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Israel’s Mask Slips Off

With its passage of the “Jewish Nation-State Law,” Israel is no longer hiding the fact that it is not a democracy.

Israeli Defense Forces soldiers patrol a park in Jerusalem in 2014. Spencer Platt / Getty Images

On July 19, Israel’s Knesset passed the “Jewish Nation-State Law.” It is a simple and blunt instrument that has one purpose: to declare Israel a Jewish state and relegate all non-Jews to second-class citizenship.

There are two ways to look at this event. In one respect, it simply enshrines long-standing Israeli practices in law. Yet it also signals the abandonment of any pretense that Israel is, as it has long claimed, a democracy.

The Nation-State Law defines Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish people and asserts that “the realization of the right to national self-determination in Israel is unique to the Jewish people.” Similarly, it promises that “Israel will ensure the safety of the Jewish people” but mentions the protection of no other group.

Adalah attorney Fady Khoury puts it plainly: “In Israel, the new law explicitly defines the Jewish people as the only group with the only right to self-determination, while negating the rights of the indigenous people. This creates a system of hierarchy and supremacy.”

This completely changes the terrain upon which the Israel-Palestine issue can be debated around the world.

Pro-Israel politicians in the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Canada, and elsewhere have tried (and in many cases succeeded in) passing legislation that equates criticism of Israeli state policies with antisemitism. They have attempted to muzzle debate and protest by slinging mud and mounting charges of bigotry: anybody who criticizes Israel must hate Jews.

This is like saying that the Civil Rights Movement in the United States or the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa were based on anti-white animus. It was not racism against whites that drove people to dismantle discriminatory laws — it was a hatred of discrimination and bigotry that those laws reflected that motivated people to change the situation.

Nevertheless, for years, those who point out the decidedly undemocratic nature of Israeli policies in public debates have been tarred with antisemitism.

With the passage of this law, the practices and principles that have guided Israeli state policies for decades are before the world’s eyes. So now the facts can finally have a real hearing, uncoupled from dishonest charges of antisemitism.

If pro-Israel US politicians have their way, such charges might well break federal law. A proposed “Anti-Semitism Awareness Act” is set for a vote in Congress. It is blatantly unconstitutional. The ACLU’s statement sums up the issue thus:

The proposed bill risks chilling constitutionally protected speech by incorrectly equating criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. And there is no need for a new bill to protect students from anti-Semitic harassment, because that is already prohibited under Title VI. We worry that the law will lead colleges to suppress speech, especially if the Department of Education launches investigations simply because students have engaged in speech critical of Israel.

Indeed, all “anti-Semitism awareness” bills in Congress and in state legislatures should be entirely rewritten to acknowledge the new law. Rewritten, or better yet, scrapped completely, given that their principal purpose is to prevent criticism of Israel. Our entire understanding of Israel has now changed. With the new law essentially codifying apartheid, it is impossible to say that those criticizing Israel are antisemitic, since the evidence of systemic racism is not dispersed or informal anymore.

For example, it is now impossible to say that the International Criminal Court’s definition of apartheid does not apply to Israel. According to the ICC, apartheid is “an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.” The new law establishes precisely such a regime.

In “The Decline of the Nation-State and the End of the Rights of Man,” Hannah Arendt argued that the “end of the rights of man” was largely attributable to the “state” giving way to the “nation”: “the transformation of the state from an instrument of the law into an instrument of the nation had been completed; the nation had conquered the state, national interest had priority over the law long before Hitler could pronounce ‘right is what is good for the German people.’” What she means is that the state, as a neutral and fair instrument of law, became subordinated to the ethno-nation organized around maintaining the supremacy of one group of people over all others.

The new law does just this, pronouncing Israel as a Jewish supremacist state and announcing its mission to further violate international law by destroying more Palestinian and Bedouin villages and building more illegal settlements.

Let us be clear: no matter what Israel does with this new law — strengthen it, modify it, or even rescind it under international pressure — so long as it maintains its de facto policies of discrimination and destruction, nothing about the Israeli occupation of Palestine will have changed. What has changed is the final stripping away of any illusion of democracy in the state of Israel.