The governing coalition, guided by the judgment of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and Education Minister Naftali Bennett, passed Israel’s Nation-State Law by a vote of 62-55. This new Basic Law anchors Israel’s status as the nation-state of the Jewish people and affirms the Jewish people’s unique national right of self-determination in this land.

All three insist that the law did not damage Israel’s democratic nature. It was not intended to weaken any individual human rights or reduce the equal status of minorities.

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However, they did not anticipate the extent to which the perception that the law puts down Israel’s ethnic or religious minorities would gain currency among such a loyal, IDF-serving group as the Druze. Nor did they anticipate that the law would offend some of Israel’s important, devoted contributors and supporters abroad, or that it would be spun by Israel’s enemies as proof of this coalition’s antidemocratic tendencies (however exaggerated and unfair this claim is).

The government has the votes to hold firm. It can patch the law with a bill affirming the Druze’s special status in the Jewish state, while offering the community “compensation” and special help. But such a patch would only increase the feeling that the other minorities – especially the Arabs – are in fact being reduced from their equal status.

Furthermore, the largest contributor to Israel in the United Kingdom, Vivien Duffield, reacted by saying that “the Israel I love is dead.” Ron Lauder – for decades now, one of the major donors and activists for Israel in the Jewish world – wrote publicly that this law alienates Diaspora Jewry, damages Israel’s relationship to the Jewish people and threatens its standing as a democratic country.

Perhaps Nation-State Law supporters feel that these are overreactions, or improper interventions in Israel’s internal politics, or even a form of aiding and abetting people with bad intentions toward the Jewish state. Still, one should not simply ignore the profound anguish expressed by such longtime, devoted supporters.

The prime minister has said that the passage of a nation-state bill affirms Israel’s character as the exercise of self-determination by the Jewish people. He defended the law as expressing “the essence of Zionism” and called it “a law of the highest importance.” He hailed its passage as “a defining moment in the history of the state.”

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For these very reasons, such a Basic Law should not be adopted by a vote of 62-55. A law confirming the essence of Zionism should be passed by an 80%-90% margin in the Knesset. That would make clear that the Jewishness of Israel is not a narrow, right-wing political assertion; nor is the Jewish character of the state denied by the left-wing opposition.

Now is the moment for an act of statesmanship by Netanyahu, Kahlon and Bennett. They should reach out to the opposition and negotiate a bipartisan, wall-to-wall supporting alliance for the Nation-State Law. This could be obtained by adding a phrase “with full equality for all citizens, regardless of race, religion and sex” (MK Bennie Begin had proposed such a phrase a long time ago).
I also would urge restoring Arabic as an official language rather than equivocating by defining it as of “special status,” while affirming in another sentence that nothing in the bill should be construed as demoting the Arabic language from its previous standing in Israel.

These few, highly symbolic changes would enable passage with 80-90 votes or more. This would make crystal clear to all that the Jewish people in Israel (and in Diaspora) overwhelmingly want Israel to be, truly, both a Jewish state and a democratic state.
There is evidence that if the bill is kept in its narrow form and the opposition can be portrayed as opposed or lukewarm to the Jewish nature of the state, Netanyahu, Kahlon or Bennett could pick up extra seats in the coming Knesset. But in leaving the Nation-State Law as a perceived sectoral bill, the overriding goal to anchor the Jewish character of Israel would be weakened. The Jewish definition could end up being seen as a partisan, political imposition.

This is what statesmen do. They pass up short-term electoral advantage for the sake of the greater good of society. Such an act of statesmanship from these three would not only respect Israel’s minorities, reassure Israel’s offended Diaspora friends and undercut the false narrative that a right-wing government is eroding Israel’s democracy. It would also earn the honorable gentlemen an honorable mention in the annals of Jewish history.

The writer served as rabbi, Jewish studies professor, adult Jewish educator and activist in the American Jewish community. He was founding president of Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation, one of the initiators of Taglit-Birthright Israel.

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