In Israel, is patriotism ‘the last refuge of a scoundrel?’

Israel has always struggled to reconcile between the aspiration of being Jewish and Democratic

Yossi Mekelberg
Yossi Mekelberg
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From day to day and from week to week it increasingly feels that the current Israeli government is taking the country on a path of self-destruction. In the process, it compromises Israel’s image among nations almost irreparable. This last week was the government’s turn to vote in favour of the awkwardly named piece of legislation called the “nation-state bill.” The suggested bill codifies, for all means and purposes, the already existing sad reality that minorities in Israel do not entertain the same rights as the Jewish majority. They might technically be equal citizens, however, they possess negligible influence on the character and running of the state. So far there is more than one version of the purposed law, and none of them, from what we know, make pleasant reading. Whatever version is suggested, they all contradict the Israeli declaration of independence which guarantees “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.” By this the founding fathers surely meant to include all the non-Jews in Israel.

Nothing is more telling about the intentions of those who submit the nation-state law than their suggestion to remove Arabic language as a second official language of the state

Yossi Mekelberg

Since the very early days of independence Israel struggled to reconcile between the aspiration of being Jewish and Democratic, two notions which are not easily reconciled. Only a definition of Judaism which does not infer superiority over other communities that are not Jewish can leave a room for democratic polity. On the other hand, when certain privileges are allotted only to those who happen to be Jewish, it leads one to question how democratic Israel actually is. The new proposed bill has at least two versions. The more extreme version is suggested by a group of far-right members of the Israeli Knesset, while the apparently softer version is pursued by Prime Minister Netanyahu himself. Both versions are divisive and damaging, reflecting troubling ideology by some and a populist agenda by others, who have picked up the scent of looming elections. Widening cracks in the coalition government increases the likelihood of early elections, and with it politicians on the right, including Prime Minister Netanyahu, are releasing a jingoistic agenda, which is the only political currency they know.

Boiling point

At a time that relations with the Palestinians in the occupied territories are reaching boiling point, the last thing Israel needs is to provoke its Arab citizens through marginalising them. This move is made by those who would like to deliberately provoke the Arab citizens of Israel, by rubbing in their faces that the Jewish population dictates the character and values of the state of Israel. The Arab population faces daily discrimination when it comes to budgets, the right to buy land, and access to benefits, let alone wide institutional discrimination. The new bill, if it passes, legalises and legitimises the unequal status of Arabs within Israel.

More than ten years ago, the Israeli government appointed the Or Commission to identify not only the direct causes of violent clashes between police and Arab citizens of Israel in October 2000, but also to establish their root causes. In these clashes, the worse since the establishment of the state of Israel, 13 young Arabs were killed by the security forces and many more injured in the northern region of the Galilee. The commission, led by Supreme Court Justice Theodore Or, stated in no uncertain terms that the events were due to “Government’s handling of the Arab sector has been primarily neglectful and discriminatory. The establishment did not show sufficient sensitivity to the needs of the Arab population, and did not take enough action in order to allocate state resources in an equal manner. The state did not do enough or try hard enough to create equality for its Arab citizens or to uproot discriminatory or unjust phenomenon.” To rectify this intolerable state of affairs, in 2003 the commission recommended the development of adequate programmes and allocation of resources which would close the gap in areas such as education, housing, employment and services between the Jewish and Arab populations in Israel. Admittedly there was some progress in some areas. Nevertheless, a decade later, this disparity still exists and is a source of great resentment among Arabs in Israel. Instead of recognising that Israeli-Arabs are an important and integral part of the Israeli society and embracing this notion, the prime minister and his allies embarked on damaging what are already very fragile relationships.

Tricky circumstances

Nonetheless, despite very tricky circumstances, the Arab Israeli population has been law abiding and loyal with very few exceptions. Its contribution to the Israeli economy and society has been impressive and continues to be increasingly so. In the bad old tradition of populist-nationalists, the Israeli right undermines and provokes the Arab minority and when they react to it, sometimes badly, it becomes the right’s so-called evidence of Arab-Israeli disloyalty. It is the same distorted logic which suggests to build the Third Temple on Mount Temple, where the al-Aqsa Mosque stands, and expects no protestation from the Muslim world.

Nothing is more telling about the intentions of those who submit the nation-state law than their suggestion to remove Arabic language as a second official language of the state, a status it has had, along with Hebrew, since the establishment of the state of Israel. The suggestion in the new bill to remove Arabic from its status as an official language epitomises the tragic decline of the Israeli leadership. They prompt confrontation and conflict when there is actually an acute need for dialogue and sensitivity. Whenever one contests the inequality of Arabs in Israel, the demagogues among the Israelis assert that they enjoy more rights than most people in the Middle East. Regardless of how much truth there is in this argument, it is a very flawed one for a country that takes pride in being “the only democracy in the Middle East.” The new proposed Jewish nation-state bill will only further undermine their citizenship in the Jewish state and leaves the Israeli claims of being a democracy vulnerable and on shaky ground.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the new law was criticised not only by the more obvious liberal minded in the Israeli society, but also by some major past and present figures in the Likud party, including President Rivlin and former Defence Minister Moshe Arens. The latter, who harbours rather hawkish opinions, called the new bill useless and harmful. Even a number of the coalition partners also expressed their opposition to this new legislation, while hundreds of demonstrators protested on Sunday in front of the prime minister’s residency against the proposed bill. Not only are many Israelis irritated by the bill, but is has also attracted criticism from around the world. A New York Times’ editorial called the bill “heart-breaking” and warned that it would antagonise the Arab minority even further and would “erode Israel’s standing among democratic nations.”

As with so many other decisions by the current Israeli government and its prime minister, the nation-state bill defies any logic and harms Israel’s own national interest. It can be only be explained in a terms of twisted ideology combined with sheer populism. These type of harmful acts and statements have moved up a gear because it became increasingly likely that fresh elections might be called soon. For Netanyahu and his political allies, nationalism and patriotism always seem to be the answer when they are incapable of constructively addressing the real challenges Israel faces. This reminds me of an observation made by the English writer Samuel Johnson wrote that “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” Some might argue that the new Jewish nation-state bill might just reflect this statement.


Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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