You call it cultural identity; he calls it racism – who is right?


Jewish first or citizen first? Israeli parliament members and other people take part in a protest march in Tel Aviv on July 14, 2018, against the new Nation-State Law, which has caused major divisions in Israel. The banner reads “this is the home of all of us”

FROM HERE at the bottom of Africa, with South Africa’s tragic racist history still dominating its people’s lives, Israel’s nation-state bill working its way through the Knesset causes a chill to run through the spine of lovers of Israel. We have seen in South Africa how a people’s legitimate drive to preserve their cultural identity – in the South African case, Afrikaans – can become an obsession with separateness from others, and ultimately separation between communities based on law.

Many items in the bill are quite reasonable for any nation proud of its identity. But vehement opposition to its initially proposed text honed in on a seriously objectionable clause, in paragraph 7(b), “to allow a community, including one composed of a single religion or nationality, to establish its own separate communal settlement.” This could permit, based on law, rejection of Israeli Arab citizens, who constitute 20 per cent of the population, from multiple Jewish settlements countrywide, and cause other groups with different identities to experience similar discrimination based on their religion, nationality or other criteria.

This is not South African apartheid, where power relationships and cultural issues were different. But enemies of Israel, and many friends, will see the trend as going in that direction –legalization of racism and ethnic chauvinism.

Fortunately, there are enough sane voices in Israel in the judiciary, politics, and even the Likud and the president himself, who see the terrible potential consequences of the trend towards this inward-looking mindset. This is not the Israel for which thousands of Jews fought, to have it turned into a place where separation of communities can be legislated based on religion, nationality, and similar defining characteristics.

All of this is not to say that communities should not be allowed to nurture their own identities, which already happens in a positive way in numerous places and helps build a strong society. Democracy has to be flexible enough to allow and encourage this. But to enshrine separateness in this kind of law opens potential deep chasms of division and is anti-democratic.

The fight-back from democratic forces resulted in revision of the wording of the most problematic section of the bill to read: “The State views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment.” Meaning that establishing Jewish settlement is not to be based on discrimination as a basic value, but authentic realization of Zionism.

Zionism has often been called the “liberation movement” of the Jewish people. Like all liberation movements it is idealistic, and interpreted in complex ways. But what happened to the Universalist vision of Zionism and the state of Israel? Critics of the overall thrust of the proposed bill protest that it relates only to Israel’s Jewish nature, contrary to principles of Israel’s declaration of independence. Israeli democracy is unmentioned, nor the spirit of equality that has attracted Jews worldwide to identify with it as a source of enlightenment to themselves and the world.

Jews have prided themselves on how Israel has sustained the diversity of its society and democratic vibrancy despite never-ending attacks on it; other countries have reacted to such threats by becoming militant dictatorships. It seems an abrogation of that vision to defend a bill such as this, which does not acknowledge the one-fifth of Israel’s population that is not Jewish. Yet this is happening at the hands of an Israeli government.

South African Jewry is especially qualified, having lived for decades in a society where communities were separated based on law, to sound warning bells about the direction in which Israel is heading. Will anyone here do it?

GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: 




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