Since its establishment in 1948, Israel has claimed to be both a Jewish state and a democratic state. But are those two aspirations achievable, or are they mutually exclusive? Can a country founded as a Jewish homeland — with a "right of return" for diaspora Jews, a flag featuring the Star of David and a national anthem that evokes the "yearning" of Jews for Zion — treat non-Jews as true, equal citizens?
It is a fundamental tension that has only intensified as the Palestinian Arab population in Israel — Christian and Muslim — has grown. Today more than 20% of the country is Palestinian.
That’s the backdrop for a controversial law Israel passed Thursday that defines the country as the “nation-state” of the Jewish people, grants advantages to Jewish-only communities and downgrades Arabic from an official language to one with a “special status.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hailed it as a major achievement; opponents called it a racist law.
The measure is more symbolic than substantive. Its most offensive provisions were removed before passage. And besides, everyone already knows Israel is a Jewish state, don’t they?
Still, it is another troubling, unnecessarily provocative move by Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition, sending a pointed message about Jewish primacy and the increasing disregard for Palestinians and their rights. The new law omits the promises of democracy and equality that are included in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. Critics fear it will entrench privilege for Jews while legitimizing discrimination against Arabs.
It’s also part of a bigger, ongoing attack on the status of Palestinian Arabs in Israel. In recent years, Israeli right-wingers have sought to exclude Arab legislators from important votes and to require Arab citizens to take loyalty oaths or be stripped of their citizenship. Palestinians have been barred from commemorating the Nakba, which marks the exodus of Palestinians when Israel was created.
Since 1948, Arabs living in Israel — those who didn't flee or weren't driven out when the state was established — have been eligible for citizenship. They may vote, criticize the government (mostly) and run for public office, privileges denied to many Arabs by governments elsewhere in the region. At its founding, Israel promised "complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex."
In practice, Arabs in Israel have often been treated as second-class citizens. Their schools and healthcare institutions are more poorly funded, their roads aren’t always as well maintained. They’ve faced limitations on where they can live and buy property.
Even in a “Jewish state,” it is wrong to privilege some people over others. Of course many Arabs in Israel sympathize with the Palestinian cause or object to the very idea of Israel. But they are citizens, and should be treated as such.