Promise and Pluralism in Israel’s Nation-State Law

Promise and Pluralism in Israel’s Nation-State Law

Last month, just over 70 years after its founding, the Israeli Knesset passed a new Basic Law defining the State of Israel as “the national home of the Jewish people.”

This and associated provisions sparked protests across Israel and the world, with many Israelis and foreigners alike worrying that the law will relegate non-Jewish citizens of Israel to second-class status. Defenses of the law have largely come from the Israeli right and the American pro-Israel community, both of which have pointed out its similarities to laws and constitutions throughout the liberal, democratic world.

As supporters of the new law continue to come to its defense against opprobrium from all sides, they should take note that the international community has already had a debate about whether or not it is possible for Israel to be both the national home of the Jewish people and for it to respect the civil and religious rights of non-Jewish communities. That debate took place almost 100 years ago. The world’s answer, then? The same as the Knesset’s this summer: a resounding yes.

At a meeting of countries from around the world in January 1920, the founding members of the League of Nations unanimously approved the Covenant of the League of Nations. In the wake of the bloodiest war the world had ever seen, they hoped that the League would “promote international cooperation” and “achieve international peace and security.” Though tragically unsuccessful in its primary goals, the League did fundamentally reshape global politics in ways that last to this day.

Specifically, Article 22 of the League of Nations Covenant established the post-World War I order in much of the territory of the defeated former Ottoman Empire and German Empire by providing the legal basis for the creation of a system of mandates throughout the Middle East, Central Africa, South West Africa, and the South Pacific. As intended, many of these former mandates have since become independent states in places as far apart as Nauru, Togo, Cameroon, Jordan, and Iraq.

Another such mandate was the Palestine Mandate, established by the Council of the League of Nations on July 24, 1922. That mandate is now the State of Israel.

The legal document establishing the Palestine Mandate reiterated many of the principles of the Balfour Declaration, which Great Britain had issued five years earlier. Among these principles was that the Palestine Mandate would be the “national home for the Jewish people.” The League of Nations also recognized “the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine and…the grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country.”

This language, which closely parallels Israel’s new Basic Law, was approved in 1922 by all of the members of the League of Nations, including Great Britain, Japan, Italy, France, and dozens of others. The document also said that this new “national home for the Jewish people” would do nothing which “might prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

Why is this important in the context of the new Basic Law? Because, by approving this language in 1922, the assembled nations of the world were explicitly saying that there is no contradiction between the future State of Israel being a “national home for the Jews” and that state ensuring the full civil and religious rights of non-Jews living there. Non-Jews should, can, and do have civil and religious rights in the Jewish state. Every member of the League of Nations at the time knew that this was possible, and so they voted accordingly.

Of course, just because it is possible for a state to respect the civil and religious rights of minority populations does not mean that it will. While many of the Basic Law’s provisions are innocuous, such as those establishing the national anthem and the flag, its critics point to it changing the Arabic language’s status as a sign of its discriminatory intent. The law changes the status of Arabic from “official,” alongside Hebrew and English, to “special,” while elevating Hebrew to be the “State language.”

But as George Mason University professor of law Eugene Kontorovich argues in a recent column on the subject, this change puts Israel in line with other Western nations, many of which do have one official language spoken by ethnic majorities. Indeed, Spain not only “makes Castilian Spanish the official language,” but it also “requires all citizens to know it, even if their mother tongue is Basque or Catalan.” Imagine the protests if Israel required that its Arab citizens knew Hebrew.

Debates about Israel’s essential character will continue. But on the questions of whether or not it is a national home for the Jewish people, if the Jewish people’s historical connection to the land of Israel gives them grounds for reconstituting that home, and if a state can be Jewish while also respecting the religious and civil rights of non-Jews living there, the world already said “yes” in 1922.

As those in Israel who disagree with the new Basic Law take to the streets to voice their concerns about how they believe it takes away their rights, they should stop and think for a moment about how their very actions so beautifully capture the promise and pluralism of the Jewish state.

Wilson Shirley is a policy professional based in Washington, DC.

Photo Credit: By Noam Chen for the Israeli Ministry of Tourism, via Flickr.

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