What is a Jewish nation state?

The Israeli government is dropping the pretense of balancing the state’s Jewish and democratic natur

Palestinians pray in front of Dome of the Rock in the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound [Getty Images]

The “Jewish nation-state” law, already approved by the Israeli cabinet on Sunday and yet to be presented for a vote in the Knesset this Wednesday, will enshrine in statute a situation that has been palpable on the ground for decades. Its discriminatory character, turning a large Arab Israeli minority into second-class citizens and delisting Arabic as an official language, will only confirm the ongoing discrimination that members of this group have been subjected to well before the drafting of the new law.

The fallout from this piece of legislation is likely to be purely symbolic, marking a shift in the Israeli ideology hailed by some right-wing elements of the Netanyahu government as a return to the basics of Zionism.

The schizophrenic self-presentation of the State of Israel as Jewish and democratic is coming to an end in a clear choice of the polity’s Jewish and non-democratic fibre. But exactly what does a “Jewish nation-state” mean?

The ideologues of the regime are quick to point out that there is no inherent tension between France being a French and democratic state, or Germany being a German and democratic country. But neither Frenchness nor Germanness is equivalent to Jewishness. Even if the majority of citizens in France and Germany are Christian, these states are not declared to be “Christian nation-states”.

Definition of Jewishness

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So what if Jewishness were not identical to Judaism, that is to say, to the Jewish religion? In fact, the official discourse in Israel has been, for a long time and purposefully, blurring the distinctions between religion, nationality, and ethnicity.

The very definition of Jewishness according to the 1950 Law of Return is ambiguous, seeing that the two possible criteria are: having a Jewish mother or converting to Judaism. The first criterion is biological, while the second is religious.

Amendment 2, passed in 1970, accentuates the religious component, bestowing the right of immigration on “a child and a grandchild of a Jew, the spouse of a Jew, the spouse of a child of a Jew and the spouse of a grandchild of a Jew, except for a person who has been a Jew and has voluntarily changed his religion”. In other words, it is not enough to have been born of a Jewish woman in order to be considered a Jew; the act of conversion from Judaism to another faith would be grounds for excluding the convert from this definition. One wonders what happens under the Law of Return to the self-professed atheists born of Jewish mothers.

It is apparent that non-Jewish citizens of a Jewish state will find themselves in a limbo, regardless of the vacuous guarantees of “equal personal rights” under the law awaiting approval. But, as I have mentioned above, their predicament has been dire well before the drafting of this bill. The question, then, is why is the Israeli government dropping the pretence of its ability to balance the state’s Jewish and democratic nature now, at this precise moment?

Beyond the politicking considerations of a coalition dominated by right-wing hardliners, there are at least two possible explanations for the timing of the proposed piece of legislation.

Major stumbling blocks

First, it attempts to codify a narrative that equates the land occupied by the State of Israel with the “historic homeland of the Jewish people”. With these words enshrined in the law, yet another obstacle will arise on the path to peace with the Palestinian people, who will be not only materially and symbolically, but also legally dispossessed of their land and their history.

The words I have cited from the draft legislation usurp the historic origin as the exclusive property of one group of citizens and turn a deaf ear to the rightful claims of another group. Moreover, they render the Jewish attachment to a distant past more important than the ongoing presence of non-Jewish inhabitants in the same territory. All these are major stumbling blocks in the peace process, which will be guaranteed to stay fruitless if future Israeli governments are bound by the “Jewish nation-state” law. For instance, in accordance with it, the right of return for Palestinian refugees will be outright denied on the grounds that the territory claimed by Israel was not their historic homeland.

Second, and more cynically: Could it be that the current rulers of Israel have made a calculated, conscious choice to weaken their emphasis on democracy? Although, in order to gain admission into the international community, it is still necessary to present one’s state as democratic, the time of this requirement’s non-negotiability might be coming to an end.

Widespread passive acceptance of technocracy and the dictates of the “Troika” in the European Union are the telltale signs of a gradual departure from democratic rhetoric and political practice. It would not be surprising that the Israeli right-wing politicians are ahead of the curve in an avowed abandonment of democratic discourse, and that the draft bill is but a symptom of this lamentable development.

Michael Marder is IKERBASQUE Research Professor at the University of the Basque Country, Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain. His most recent books include Deconstructing Zionism: A Critique of Political Metaphysics (co-edited with Gianni Vattimo), The Philosopher’s Plant: An Intellectual Herbarium, and Pyropolitics: When the World Is Ablaze.