The Palestine Basic Law (2003) defines Palestine as part of the Arab world and cites Arab unity as a singular goal of the Palestinian people. The law also names Arabic as Palestine’s official language, Jerusalem as its official capital, and Islam as its official religion. The law serves as a temporary constitution for the Palestinian National Authority until a sovereign State of Palestine is established, and in the meantime it governs daily life inside the West Bank and to some extent Gaza.
On July 19 of this year the Israeli Knesset passed a similar piece of legislation. Following weeks of heated debate, a majority of the 120 members of Israel’s chief governing body passed Basic Law: Israel – The Nation-State of the Jewish People which “establishes Israel as the historic home of the Jewish people” with a “complete and undivided” Jerusalem as its capital and Hebrew as its official language. Basic laws are special laws that have constitutional status until such time as Israel chooses to incorporate them all into a final constitution.
Reaction to the bill was swift and mostly negative, mostly because twenty percent of Israel’s population is not Jewish. A bevy of Jewish and Arab members of parliament condemned the law as racist, while the Israeli Druze population, a minority group known for its patriotism, directed rare but unmistakable outrage at Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government. The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem issued a statement of special concern saying, “The law might not have practical effects, yet it sends an unequivocal signal to the Palestinian citizens of Israel, to the effect that in this country they are not at home.” The Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the Muslim World League condemned the law in similar terms.
These two laws deserve careful attention because they cut to the heart of what this conflict is all about: two national movements driven by dreams of the future but also existential fears of the other.
Very little of Israel’s new law is actually new. The idea that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people is hardly novel; it’s what Israelis have been saying since 1948. The best critique of the law may be that it doesn’t really do much besides stir up unnecessary trouble.
The one section that could be considered an innovation is “Section 4: Language” which declares Hebrew as the sole official language of Israel, relegating (demoting?) Arabic to the status of “special.” The provision seems to contravene seventy years of Arabic’s place as an official language of the state. As the country’s single biggest minority, Arabs are naturally displeased.
It is unclear whether the semantic shift from “official” to “special” will lead to any meaningful change in practice. The law explicitly states that it shall “in no way derogate from the status given in fact to the Arabic language before the application of this Basic Law.” Only time will tell if Netanyahu’s government, or any subsequent government, will take steps to curtail the rights of Arab citizens. For now it seems unlikely that anything will change on the ground or that Arabic will lose its elevated place in Israeli public life.
Most criticism of the law is focused on Israel’s linking of ethnic (Jewish) and national (Israeli) identity. For those of us raised in a liberal democratic republic like the United States, the idea that a state could be called the unique home of a particular people that has a special right to self-determination is hard to digest. Nothing in the American, Canadian, or French experience has prepared us for that kind of parochial thinking.
But identifying a state as the homeland of one ethnic or national group isn’t all that novel either. I recently spent some time in Croatia, a state whose constitution was drafted to serve the ethnic, linguistic, and cultural needs of the Croatian people. Other constitutions ensure that Ireland is for the Irish, Poland for the Poles, Slovakia for the Slovaks, Spain for the Spanish. Asia and Africa are filled with similar examples. It seems that most states prefer some kind of ethnic distinction; liberal democracies like ours are actually the exception.
Many critics will deny that Jewishness is an ethnic identity, arguing instead that it’s a religious identity and therefore improper as the constitutional basis for a state. But even if Jewishness is not an ethnic identity (I would dispute that vigorously), there is nothing unique about a religiously-defined state either. Most Middle Eastern countries affirm Islam as their official religion. Malta and Costa Rica are Roman Catholic. Bulgaria is Orthodox. Norway is Lutheran. England is Anglican. At the end of the day, it’s all pretty standard stuff.
Whether defined as ethnic or religious, the Jewish identity of Israel finds parity in the Arab and Muslim identity of Palestine. And so, the obvious question: If Palestine can be Arab, why can’t Israel be Jewish? Citizens of liberal democracies who recognize that they are in the global minority won’t be bothered by states that assert religious or ethnic preferences even if they find them hard to understand. Eyebrows will go up only when those states start to curtail the rights of minority citizens who don’t identify with the majority.
Israelis and Palestinians don’t need to apologize for affirming the ethnic and religious character of their states. But it’s important to note that Palestine’s Basic Law and Israel’s Nation-State Law only make sense in the context of a two-state paradigm. The Jewish state of Israel cannot swallow the Palestinians; the Arab state of Palestine cannot destroy the Israelis. Both peoples are too numerous, too nationalistic, and too tenacious to disappear. Efforts to reinforce the identity of one must be paired with similar efforts to recognize the identity of the other.
The real question is whether the basic laws of Israel and Palestine will hinder Arabs and Jews from living as minorities in each other’s state. Will Arabs continue to live as equal Arabic-speaking citizens in Israel? Will Jews be allowed to live as equal Hebrew-speaking citizens in the future State of Palestine? These are the questions we should be asking now and in the future. Beyond all the rhetoric, these are the only questions that really matter.
Robert Nicholson is co-editor of Providence and president of The Philos Project, a nonprofit organization that seeks to promote positive Christian engagement in the Middle East. He holds a BA in Hebrew Studies from Binghamton University, and a JD and MA (Middle Eastern History) from Syracuse University. A formerly enlisted Marine and a 2012- 2013 Tikvah Fellow, Robert splits his time between New York City and Syracuse.
[This article was edited on April 23, 2019.]