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In an unprecedented moment in recorded history, David Ben-Gurion read the Proclamation of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948. It declared: “The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and national identity was formed.”

It continued: “Impelled by this historic association, Jews strove throughout the centuries to go back to the land of their fathers and regain their Statehood.” It was, therefore, “the self-evident right of the Jewish people to be a nation, like all other nations, in its own sovereign state.”


The proclamation affirmed “the natural and historic right of the Jewish people” to national independence. Assuring “the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of race, creed or sex,” it proclaimed “the establishment of the Jewish State in Palestine, to be called Israel”(italics added). Nowhere in the proclamation did the word “democracy” appear.

The Proclamation of Independence pronounced the establishment of a “Jewish State,” but Israelis were too ideologically divided, then and since, to approve a constitution that would become the supreme law of the land.

More than three years ago Knesset member Avi Dichter of the centrist Kadima party proposed a Basic Law (the Israeli alternative in the absence of a constitution) that would define Israel as “The Nation State of the Jewish People.” There were predictable howls of outrage on the political left. An editorial in Haaretz claimed that such a law would undermine Israeli democracy. The proposal went nowhere.

This past November Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu submitted the draft of a “Jewish state bill,” declaring that Israel “is a Jewish democratic state…. Both principles are equal and must be given equal consideration.”

Such a Basic Law is necessary, he insisted, because mounting worldwide challenges deny that Israel is the national homeland of the Jewish people.

“I don’t understand those who call for two states for two people,” Netanyahu continued, “but at the same time oppose anchoring that in law. They are quick to recognize a Palestinian national home, but adamantly oppose a Jewish national home.”

The Cabinet approved the Basic Law proposal, titled “Israel, the Nation-State of the Jewish People,” by a 14-6 vote. The subsequent breakup of Netanyahu’s governing coalition (over an unrelated issue), and the call for new elections in March, temporarily shelved the bill. But the surge of hostility toward the proposal from predictable sources is likely to recur once election results are in.

For nearly sixty-five years national self-definition has been the skeleton in the closet of Israeli politics and culture. During this temporary interlude the objections of critics and the justification for the Basic Law proposal deserve scrutiny.

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The State Department reacted instantly, and with predictable hostility, to the Jewish state proposal. “Israel is a Jewish and democratic state and all its citizens should enjoy equal rights,” it opined, adding gratuitously: “We expect Israel to stick to its democratic principles.”

Economics Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the right-wing Jewish Home party, led the furious response. “This is an internal issue,” he declared, “and I think that no one has the right to intervene with it.”

Likud MK Zeev Elkin reminded American diplomats: “We can keep the foundations of democracy even without the help of the partner over the ocean.” He added his sardonic query whether the American government would also encourage Israel to adopt the American customs of pledging allegiance to the flag and singing the national anthem in schools.

The New York Times, not for first and surely not the last time, joined the chorus of disapproval. Indeed, in the opening sentence of her November 23 dispatch, correspondent Isabel Kershner misidentified the draft proposal approved by the Israeli cabinet as emphasizing “Israel’s Jewish character above its democratic nature.” In fact, it equated their importance.


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Jerold S. Auerbach, professor emeritus of history at Wellesley College, is the author of “Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel, 1896-2016."