Nation state of Jewish people - Sectarianism in Israel’s constitution

The Islamic resistance organisation known as Hamas is a militant and anti-Semitic group located in the West Bank and Gaza Strip that is dedicated to the destruction of Israel and has been accused by Amnesty International and other NGOs of widespread human rights abuses.

Designated a terrorist group by Israel, the US and the EU, it needs no excuse to commit the most appalling atrocities.

Yet the parliament of Israel has just given it one by adopting a loathsome, divisive and destructive law that defines Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people and declaring that only Jews have the right to self-determination within the country.

It enshrines discrimination in the basic law of the country, with constitutional effect. That effectively makes Israel officially a sectarian state, similar to that which flourished for decades in Northern Ireland when it was governed by a Protestant parliament for a Protestant people.

A militant backlash has already started, with a young Israeli soldier shot dead on Friday, the first since the 2014 Gaza war.

Egypt and the United Nations have helped negotiate a treaty, but it is a shaky peace at best and follows some of the worst violence along the Gaza Strip in years.

The diplomatic backlash has begun, too, with opposition to the law coming from the EU and from Jewish community leaders in the US.

The EU joined Israeli Arab political leaders, Israeli opposition politicians and liberal Jewish groups in the US in voicing concern, with some saying the law amounted to “apartheid”.

The decision by the Israeli government to push through such a divisive law is as both perplexing and reprehensible.

It makes the 1.8m Arabs who live in Israel second-class citizens, stripping Arabic of its designation as an official language alongside Hebrew and downgrading it to a “special status” that enables its continued use within Israeli institutions.

That goes against the stated objectives of the founding fathers of the state of Israel in 1948 who, in their declaration of independence, considered the principle of equality as central to the society they were creating. This new law violates their memory.

It further poisons the relationship with Palestinians and all but destroys any hope of the two-state solution envisaged under an international peace framework, in which Palestinians living in Gaza and the occupied West Bank would gain their own state. It also threatens to make Israel a pariah among the international community.

In response to the most vehement criticism of its treatment of Palestinians and the advance of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, the one thing the people and government of Israel could forcibly and credibly argue is that their country was the only democracy in the Middle East.

Following the adoption of a nation-state law, that argument is less persuasive, if not untenable. Israel remains democratic compared to Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Iran but,as Spock might have put it to Captain Kirk on the Starship Enterprise: “This is democracy, Jim, but not as we know it.”

This article was subject to an edit on August 2, 2018.

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