal rights centre Adalah in a new position paper published on Sunday; enjoying the status of a Basic Law, the Jewish nation state law would anchor racist practices in the constitution.

Coverage by Western media has, on the whole, reproduced the lacuna of the law’s Israeli critics. Yet, the omission of the experience of Palestinian citizens in this “Jewish and democratic” state is compounded by an analysis that fails to look deeper into why this legislation is being proposed at all.

The “Jewish nation state” law is not the product of a right-wing tussle between Likud and Jewish Home, or Netanyahu and Naftali Bennett. Rather, tracing the origins of this proposed legislation reveals that it is, in essence, pushback against the efforts by Palestinian citizens over the last two decades to affirm their national identity and demand a state of all its citizens.

Doubling down

Not long after former Shin Bet head Avi Dichter began efforts to pass a “Jewish nation state” bill in 2011, Israeli journalist Lahav Harkov – now news editor of the Jerusalem Post – praisedthe initiative by citing “campaigns to delegitimise Israel on the rise both inside and outside the country”.

Thus, the response from the Israeli political establishment to a mobilised Palestinian citizenry demanding genuine equality has been to double-down on discrimination, and to defiantly and ever-more explicitly assert and legally protect the existence of a “Jewish state”.

But this is not without its advantages, as highlighted by the furore over the new law. For what the draft legislation threatens is not the existence of a “democratic” Israel, but rather critics’ idea of a “Jewish and democratic” state (or at least the plausibility of maintaining this idea).

Through its crudeness, the law threatens Israel’s ability to continue long-standing, institutionalised discrimination with no international cost, a prospect flagged through the warnings of Israel’s attorney general and Jewish American leader Rabbi Rick Jacobs.

Demographic war

“The true face of Zionism in Israel,” wrote Orly Noy in +972 magazine last week, is “an inherent, perpetual demographic war against its Palestinian citizens. If Israel seeks to be Jewish and democratic, it needs to actively ensure a Jewish majority.”

The “Jewish nation state” law is part of this historic and ongoing demographic war – one that is testimony to the activism of Palestinian citizens and an effort to stifle it.

As Israel consolidates the de facto single state between the river and the sea, this won’t be the last attempt to see the apartheid reality on the ground further reflected in legislation.

Published first by Middle East Eye.

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