arly in the morning of July 19, after eight hours of debate, the Knesset passed by a vote of 62–55 (with two abstentions) a law codifying Israel’s status as the national home of the Jewish people. First introduced in 2011 by the centrist Kadima Party, the so-called nation-state bill joined more than a dozen “Basic Laws” that now function as Israel’s unwritten constitution. Its 11 paragraphs mostly restate long-operative principles of Israeli democracy: Hebrew is the national language, “Hatikvah” is the national anthem, the menorah is the national emblem, Jerusalem is the nation’s capital, and Israel is where the self-determination of the Jewish nation is exercised.
One might find it surprising that such generalities would provoke a global outcry. Then again, Israel and selective indignation seem to go together like peanut butter and jelly. Criticisms run the gamut from saying the law is unnecessary and provocative to saying it’s racist and anti-democratic. The Israeli left, in alliance with Israel’s minority Arabs and Druze, has marched in the streets. Institutions of the Jewish Diaspora have called for the law’s repeal. They have found themselves, rather uneasily, on the same side of the debate as anti-Zionists and Israel-haters in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, in Muslim capitals, and in the EU and UN. “The spirit of Hitler, which led the world to a great catastrophe, has found its resurgence among some of Israel’s leaders,” said Turkey’s Recep Tayip Erdogan.
Leaving aside anti-Semites such as Erdogan, reasonable people and friends of Israel may disagree about the necessity and utility of the nation-state law. Such disagreement, however, ought to be based on facts. And facts have been sorely lacking in recent discussions of Israel—thanks to an uninformed, biased, and one-sided media. Major journalistic institutions have become so wedded to a pro-Palestinian, anti–Benjamin Netanyahu narrative, in which Israel is part of a global trend toward nationalist authoritarian populism, that they have abdicated any responsibility for presenting the news in a dispassionate and balanced manner. The shameful result of this inflammatory coverage is the normalization of anti-Israel rhetoric and policies and widening divisions between Israel and the Diaspora.
For example, a July 18, 2018, article in the Los Angeles Times described the nation-state law as “granting an advantageous status to Jewish-only communities.” But that is false: The bill contained no such language. (An earlier version might have been interpreted in this way, but the provision was removed.) Yet, as I write, the Los Angeles Times has not corrected the piece that contained the error.
On July 19, in the New York Times, David M. Halbfinger and Isabel Kershner wrote that the Knesset’s “incendiary move” had been “denounced by centrists and leftists as racist and anti-democratic.” Why? Because the law “omits any mention of democracy or the principle of equality.” But that is because other Basic Laws already have codified the democratic and egalitarian character of Israel, including two laws dealing specifically with human rights.
The nation-state law, the Times continued, also “promotes the development of Jewish communities, possibly aiding those who would seek to advance discriminatory land-allocation policies.” Put the emphasis on possibly, because there’s nothing in the law to provide such aid.
Indeed, the nation-state law contains no additional rights for Jews; nor does it promulgate fewer rights for Arabs. Halbfinger and Kershner went on to say that the law “downgrades Arabic from an official language to one with a ‘special status.’” But then, far into the piece, the writers also acknowledged that “it is largely a symbolic sleight since a subsequent clause says, ‘This clause does not harm the status given to the Arabic language before this law came into effect.’”
A July 22 front-page article in the Times by Max Fisher was headlined “Israel Picks Identity Over Democracy. More Nations May Follow.” This was a funny way to characterize a law that had won majority support, following parliamentary procedure, of a democratically elected legislative body. Such through-the-looking-glass analysis riddled this piece, as well as the additional four news articles and four op-eds the Times has published on the matter at the time of this writing. In these pieces, “democracy” is defined as “results favored by the New York Times editorial board,” and Israel’s national self-understanding is in irrevocable conflict with its democratic form of government.
Fisher’s “Interpreter” column began with an anecdote recalling how David Ben-Gurion “emerged from retirement in July 1967” and “insisted that Israel give up the territories it had conquered” after repelling the invasion of three Arab armies a month earlier. Unfortunately for Fisher, this dramatic episode seems to be apocryphal. Historian Martin Kramer, after exhaustive research, concluded, “There’s no evidence that Ben-Gurion warned Israelis that their victory ‘had sown the seeds of self-destruction,’ either in July 1967 or later.” Fisher stands by his story.
The questionable claims did not stop there. “The quality of Israeli democracy has been declining steadily since the early 2000s,” Fisher continued, an era that just happens to have coincided with the rise of Israeli statesmen whose politics he and the political scientists he cites find detestable.
Fisher also mentioned a “wave of horrific violence known as the Second Intifada, which killed far more Palestinians than Israelis, [and] included shocking terrorist attacks in previously safe Israeli enclaves.” But where did this violence come from? Who committed the shocking terrorist acts? It’s left unsaid.
Denying Arab agency is a longstanding habit of Israel’s critics. And that is what’s noteworthy about these often-hysterical reactions to the nation-state law: The stories use the legislation merely as a jumping-off point for larger complaints about Israel’s Jewish character. For these writers, this isn’t a debate over the Israeli flag. It’s a debate over Jewish nationalism and a proxy for the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.
In a July 24 “Ideas” piece for Time, Ilene Prusher wrote, “It’s not clear that the equality outlined in the founders’ vision statement”—that’s progressive-speak for “Declaration of Independence”—“remains a goal. It’s certainly far from reality.” Prusher continued, “The new law provides legal teeth for discrimination that is currently de facto” and, citing a left-wing law professor at Hebrew University, “essentially makes discrimination constitutional.”
No, it doesn’t, actually. Rather than speculate, the nation-state bill’s opponents might try examining the actual text, which says absolutely nothing about discrimination. As Eugene Kontorovich of Northwestern University said during a recent episode of the Jewish Leadership Conference podcast, “Anything can be perverted—but that does not mean everything is perverse.”
The truth is that democracy is thriving in Israel. So are many of the values one normally associates with (egad!) the New York Times. Last I checked, Israel is the one country in the Middle East where you can attend an LGBT Pride parade. Noah Ephron, a critic of the nation-state law, points out that the proportion of women serving in the Knesset is higher than in the U.S. Congress or average EU parliament. There is universal health care. “Alone among Western democracies,” Ephron adds, “labor unions have grown bigger and stronger in Israel over the past decade.” Minority citizens are guaranteed the same rights as Jewish ones. And it is precisely these achievements that are sustained by Israel’s Jewish character and traditions.
The Times quoted Avi Shilon, a historian at Ben-Gurion University, who said dismissively, “Mr. Netanyahu and his colleagues are acting like we are still in the battle of 1948, or in a previous era.” Judging by the fallacious, paranoid, fevered, and at times bigoted reaction to the nation-state bill, however, Bibi may have good reason to believe that Israel is still in the battle of 1948, and still defending itself against assaults on the very idea of a Jewish State.