Who needs a Jewish State law?

Dec 4, 2014 | Israeli Politics, Judaism, Middle East


Friday prayers on my Cairo street

“Where are you going, Abba?” asked my six-year-old son as I headed out on Dec. 25 with my big bag of recording equipment. I was a radio correspondent back then, more than 30 years ago.

“I’m going to Bethlehem,” I replied.

“Why?” he asked.

“Because it’s Christmas,” I told him.

The old exchange comes to mind because of the public debate over the Jewish State law. The debate says more about the immaturity of Israeli society than either side realizes.

The national camp, including the prime minister, sees Israel under attack by those seeking to delegitimize it and insists it needs the law to bolster Israel’s legal system against challenges from within and without.

Opponents charge that the Jewish State law will turn Israel into an apartheid state of first- and second-class citizens, alienate the minorities and bring the wrath of the world down upon our heads.

Both might be right, but one thing is for sure. Both are also wrong.

Just as with Egypt’s several constitutions, as I learned by sitting down at my Cairo dining table and plowing through the lengthy documents before writing about them, the Jewish State law has something for everyone.

It has this description of Israel:

The State of Israel is the national home of the Jewish People in which the Jewish People realizes its right to self-determination in accordance with its cultural and historic heritage.

The right to realize national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish People.

And it has this description of the status of Israel’s non-Jewish citizens:

The State of Israel is democratic, based on the foundations of freedom, justice and peace in light of the visions of the prophets of Israel, and upholds the individual rights of all its citizens according to law.

It goes back and forth, trying to define what’s already been defined in practice. Egypt keeps trying to do that, too.

Egypt’s latest constitution has 247 articles, some of them pro-Islam, some of them pro-secular, many of them just fluff. It goes on and on, trying to nail down things that can’t be nailed down in a constitution.

There is no doubt that nations need constitutions. They run into trouble when they try to define their societies, as opposed to defining their governments. The same applies to measures like the Jewish State law.

Israel has been around now for six and a half decades. It is the home of the Jewish people. Jews, loosely defined, have the right to automatic citizenship. No other group does. Jewish holidays are observed as holidays from the workplace, as schools, offices and some businesses close.

The non-Jewish parts of Israel observe their own holidays the same way, according to their calendars, not the Jewish one. While almost everyone speaks the dominant language, Hebrew, the 20 percent of Israelis who are not Jewish freely speak Arabic (or Russian) among themselves. Everyone can vote, though there is still inequality between the majority and minority. That’s how it is.

So do we really need a law describing what’s already a well-entrenched reality?

More important, what does it mean if we feel we need such a law?

When is the last time the President of the United States stood before his Cabinet and warned that some people were trying to delegitimize his country because it took over the lands of Native Americans, France, Spain and Mexico, concluding that the US needs a campaign, a law, an information drive to prove that the US is the home of the American people, who (gasp) weren’t born there?

When did the Queen of England ever worry about whether everyone recognizes the right of England to exist? That wasn’t even an issue this year when Scotland nearly scuttled the United Kingdom.

What does it say about Israel that it is constantly, obsessively, paranoically hung up on whether other nations recognize it, whether other people define it the way we do? Why do we care?

Of course Israel is not as big, strong or old as either the US or England. The US and England, unlike Israel, are not the targets for destruction by a UN member (Iran) as Israel is. They do not have a hostile people living next door under occupation, publicly proclaiming their hatred and passing out candies when civilians are killed in a terror attack.

Well, actually, that’s not even true. Until the UK pulled out of Northern Ireland, it had just such a problem with the IRA. And plenty of people cheer when a terror attack hits the US.

So why don’t these realities drive the US and England into paroxysms of fear, fury and fortress mentality like Israel’s?

The realities are not that different. Just as the IRA did not threaten England’s existence, so the Palestinians do not threaten Israel’s. And in fact, Iran, ISIS and al-Qaida and all the rest do not really threaten the existence of the US any more than they threaten Israel’s, and they don’t. That’s another article.

The point is this: A Jewish State law will not change anything on the ground. Israel is what it wants to be. The society has determined that. The struggles continue between religious and secular Jews, and between an obtuse state and its underprivileged minorities. These will be worked out by the people and their representatives—or not. A Jewish State law will make no difference.

Nor should it.

Even more than 30 years ago, as I headed out the door to Bethlehem on Dec. 25, it was already clear to my little boy (now a leading Israeli educator) that he’s living in a Jewish state, where it’s natural to be a Jew and live as a Jew—as opposed to his father who, as a child, felt distinctly like an outsider in America, especially around Christmas.

When I told him I was going to cover Christmas celebrations, he stated the whole case in two words:

“What’s Christmas?”

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