Netanyahu's "Jewish State" Law Stirs Debate in Israel

Netanyahu's "Jewish State" Law Stirs Debate in Israel

Israeli academic Oren Yiftachel talks about ethnocracy, a term he coined that describes the sort of regime Israel practices -   May 25, 2014
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Since his announcement for Independence Day that he intends to pursue a new Basic Law regarding the country's Jewishness, the Israeli Prime Minister stirred a debate regarding what such a law would mean. All month the Hebrew press debated the nature of Zionism and what enshrining the Jewishness of the state into its constitution-like laws would mean for a nation already struggling to preserve an image of democracy. The Real News' Lia Tarachansky spoke to Prof. Oren Yiftachel about the nature of ethnocratic regimes, such as Israel and Suhad Bishara, the Director of the Lands Division at Adalah, the Arab Minority Legal Center.


Netanyahu's LIA TARACHANSKY, PRODUCER: Since his announcement ahead of Independence Day that he intends to pursue a new basic law regarding the country's Jewishness, the Israeli prime minister stirred a debate regarding what such a law would mean. All month, the press in Israel debated the nature of Zionism and what enshrining the Jewishness of the state into its constitution-like laws would mean for a nation already struggling to preserve an image of democracy.

Oudeh Basharat writes in Haaretz, "To hear Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speak of 'Judea and Samaria, the places where Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, David and Solomon, and Isaiah and Jeremiah lived,' you'd think he'd just taken leave of these honored figures after finishing up a sheep herding shift near a cave in the Judean hills."

In Israel HaYom, Droy Eydar responds, "The purpose of a national home is to provide a legitimate space for the blossoming of a specific, distinct culture, particularly when the culture differs from that of the nations among which it stayed." "We should not let the contemptible attempt to compare Jewish national feeling to well-known racist theories upset us. National feeling is a deep and noble thing."

And Paul Gross in The Jerusalem Post: "To anchor in Israel's de facto constitution a definition of the Jewish state, which implies a clear emphasis on Israel's Jewish status over and above its democratic character, plays into the hands of the most bigoted elements of the Israeli right."

But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not alone in Parliament pursuing laws that will further increase the gaps between Israel's Jewish and non-Jewish citizens.

Following the social justice movement of 2011, which arose primarily to protest the high cost of living, the government announced this week that a new subsidy will be given to young couples buying their first apartment, but condition that subsidy on the buyer's army service, effectively excluding the Palestinian citizens of Israel, who make up 20 percent of the population.

Suhad Bishara is a Haifa-based lawyer and the director of the Lands Division in Adalah, a legal center focused on the Arab minority in Israel.

SUHAD BISHARA, ATTORNEY, DIRECTOR OF LANDS DIVISION, ATALAH: The VAT is 17 percent. You pay zero VAT if you served in the army and you want to purchase as a family your first apartment from a contractor, up to 1,600,000 shekels. If you didn't serve in the army, you are entitled to the zero VAT if you purchase an apartment up to 600,000 shekels, which is something everyone is dreaming of, but it doesn't really exist.

TARACHANSKY: But the subsidy, which benefits Jewish citizens only, as nearly no Palestinians serve in the Israeli army, is just a small part of the bigger picture. Access to real estate--and, more importantly, land--has been the biggest contention point and one of the central ways the state preserves its Jewish nature. In Israel, over 93 percent of the land is owned by the state and managed by the Israeli land development authority, a body created to steward the lands of the Palestinians who were expelled and fled when Israel was created. This mass nationalization of the country's most important resource is a central element in an ethnocracy, according to Professor Oren Yiftachel, who coined the term.

PROF. OREN YIFTACHEL, BEN GURION UNIV.: Societies like Malaysia or like Northern Ireland or like Cyprus before 1974 or like the Baltic states Estonia and Latvia, many other countries around the world, are ethnocracies. And, of course, the lines are not sharply divided, but you can explain a lot of what's happening there with a project of an ethnic takeover, and still with thin layers of democracy. The main characteristic is that the distribution of resources and power is governed by ethnicity, not by citizenship. Citizenship is an envelope which is quite often hollow.

BISHARA: In practice, we don't see any balance between the Jewish and democratic values that the state is advocating. Therefore, in practice what we see only a Jewish state in practice in the land regime, the state of Israel under the name of a Jewish state is holding a system of segregation. Under the name of the Jewish state, they are denying internally displaced people from going back to their properties, home, and villages. Under the name of the Jewish state, basically the state of Israel is trying to evict and uproot 90,000 Bedouin Arabs in the Naqab. So we don't see any balance here at all.

TARACHANSKY: The law also stirred debate among Israeli politicians. The head of the opposition, Yitzhak "Buji" Herzog, underlined his party's loyalty to the Jewishness of Israel, but said that "'Labour founded the state and its leaders wrote the Declaration of Independence, a document that protects Israel as a Jewish state.' Unfortunately, having led to the collapse of the negotiations, Netanyahu is leading us to the loss of a Jewish majority, which will lead to Israel becoming a binational state. Even his law can't hide this saddening fact."

Speaking in support of the law, minister of Home Front Defense and Communications Gilad Erdan appeared on Channel 2.


GILAD ERDAN, ISRAELI HOME FRONT DEFENSE MINISTER AND MINISTER OF COMMUNICATIONS (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): Today more than ever, because the negotiations collapsed, we understand--and I expect everyone does on all ends of the political map--that there's a need that before we demand from others to recognize us as a Jewish state, that we enshrine it into the Basic Laws of the state of Israel.

INTERVIEWER (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): But does anyone really doubt that we're the state of the Jewish people? If you want a declaration, there's already the one of independence, and in practice you have the Law of Return [for Jews].

ERDAN: [snip] when there are appeals or conflicts, the Supreme Court, when it comes to issues that affect our daily lives, like appropriating lands, establishing Jewish towns, the status of the Hebrew language. The Supreme Court interprets the law based on the Basic Laws, that focus on the rights of the individual. But on the other side, we have no Basic Law about the national right, that Israel is the national home of the Jewish nation.


YIFTACHEL: So a very typical idea of ethnocracy is that the state belongs to one group. And this is, of course, the bone of contention and the beef of the minorities that can never feel incorporated, and therefore their loyalty is always questioned, because how can they be loyal to a state that actually always impinges on their rights and on their resources?


INTERVIEWER: Do you not think that it hurts the Arab Israelis, especially now when they're under attack from extremist right-wingers who attack mosques and spray paint [racist slogans]?

ERDAN: How is it connected?


YIFTACHEL: Part of ethnocratic regime theory is that ethnocracies are inherently unstable because of this contradiction. They cannot actually receive legitimacy sufficient legitimacy from the minorities, because the state is about taking over from the minorities, from the indigenous minorities, usually. So there is an overlap with colonialism, but it's usually the stage after.

Now, in Israel-Palestine, at least in the West Bank and previously in Gaza, it was blatant colonialism, it wasn't even post. But inside Israel, it is like a postcolonial dynamic of the Jewish group taking over the space [incompr.] it's continuing until now.

TARACHANSKY: For The Real News, I'm Lia Tarachansky in Tel Aviv.


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