In what has largely been seen as a political move by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Cabinet on Sunday approved a controversial bill that would declare Israel the nation-state of the Jewish people. Such legislation, coming at this time, is not in Israel’s best interests.
Sunday’s vote was the result of heated negotiations within Netanyahu’s own government. Right-wing proponents of the so-called “Nation-State Bill” agreed to shift their support in a future vote to a “softer” version proposed by the prime minister. His version doesn’t declare Hebrew as Israel’s sole official language and also omits the call for continued settlement within undefined Israeli borders. But that does not mean it is good legislation.
Supporters of the bill say Israel’s inherent Jewishness must be codified into law. Opponents say the law gives Jewishness priority over Israel’s dedication to democracy and human rights. One critic said the law will make it easier for discriminatory laws to pass the Knesset and stand up in court.
Notwithstanding the debate, the Cabinet vote is little more than a gesture – a defiant poke in the eye against those, such as the Palestinian leadership, who have refused to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, something that Netanyahu has demanded as a condition to further negotiations. Similar nation-state bills have been suggested by various parties for years. And if the bill presented a simple solution, it would have been resolved a long time ago.
So why bring up such a divisive issue now, when tension in the Middle East continues to mount and when violence and anger within Israel itself has reached distressing heights?
We sympathize with the contention that Netanyahu’s sharpest critics have proposed to put democratic principles above Jewish values as the defining core of the state of Israel. Indeed, one might wonder whether those critics even show appropriate sensitivity to Jewish values. But Israel doesn’t have the luxury of debating those issues at this time. Rather, today’s debate should focus on how to extricate Israel from the security and foreign policy difficulties in which it unquestionably finds itself. Those life-and-death concerns are more important than the debate over how to synthesize the country’s Jewish character with its democratic ideals.
For these reasons, while we support open debate regarding the substance of the proposed Nation-State Bill, we don’t think now is the time to do so and encourage the Israeli leadership to give itself more time to consider the best course