Canada’s identity has evolved dramatically since the Second World War. First, the country’s self-image changed from an Anglo orientation as a member of the British Empire-cum-Commonwealth to a concept of “two founding nations,” which included the recognition of bilingualism and biculturalism as pillars of our identity. No sooner had that change been digested than we broadened the definition of Canadianness to incorporate multiculturalism and then, very belatedly, we have recently come to recognize the important place of indigenous Canadians and to attempt to reconcile our peoples with the history of injustice and cultural genocide perpetrated against First Nations.
Not all countries are given to this sort of evolving self-identity. Israel, in very different ways but over the same period, has struggled to define itself in a manner that reflects both its founding premise and its demographic and cultural realities. For several decades, the country has debated the question “who is a Jew?”; a riddle that goes to the heart of the nation’s identity in part due to the Law of Return, which grants citizenship to any Jew. But the place of non-Jewish citizens – both in the state of Israel and, more problematically, in the territories occupied in 1967 – has confounded the country as it struggles to be both a democratic country and one particularly founded as the homeland of the Jewish people.
This matter was brought to a head (again) recently by a law passed by the Knesset dealing with the country’s Jewish identity.
In practical terms, the “nation-state law” has little impact. If an Israeli didn’t follow the news, they would probably not notice any change in their daily life. The law is mostly symbolic. It enshrines the Jewish calendar as official, declares Jerusalem the country’s capital, codifies what was already the practical reality in terms of Jewish iconography in Israeli national symbols, such as the Star of David on the flag and the menorah on the national shield. But, it also explicitly downgrades the Arabic language, mother tongue of 22% of the country’s population, from official language to one with a “special status.” That doesn’t mean that Arabic (or English) will be erased from street signs or other official places, but it is a calculated poke in the eye to the country’s largest minority population – people who have struggled for decades to adapt themselves to their status as non-Jewish citizens of the Jewish state.
Critics, particularly on the left, have condemned the law as the triumph of Jewishness over democracy in the continuing struggle over the country’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state. Some claim that the accusation of “apartheid” has now been proven and codified. Competing New York Times op-eds by Ronald Lauder, head of World Jewish Congress, and Naftali Bennett, Israel’s minister of Diaspora affairs, took diametrically opposing positions on the law.
The law’s enemies perhaps did themselves no favours during a mass rally in Tel Aviv nearly two weeks ago, when Palestinian flags were prevalent and some participants seemed to be promoting a one-state resolution.
The controversy is the culmination of several years of debate over the law, or variations on the theme. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu defended the final bill, which passed the Knesset overwhelmingly.
“We enshrined in law the basic principle of our existence,” he said. “Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people, that respects the individual rights of all its citizens. This is our state – the Jewish state. In recent years, there have been some who have attempted to put this in doubt, to undercut the core of our being. Today we made it law: this is our nation, language and flag.”
The prime minister’s words are accurate enough. He acknowledges the fundamental and perhaps irreconcilable tug between “the nation state of the Jewish people” and one that “respects the individual rights of all its citizens.” And he is correct that the law enshrines what was already the de facto reality.
He is also not far off the mark in stating that some have tried to put in doubt Israel’s identity as a Jewish state – there are calls in the Middle East and elsewhere for a unitary state between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, a concept that would effectively eliminate Jewish national self-determination. Yet, this is perhaps the most specious of Netanyahu’s arguments. Yes, there are those would see the Jewish state destroyed. But these voices are no more mainstream nor prevalent than they have been in recent years.
The law is red meat for Netanyahu’s core supporters and those to their right. It is a provocation – and an unnecessary one – that even the prime minister claims has no real, practical impact.
However, it does have an impact – and one that is perhaps not unintended. The law makes non-Jewish citizens of Israel feel isolated and demoralized and it strengthens the case of those inside and outside Israel who condemn the country for inequality and favouritism.