Israel Narrows Its Democracy

Since its founding in 1948, Israel’s very existence and promise — fully embraced by the United States and the world of nations — has been based on the ideal of democracy for all of its people.

Its Declaration of Independence, which provides the guiding principles for the state, makes clear that the country was established as a homeland for the Jews and guarantees “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.”

That is why it is heartbreaking to see the Israeli cabinet approve a contentious bill that would officially define Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, reserving “national rights” only for Jews.

This is not for us just a theoretical concern. The systematic denial of full rights to minorities — principally African-Americans and disproportionately in the American South — well into the 1960s caused great harm to our own country, is not fully resolved yet and is a remaining stain on American democracy.

The bill, which emerged from a stormy session of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and has been bitterly disputed across Israel, is likely to be softened before it comes to a vote in the Parliament. In any form, it should be defeated. At best, the law would have no useful effect; at worst, it would seriously antagonize an already seething Arab minority and erode Israel’s standing among democratic nations.

Israel’s courts and laws have consistently defined Israel as “Jewish and democratic,” giving equal weight to both, and on paper, at least, the Arab Israelis who constitute about a fifth of the population have full rights. To go back and emphasize nationality and religion in defining the country, moreover, runs counter to the long-term movement among liberal democracies toward a more inclusive vision of a state.

A nationalities bill has long been sought by Israel’s right wing, and the initial draft they produced downgraded Arabic from an official language to one with “special status.” That and other antagonistic elements are likely to be dropped from the version that reaches Parliament.

But in this time of high tensions and violence between Jews and Arabs, incited by competing claims to the sacred site in the heart of Jerusalem — called the Temple Mount by Jews and Noble Sanctuary by Muslims — any measure that claims a pre-eminent status for Jews can only add fuel to the fire.

Mr. Netanyahu says that the nationality bill is necessary because there were so many challenges to Israel’s existence. But it is hard to see how a law would put a stop to that. There is also speculation in the Israeli press that the prime minister has been pushing the bill as a political sop to right-wing members of his fractious coalition — indeed, the cabinet vote was split 14 to 6 along ideological lines, with two centrist parties opposing it.

The political battle could yet bring the government down. Neither argument justifies a fundamental change to Israeli law and guiding principles.

Having experienced the grievous legacies created when a government diminishes the rights of its people, we know this not the path that Israel should take. The New York Times

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