New Law Threatens to Tear Apart Israeli Community


coverIsraelA new law threatens to tear apart communities and mutual agreements in Israeli society and brings up questions that haven’t been discussed—more democratic or more Jewish? There may be hope yet.
Guest blog post by Cultural Detective Israel co-author Anat Kedem

I wanted to share with you what has been going on in Israel. A new law declaring Israel the nation-state of the Jewish people, the so-called “Jewish Nationality Bill,” was passed last week. It has the weight of a constitutional amendment because it’s a “basic law.”

It fits right in with similar laws passed recently in other parts of the world. Sections of the law formalize symbols of statehood such as the national anthem and emblem, something that lawmakers say was missing from the Israeli legislative basis. Israel has 15 Basic Laws that require a 75% majority in the parliament to change. They constitute the legal foundation of our different institutions and are intended to be the basis for a future constitution.

The controversy is around the timing and impact of the new law and mostly around two sections in it.

  1. The first makes Hebrew the only official language, downgrading the position of Arabic to a “special” language—no longer a formal one.
  2. The other section allows communities (like the communal village where I live) to turn away people not belonging to the same ethnic group. Before this law, someone denied permission to live somewhere could sue on the basis of discrimination. With this new law there can be religious towns that will be allowed to deny secular people; Jewish villages that can turn away Arabs wanting to live there; and Arab villages that can not accept Jews. This is where the potential for division and destruction in this law is most apparent.

The new law is quite a coup for Bibi and his supporters, with protests by opposition who say it runs counter to the Basic Laws of Israel, including “complete equality of social and political rights” for “all its inhabitants” no matter their religion, race or sex. The Druze minority has found themselves excluded by the law, becoming second-rate citizens in spite of the fact that they shoulder citizen duties such as service in the military.

There was a major demonstration last Saturday evening, one of the largest in history, where side by side Jews and Druze showed solidarity. Our Arabic language learning group attended together. The protest finished with a loud and emotion-filled singing of the national anthem. It was very strengthening to come together and show that we have more unity than divisiveness.

It is a heartbreaking moment here, a death-inducing blow to everyone who believes in different groups living together, anyone that holds a vision of Israel being democratic and Jewish at the same time with equality for all. Holding both sides, as good Cultural Detectives do—being a democracy and a Jewish state—has always been a work in progress, necessitating gentle maneuvering, extensive dialogue and bridge building, but now the very fabric of our mutual existence here has been brutally torn apart. I see this as a state-generated act of exclusion, drawing a line between those that “belong” and those that are required to live in a permanent sense of existential insecurity, dependent on the good will of the government.

That said, we don’t yet know if this law will stand up to supreme court scrutiny. It was legislated by a very narrow margin and major lawmakers are conceding it will need to be changed. The Israeli parliament is out for summer break so nothing can be done now.  Things in Israel change all the time adapting to new circumstances—so who knows?!!!!

We’ve been holding counsel with friends and neighbors, and have witnessed lots of grass roots initiatives going on now. This might be a change for the better after all. People need to be much more involved with the daily work of representation—no more ballet once in four years and believing that things will be taken care of. We are in for interesting times. Passing the law has had the opposite of its intended impact, bringing us closer together. All around there are acts of solidarity. One of the hospitals had the staff stand outside with signs: “Jews and Arabs working here will not be made into enemies.” Impromptu Arabic learning groups have gathered, and Israel’s president, who must sign the law, said he will sign it in Arabic. A well regarded Israeli Arab lawmaker resigned from parliament, and writers and former chiefs of Army staffs are speaking out.

David Grossman, an Israeli writer who won the Man Brooker award and who serves as our moral compass, wrote an open letter in the August 3rd newspaper. He wrote,

“For hundreds and thousands of years, the Jewish people were a minority in the countries in which they lived. The experience of being a minority shaped our identity, sharpened our moral sensitivity. Now we Jews are the majority in our country. It is a tremendous responsibility to be a majority, and it is a great challenge, political and social, and especially human: to understand that the attitude towards the minority is one of the major tests of the majority in a democratic regime. … Equality is the starting point of citizenship, not its product. It is the land from which citizenship grows. It is also what allows the highest freedom—the freedom to be different. Different, and yet equal to everyone else…. Perhaps this law does us a great favor, and reveals to us all, from the left and the right, without illusions or self-deceit, where we are, the point to which Israel has deteriorated. Perhaps this law will finally shake all of us, from all sides of the political map, who fear for Israel; for its spirit, its humanity, its Jewish, democratic and human values. I have no doubt that there are so many, on the left, right and center, decent and sober people who know that this law is a disgraceful act and a betrayal of the state by its citizens.”

Netanyahu, as usual, presents this as a struggle between the left and the right. But it is a much deeper and fateful struggle, a struggle between those who have given up and those who still hope. Those who have succumbed to nationalist and racist bias, and those who continue to oppose it, who insist on preserving in their hearts a picture, an image, a hope of how things can be in a proper country.”

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