Less in public view, Jewish-Arab discourse, campaign and app...

Less in public view, Jewish-Arab discourse, campaign and appeals against Nation-State Law continue

January 31, 2019

The Knesset’s passage in July 2018 of the Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People (known as the "Nation-State Law") generated heated and polarized discourse both in Israel and among North American Jewry. Controversy surrounding the law, and expressions of both criticism and support, were in the forefront of Israeli and North American Jewish discussion and media coverage.

While controversy had largely waned from public view, discussions and actions have continued within Israeli civil society, academic and activist circles over the law’s implications for the status of the Arab minority, the Arabic language, and Jewish-Arab relations. More recently, these concerns are resurfacing in public discourse about the upcoming national elections, as part of candidates’ and parties’ positions and campaigns.

Following is a short summary of the major related developments, discussions and activities regarding the Nation-State Basic Law:

Druze Community

Ahead of the upcoming national elections, the Nation-State Law has become a main topic of discourse between the Druze community and political leaders. Druze leaders say they have received commitments from leading party heads such as Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid), Avi Gabay (Labor) and Tsipi Livni (Hatnu'a) that each would not enter a government coalition unless the Nation-State Law is amended. Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked (The New Right) and Minister of Finance Moshe Kahlon (Kulanu) refrained from giving such a commitment (Hebrew).  Druze protest is continuing with a special forum called "Fixing the Nation-State Law," organizing various public activities including  a two-week march to leading politicians' homes culminating with PM Netanyahu's. The protest activities are often joined by high level Jewish IDF veterans.

One such protest took place outside the home of Former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, resulting in his first public statements as a candidate in the upcoming elections. Gantz said he will work to “fix” the law so that it would “express the connection [between the Druze community and the State of Israel], a deep and unbreakable connection not only in battle, but also in life.” Gantz was then harshly criticized by both left and the right wing politicians, with Likud and the New Right parties saying this shows he promotes "a leftist agenda,” and Meretz leaders on the left saying “fixing” the law would not be enough.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked also met with senior Druze leadership opposing the law, including Brigadier General (Reserve) Amal Assad and former MK Sakib Snaan, whose son was killed in a 2017 terror attack on the Temple Mount. She said that the Nation-State Law will not change but suggested passing separate legislation to acknowledge the Druze community's special status. In response, General Assad wrote in Ha’aretz that all suggestions of such "compensation legislation" are "rejected outright" in "total disgust." Ahead of the national elections, Assad and other Druze leaders, such as former MK and Deputy Minister of Defense Majali Wahabi, say "minorities deserve to know who supports and who opposes" the legislation, urging party heads to give a pre-election commitment to "amend or annul the Nation-State Law in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence." (Hebrew)

Since the law’s passage in July 2018 and the widespread protest of the Druze community and leadership against it, government officials and MKs have been discussing creating an economic development package for the Druze community, including the possibility of establishing a new Druze town. In December, following an initiative by opposition MK Yoel Hasson (Labor), an agreement was reached that if by mid-January, the government did not approve the building of a new Druze town, the coalition would support the Opposition's bill calling for such a community. However, following the decision to hold national elections in April, all legislation is currently on hold and this initiative has been halted. No new Druze town has been established since the founding of the State of Israel, and discussion of the need for a new Druze residential settlement has been ongoing for years, with a government decision from 2012 ratified in 2016 (Hebrew) but no action taken since then.

Appeals to the Supreme Court

On March 12, the Supreme Court will convene a special extended panel of 11 judges, instead of the usual three that hear cases, to hear arguments about the constitutionality of the law, which will include all appeals to the court to strike it down. Immediately after the passage of the law, appeals were filed by Druze and other MKs and by Arab leaders and the Follow Up Committee of Arab Citizens (a national non-governmental umbrella organization that aims to represent the interests of the Arab minority). In December 2018, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) requested the court to strike down the Nation-State Law, stating that "the new law is unique" because it "makes discrimination explicit and systematic." Another appeal was filed in January 2019 by Mizrahi Jews Against the Basic Law, a group of approximately 50 prominent Jewish leaders of Mizrahi origin, which contends that “Article 4 of the Nation-State Law, which addresses the Arabic language…isn’t meant to raise the status of Hebrew, but to lower the status of Arabic.” The group therefore claims the court should strike down the Basic Law because it is “anti-Jewish” for excluding the history and culture of Jews from Arab and Muslim countries, “while strengthening the impression that Jewish-Arab culture is inferior.” All these appeals will be heard on March 12, with the impending hearing generating an additional debate over the role of the Supreme Court and whether it can annual a Basic Law.

Conferences

A number of conferences have convened politicians, academics and activists to discuss the practical ramifications of the Nation-State Law and implications for shared society, democratic principles, and the status of Arab citizenship. A few examples from December 2018 include: (i) The Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya (IDC) held a conference  entitled "The Nation-State Law in the Prisms of Identity, Law and Politics,” in which both Former Chief Justice Aharon Barak and Prof. Uriel Reichman, IDC’s founding president, criticized the absence of the concept of equality in this Basic Law (Hebrew); (ii) the Israel Democracy Institute held a special seminar on the status of the Arabic language in Israel following passage of the Nation-State Law. The discussion included representatives of academia, experts from the Israeli Democracy Institute and civil society representatives, who discussed the ramifications of the new legislation on the status of Arabic, with a consensus that the legislation is an attempt to remove Arabic from the public sphere, and might deal a severe blow to advances in recent years in such areas as media, public transportation and the education system (Hebrew summary); (iii) the Kneset's Jewish Arab Caucus for Shared Living, together with the Follow Up Committee of Arab Citizens, the Headquarters Against Racism, Dirasat Center and high level experts such as Prof. Mikhail Karayani of Hebrew University and MK Yael German of Yesh Atid Party, held a conference in Nazareth entitled "Jewish-Arab Relations in the Shadow of the Nation-State Law.”

Raising Awareness:

The Abraham Initiatives and Standing Together (Omdim B’Yachad) are jointly conducting an online campaign challenging the Nation-State Law, including producing a video that invites citizens on the street to 'talk about the Nation-State law' and a video presenting possible ramifications of the law on 'separate housing policies'.

In mid-December, Standing Together's Jerusalem branch initiated the "Bilingual Standard" (Hebrew) – a stamp of approval provided to businesses in the city that sign a declaration (Hebrew) committing to "full equality of their employees and customers," and "full accessibility to Arabic speakers," including, for example, translation of menus to Arabic, "at a time when the government undermines the status of Arabic language and the status of all minority groups via the Nation-State Law."  

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