Israel's Nation-State Law: A Real Change for Minorities? A Talk by Giovanni Quer
The Guarini Institute for Public Affairs hosted an event entitled “Israel’s Nation-State Law: A Real Change for Minorities?” on September 18, 2019. The panel discussion was presented by researcher Giovanni Quer and moderated by Guarini Institute Advisory Council members Dr. Doaa Abdel-Motaal, climate change expert and Dr. Amy K. Rosenthal, journalist.
Giovanni Quer is an Italian researcher at the Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry in Tel Aviv University. Previously he worked at the Department of Public Affairs at the Embassy of Israel in Italy, Comper Center for the Study of Antisemitism and Racism at the University of Haifa, and the Forum Europa of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Quer got his Ph.D. in International Studies at the University of Trento in Italy and currently, he is pursuing his next Ph.D. at Tel Aviv University in Israel with the Department of Middle-East and African History.
The Rise of “Identity Politics”
The event kicked off with opening remarks from Dr. Abdel-Motaal, who highlighted the timeliness of holding this discussion in view of the Israeli elections and of a rise in nationalist sentiment across the globe. She also mentioned the rise in “identity politics” and populist movements seeking to capitalize on feelings of alienation created by globalization. Dr. Abdel-Motaal stated that the Nation-State Law (which specifies the nature of the State of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, and was adopted by the Knesset in 2018) was passed in a region where political tensions already run high, and where politics and religion often intertwine. As such, the law has not only divided Arabs and Jews, but also created internal divisions within the Jewish community itself.
The Nation-State Law was approved in 2018 amid a heated debate both in Israel and abroad. According to Quer, common to these criticisms is the claim that the Nation-State law narrows the scope of freedom and rights guaranteed to minorities. Indeed, the debate was also inflamed by massive public protests that gathered both Jewish and Arab citizens against the law. Quer also stated that, internationally, the EU condemned the law as a political step that jeopardizes the perspective of reaching a peace agreement based on a two-state solution. A report by Amnesty International accused the Nation-State Law of constitutionally entrenching inequality and discrimination against non-Jews. The OIC (Organization of Islamic Cooperation) also joined the general condemnations, whereas the UN refrained.
Giovanni Quer provided an overview of the Nation-State Law. In order to address the question of whether it really does change anything for Israel’s minorities, Quer first analyzed the content of the law and the main points of its criticism then described the general legal and political framework for the protection of minorities.
The Nation-State Law is comprised of 11 articles. Quer focused on articles 3-7, which are considered the most controversial. Article 3 establishes that “Jerusalem, complete and united, is the capital of Israel.” In fact, the status of Jerusalem is disputed, and Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian State. Article 4 declares that Hebrew is the official language of the state and also establishes that Arabic will have a special status, defined by the law. Thus, the law is considered to have downgraded the status of Arabic, which was the official language alongside Hebrew until 2018. Articles 5 and 6 define Israel’s relation to the Jewish people and the Jewish Diaspora. As a main goal of Jewish statehood inspired by Zionism (the narrative that promotes the re-establishment of, and support for a Jewish state in the territory defined as the historic Land of Israel), Israel aspires to be the national homeland of the scattered Jewish people in the Diaspora.
Finally, Article 7 says that “the state views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation.” Together with the article on Jerusalem, article 7 may be the most controversial, because it’s not clear whether it refers to areas under disputed sovereignty, which remain at the core of the conflict. Specifically, these are the areas where Israel has established settlements after they fell under its control following the 1967 war.
The Question of Ethnic Representation
Quer added that Israel does not recognize the principle of ethnic representation, nor does it include in any piece of legislation a clause that guarantees the equal representation of minorities. Political representation of minorities is guaranteed de facto by the electoral system, which includes ethnic political parties, and by constitutional traditions, such as the inclusion of at least one Arab judge in the Supreme Court.
Also, Quer mentioned that what is largely neglected in the debate is the striking evolution of the status of minorities since the establishment of the state. In the 1950s and 1960s, Arabs would be subject to martial law. Now they are citizens with equal rights guaranteed by the law. Since the late 1990s, Israel has struggled with the under-representation of non-Jewish minorities and over the last 20 years, different affirmative action policies have dramatically increased the presence of Arab citizens in public posts, universities, and in the private sector. Yet, according to Quer, Arab municipalities still suffer from under-budgeting. The unequal allocation of public resources and the lack of investment in public infrastructures are major points that the Arab public is struggling with. Therefore, when it comes to Israel and Jewish nationhood, Quer stated that the question is more theoretical than practical about what rights are guaranteed to non-Jews and how they are protected.
The groups that consider the existence of Israel as directly incompatible with their existence as non-Jewish minorities oppose the law as racist. According to Quer, however, this is not a common view. Some minorities opposed the law not because of what is in there, but because of what is not included, namely the reference to minorities. In light of this, Quer mentioned that the usual Arab-Jewish dichotomy does not reflect the plethora of identities that represent people according to language, national group, and religion. Arab and Jews are the two main national and linguistic groups. 20% of Israel’s population is composed of Arab-speaking communities, the, majority of whom are Muslims, Christians and Druze (some 190,000 each). Israel recognizes four religious groups: the Jews, governed by the Chief Rabbinate, the Muslims, governed by the Shari‘a Council, the Druze, governed by the Madhab, and 12 Christian denominations governed by their own judgeship. All religious groups have the power to administer religious sites, provide religious services, and manage courts.
Quer then concluded that the evolution of Israel’s minorities’ status since its foundation is underestimated, as is the capacity of minorities to mobilize and negotiate communal rights and the recognition of their legitimate public space. What should Israel do, more and better, for its minorities? This is a compelling question that is seldom addressed.