Legislated on July 19, in the early-morning hours, the law enshrines, for the first time, Israel as “the national home of the Jewish people” in its Basic Laws. It also
declares that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, sets Hebrew as its official language and the Hebrew calendar as the official calendar of the state, and recognizes Independence Day, days of remembrance, Jewish holidays and the right of all Israeli residents to preserve their heritage without consideration of religion and nationality…The Diaspora clause reads, “The state will act in the Diaspora to maintain the connection between the state and the Jewish people”…[and another reads] “The state sees developing Jewish settlement as a national interest and will take steps to encourage, advance, and implement this interest.”
Before making some specific remarks, let us recall that in 1896, Theodor Herzl published The Jewish State. In 1922, the League of Nations awarded Great Britain a mandate to reconstitute the historic Jewish national home. And in 1947, the United Nations Partition Plan was to establish a Jewish state.
In May 1948, a half-century after the first Zionist Congress, to quote, the
representatives of the Jewish Community of Eretz-Israel and of the Zionist Movement … by virtue of our natural and historic right and on the strength of the resolution of the United Nations General Assembly, hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz-Israel, to be known as the State of Israel.
So, you might ask, what is the hullabaloo about?
And let is not forget the Basic Law: The Knesset and clause 7(a)(1) that prohibits someone from standing as a candidate in elections if he or his list advance goals that explicitly or implicitly advance the
Negation of the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state;
With all this historic and legal record, why, indeed, is there controversy and contention? Why is there this shriek of danger?
The probable reason is because the right-of-center camp considers it a “Zionist constitutional revolution.” As Aviad Bakshi notes, the new bill’s main audience is Israel’s judiciary, which “has consistently eroded the state’s Jewish character through various rulings. Israel’s Jewish character was once considered a legal consensus, but lately, judges no longer seem to accept this.” This outlook has sent shivers and shudders down the backs of two other groups.
The first is the concessionist camp, which seeks to release control over the territories of Judea and Samaria. If the component of “Eretz-Yisrael”—the Land of Israel as the historic, religious and cultural patrimony of the Jewish people—is relegated to simply an issue of ideology, rather than bearing a legal status in and of itself, then a political victory of a future withdrawal is easy, as it was during the Disengagement in 2005. Only one justice opposed, Edmund Levy, and he did so on a basis which the current law enhances.
Of course, there still remains a conundrum. If the concessionists base themselves on the demographic threat (it doesn’t exist, but for argument’s sake, we’ll assume it does) and that “threat” will undermine Israel’s “Jewish character,” why would they oppose a law that strengthens that character?
That question leads us to the second camp, those who wish to dilute their Judaism either because they really believe Orthodoxy is either bad or incompatible with these modern times or because they want to be free, liberal and progressive. That ideology does not parallel Judaism. Or they seek to downgrade Israel as just another Diaspora land. Instead of, at the least, adopting the Aha Haam “spiritual center in Zion” cause, they wish to downgrade Israel to just another Jewish community—one that mirrors, perhaps, America with a 70 percent intermarriage rate among the non-Orthodox.
Given the reality that both camps ultimately represent a weakening of the Jewish people, and I have not touched on the obvious other reason—the Arab citizens of Israel who have become very radicalized in the last two decades, even demanding ethnic autonomy—the law has come just in time, before the downslide became too steep to overcome.
Yisrael Medad is an American-born Israeli journalist and author.