In the shadow of Israel’s nation-state law: The Left ducks

The first to take to the streets against the rising tide of anti-democratic legislation was the LGBT community on July 22, 2018. They protested the government’s surrogacy law that discriminates against gay men, raising the banner of equality and drawing support from both the private sector and liberal circles. This was undoubtedly an opening shot that ignited new protests, this time against the nation-state law, which prioritizes Israel’s Jewish sector. On August 4, the Druze, waving their five-colored flags, filled Rabin Square. They received a warm embrace from the security establishment, led by former Shin Bet Director Yuval Diskin, who delivered a scathing speech against the law. This Saturday, the Israeli Arab Monitoring Committee will try to fill the square to protest what they see as an emerging apartheid regime. However, there is a split within the opposition camps: the LGBT, Druze, and Palestinians will always march separately.

While sectoral flags are being raised, one flag is absent – the flag of democracy. Fifty-five Knesset members (MKs) voted against the nation-state law – 14 were from the largely Arab Joint List. The remaining 41 failed to organize a rally that would unite all forces opposing the national law, in order to demonstrate their power against the right wing, fractious government that is tearing Israeli society apart.

MKs and activists from the Left attend various demonstrations: they support the LGBT community on Saturday night, return a week later to show solidarity with the Druze, and some will also appear on August 11 as a sign of solidarity with the Arab sector. They hide behind the downtrodden but refuse to stand in the forefront of the struggle against a racist law that tramples the principle of equality.

Why? What prevents the heads of the opposition, the Labor Party, aka Zionist Camp, and Yesh Atid from calling for mass protests against the nation-state law that they opposed in parliament? Both parties are in lockstep with key sections of Israeli society that are fed up with the behavior of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his ministers. This group attempts to secure its electoral future by inciting against the Supreme Court, the New Israel Fund, Ashkenazi elites, the press, writers, and artists, and especially against the Arabs. Why are the opposition MKs hiding behind the LGBT and Druze instead of storming the barricades themselves? After all, the nation-state law was not intended to harm the Arab or Druze population. The real target is the Supreme Court and the liberal character of Israeli society as expressed in the Declaration of Independence.

Signed and proclaimed in 1948, the Declaration of Independence reflected a broad consensus that included Communists and Revisionists, the National Religious and Herut. It promised “full and equal citizenship” for all of Israel’s citizens, “irrespective of religion, race or gender.” This statement did not prevent the enactment of discriminatory laws against the Arab population that favored the Jewish majority: the Law of Return, the Absentees’ Law, zoning and building laws, and tax and budgetary policies that have discriminated against the Arab population for 70 years.

What led to the enactment of the nation-state law are the rulings of the Supreme Court of Israel, such as decisions that prevented the expulsion of asylum seekers from Africa, that allowed Arabs to purchase land in Jewish towns, that evacuated illegal outposts in occupied territory, and other decisions that impeded the Right’s attempt to change the face of Israeli society. In the wings is the “Basic Law on Legislation,” which will define the limits of judicial review for years to come. In other words, the Arabs are the excuse, but the goal is to change the liberal lifestyle and the fruits of democracy enjoyed by the Jewish majority. It was not necessary to pass a nation-state law. Discrimination thrives without it.

The government openly admits that the Left is the target; the Left is the internal enemy and it must be defeated. “If we look at the hysteria that has gripped the Left in the face of this law, I think it is excellent,” Minister Yariv Levin said in an interview with Haaretz on August 6. What is of great importance to Levin is the hysteria of the Left and not the panic gripping the Arabs. The factor that threatens the peace and security of the coalition is undoubtedly the Zionist leftist opposition, not the Arab-dominated Joint List.

The purpose of the nation-state law is to ensure that the right-wing government continues to rule for as long as possible. When Standard & Poor’s upgrades Israel’s credit rating, and Trump continues, with Putin’s help, to drive the US and the world crazy, the nation-state law is just a sideshow, a global footnote that helps Netanyahu mobilize his base and neutralize the opposition.

How can the Zionist Left dare oppose a law that says that the State of Israel belongs only to the Jewish people? How can Avi Gabbay, head of the Labor Party (a.k.a. the Zionist Camp) support the protesters in the square when he himself has declared that the Left “has forgotten what it means to be Jews,” adding, “We are Jews, living in a Jewish state. I think one of the Labor Party’s problems is that it has distanced itself from that”? After all, it is clear that Netanyahu has the upper hand in the ‘who is more Jewish’ competition. The nation-state law aims to pull the rug out from under Labor’s Gabbay, and it gives Netanyahu the competitive edge over Yesh Atid’s strongman, Yair Lapid, who is trying to out-bibi Bibi.

Nevertheless, the Left is content to see the LGBT and the Druze rallying at Rabin Square, since they aren’t necessarily leftists. Both groups represent a broader spread: MKs Itzik Shmuli (Labor) and Amir Ohana (Likud) are gay, while Ayoub Kara is a Druze Likud minister, and Salah Saad is of Labor. If they were leftists, Netanyahu would have no trouble dismissing them. But because they represent a wider circle in public opinion and enjoy public support, he is in danger of having to pay a political price.

Despite the above, Tzipi Livni (recently appointed as leader of the opposition) is still trying to spearhead the struggle, and promises, if elected, to override the nation-state law with the Declaration of Independence. However,the Declaration of Independence does not have the power to build a truly democratic and egalitarian society. Moreover, it even prepared the ground upon which the nation-state law is built. Discrimination against the Arab population and the division between Jews and Arabs are the fertile soil from which the Israeli Right arose. Since 1948, and despite the Declaration of Independence, Israel conquered the West Bank and Gaza and established an occupation that has lasted 50 out of its 70 years of existence.The marriage between the revisionist and messianic Right, together with the Ashkenazi and Mizrahi ultraorthodox, forms a stable coalition that can lead a counter-constitutional revolution and set up a benighted nationalist-religious regime.

In order to block the right-wing revolution, the Left must adopt a comprehensive program that will be a clear and unambiguous answer to the Right. Confronting the Jewish State, we must advocate for a truly democratic state, a state of all its citizens. Confronting the Occupation and the separate laws for settlers and Palestinians, we must present a far-reaching solution based on a single democratic state with equality and majority rule. Ironically, the Declaration of Independence states that Israel will “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or gender. It will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education,and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions, and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations…and will take steps to bring about the economic union of the whole of Eretz-Israel.”

Economic unity already exists. It is based on the single Customs Envelope for Israel and the Palestinian Authority, one currency, and almost complete economic integration, but without equality or political rights. The Left has lost its vision; it has no political path and no socioeconomic alternative, and therefore it remains weak and doomed. The vision of a single state, a shared economy,and one constitution can defeat the Israeli Right and ensure peace and democracy. This is conditioned, of course, on Israelis and Palestinians finding a way of joining forces for the creation of a new reality.

*Translated from the Hebrew by Robert Goldman

About Yacov Ben Efrat