In 2011, a one-time Shin Bet security agency chief and minister of public security submitted a bill to the Knesset in his role as a member of the opposition Kadima Party. The rationale behind Avi Dichter’s bill was simple. Everyone knows Israel is the Jewish state. But shouldn’t there be a law that says so, to protect that status? And shouldn’t something so essential to the national character be a “Basic Law,” meaning, in Israeli terms, a building block of the state’s eventual constitution?
The Jewish Nation-State Bill “is especially necessary at a time in which there are those who seek to cancel the Jewish People’s right to a national home in its land and the recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish People,” Dichter wrote. It will “allow us to reach a broad agreement in the future over a full and comprehensive constitution.” The bill had been conceived in 2009 by the Institute of Zionist Strategies, a right-wing think tank especially alarmed by the way in which Israel’s unelected Supreme Court had been handling issues of Jewish nationhood.
In the ensuing years, Dichter was voted out and back into the Knesset, and multiple versions of his bill were floated. Ahead of the 2015 election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to help secure his position with the right flank of his support by making a campaign promise to pass it. After another three-plus years and many hours of intensive discussion in the Knesset, it finally happened on July 19. The law is “a defining moment in the history of Zionism and the history of the State of Israel,” Netanyahu said after the bill’s passage. “One hundred and twenty two years after Herzl published his vision, we have stated by law the basic principle of our existence.”
The path from bill to law had been far from smooth, and the aftermath of its passage was even rockier. Jewish organizations in the Diaspora condemned it openly and full-throatedly. A New York Times news story on the bill’s passage stated flatly that “none of [Netanyahu’s] expressions of raw political power has carried more symbolic weight than the new basic law.”
The questions that the bill seeks to address, and the questions that are being asked about it in the wake of its passage, go to the core of what Israel is about, as both a Jewish country and a democracy. Continue reading