Proponents of the law thus view it not as a threat to democracy but essential to Israeli democracy: The great majority of Israel’s citizens want to live in a Jewish state that defends Zionism and Jewish national interests. The proposed law will help ensure that what the people believe and vote for at the polls is what their government actually does, and is not stymied by a judicial elite that exercises power without accountability.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has been noted for his unwillingness to challenge the power and prerogatives of Israel’s judicial elites. His embrace of the “Jewish State” law marks the first time in a long while that he has taken a position to which that elite must be bitterly opposed.
For the last two months, Netanyahu has been arguing that it is essential that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the Jewish state. People whose opinion he respects have been lobbying him over the law: How can Israel insist that the Palestinians recognize the country as the Jewish state while hesitating to adopt that definition itself? The logic in that argument seems to have appealed to Netanyahu. He may also have a tactical objective in mind, connected to renewing negotiations with the Palestinians: If Israel defines itself as a Jewish state, perhaps he can get away with insisting that the Palestinians simply recognize “the State of Israel,” letting them skirt the “J” word . . .
What is a “Basic Law?”
Israel has no formal, written constitution. Since 1949, no Knesset has been able to write a constitution that could command a consensus. Instead, a series of “basic” laws were passed to codify essential subjects such as the authority of the Knesset, the government, the courts, and other matters. It bears emphasizing that “basic laws” were originally passed with the intention that they not possess the authority of constitutional legislation; the Knesset could change them at any time.
In 2002, Israel’s Supreme Court decided, without a shred of authorization by the Knesset, that all existing “basic laws” were in fact constitutional legislation, and that the courts could use them to strike down other legislation by the Knesset. This was an excellent example of what the first Knesset hoped to avoid, as well as of the contempt in which the Supreme Court tends to hold Israel’s legislature.
Basic Laws must be passed by the Knesset with a majority of 61 of 120 Knesset members; a simple 55-45 majority would be insufficient. Once passed, they enjoy priority over ordinary legislation—assuming the courts deign to enforce them.
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WHAT’S IN THE LAW? Several draft versions exist of the proposed “Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People.” The latest version, by MKs Yariv Levin and Ayelet Shaked, is a watered-down version of an earlier draft submitted in 2011 by Avi Dichter, from the now nearly-defunct “Kadima” party. Here are the essentials:
- The State of Israel is the sovereign Jewish national home. Only the Jewish people may realize self-determination in Israel.
- The State of Israel is located in The Land of Israel, the Jewish people’s historic homeland.
- Democracy is Israel’s political regime. Israel is founded on the principles of freedom, justice and peace according to the vision of the Prophets, and upholds the individual rights of all its citizens.
- Every Jew has the right to come on aliya and obtain Israeli citizenship in the manner determined by law.
- Israel aspires to gather in the Jewish exiles and strengthen its ties with the Diaspora.
- Israel shall preserve and propagate the Jewish heritage and Jewish culture at home and abroad.
- Jewish law shall inform Israeli legislation and shall be used to decide court cases which cannot be settled by appeal to statute or precedent.
Other provisions of the law establish Israel’s flag, and establish Shabbat and Jewish holidays as days of rest (minorities may observe their own days of rest). Dichter’s version established Hebrew as the official language, but was removed when the Left insisted it discriminated against Arabs.