The Nation State Bill Debate

Forest Park. Roland Park. Ashburton. These are neighborhoods in northern Baltimore where, as longtime Jewish residents of the city know well, Jews were not allowed the buy property a century ago. Sometimes, Jews were forbidden from buying property by a legal mechanism known as “restrictive covenants,” in which every new buyer was forbidden by contract from selling to a Jew. Other times it was a less formal practice in which property in certain neighborhoods could not be sold to “undesirables.”

These practices were not limited to Baltimore, and they did not only restrict Jews — African Americans and other minorities were also targeted. Only in 1948 did the Supreme Court declare the enforcement of these restrictions to be violations of the Constitution’s promise of equal protection under the law. And then it was only in 1968 that Congress outlawed them in the Fair Housing Act.

Listening to the debate in Israel right now about the Nation-State Law, I’m reminded of this dark period in American history. Much of the debate has focused on a provision in the draft bill that would empower the Israeli government to deny people the right to live in certain towns because of their race or ethnicity. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin has strongly come out against this language and the coalition is reportedly considering softening this section of the law.

But there is something more troubling about this law than this one odious provision.

Israel does not have a formal constitution and the Knesset acts both as Israel’s parliament and as its constitutional assembly. When it passes laws known as “Basic Laws,” like this proposed Nation-State Bill, they take on the force of constitutional law, trumping other legislation. Given that Israel — unlike the United States — has no constitutional provision that guarantees citizens equal protection under the law, a basic law legitimizing discrimination lays the groundwork to radically change Israeli society.

In ten days, the Knesset will enter a recess period. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is pushing hard for the Nation-State Bill to be passed into law before then. His deadline is July 22nd.

While the provisions of the bill are undergoing intense negotiations, we know that this bill is fundamentally about redefining Israel such that civil and minority rights take a back seat to the notion that Israel exists to serve Jews. It sends a message to Palestinian citizens that they are not equal. It has other dangerous clauses — including some that have received little attention — like the one that may roll back protections for LGBTQ Israelis, that may limit the rights of non-Orthodox Jews, and that may undue progress made on feminist issues.

Years ago, NIF supported a legal petition that prompted the High Court to rule that women could not be forced to sit at the back of public buses. This ruling, and dozens more like it, would be jeopardized by this bill.

Proponents of this law say that there is nothing inherently wrong with the State of Israel favoring Jews — and the cultural practices of ultra-Orthodox Jews — over secular Israelis and Arab citizens. It is, after all, the only state established as a Jewish homeland. Such a claim ignores the explicit articulation of Israel’s founders in the Declaration of Independence that the country “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.”

There is a very real struggle right now to stop this basic law from passing because of what it could mean for Israeli democracy, because of what it could do to Jewish-Arab relations within Israel, and because it could provide protection to religious fundamentalism, to sexism, and to racism.

Over the last few months, as the governing coalition has been ramping up its efforts to pass this bill, Israeli civil society has spoken up. Under the tremendous leadership of the Association of Civil Rights in Israel, the Israel Democracy Institute, the Israel Religious Action Center, and NIF’s action arm Shatil, Israeli activists have made the case for equality. They have helped make sure that the Knesset and the media have heard the concerns of not only Palestinian Israelis, but also those of women, of Mizrahi leaders, and of LGBTQ Israelis. President Rivlin’s strong letter of opposition to the bill echoes some of the concerns that they’ve voiced.

The next step in this effort is a demonstration planned for Saturday night in Tel Aviv organized by Standing Together (Omdim Beyachad).

I cannot tell you whether this law will pass. Our lobbyists in Jerusalem tell me that the odds are 50-50. But I can tell you that I have faith in the work of the civil rights champions who are pushing – hard – to say that it’s not okay for Israel to accept, much less to legalize, discrimination against minorities. And whether or not this law passes, it is their ongoing efforts that can shape Israel going forward.

We know this from American history.

The Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution was enacted in 1868, long before the Baltimore neighborhoods of Forest Park, Roland Park, and Ashburton were even developed. On its own, the Constitution was not enough to stop the racists and the anti-Semites from refusing to sell homes to Jews or African Americans. That change was brought by American activates who fought, tooth and nail, for civil rights. Progress in the fight against racism and discrimination was not always linear. Rather, as we in America know, the arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.

And we, who care about Israel’s future, will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Israelis who are fighting for equality. We’re in it for the long haul too.

July 2018