Event Overview by Tom Rozanov
American University’s Center for Israel Studies led a talk at the Washington Hebrew Congregation on Sept. 27, 2018, inviting two Israeli experts moderated by AU professor Lauren Strauss discussing a law that questioned Israel’s democracy and Arab-Jewish relations.
In July 2018, Israel’s parliament passed a controversial Basic Law, known as the Nation-State law, which has been widely discussed and debated among Israeli politicians, activists, civil society and the Jewish diaspora. The law also received widespread news coverage and a fair share of criticism by Western media and intellectuals.
While the law recognizes Jewish elements in Israel such as Jewish symbols, the Jewish calendar, Hebrew, and so forth, the bill doesn’t explicitly include equal rights and privileges to Arab-Israeli’s that make up nearly 21 percent of Israel’s population or around 1.8 million people.
“We need to pay attention not to what it says but what it doesn’t say,” said invited speaker professor Arie Dubnov, an Israeli historian who teaches at George Washington University.
Critics argue that the law is leading Israel’s politics into a right-wing direction that may harm Arab-Jewish relations and pose a threat to Israel’s democratic values.
“The law lacks promises for democracy and protection of non-Jewish citizens,” Dubnov said.
The discussion lasted about an hour and a half while both speakers shared their views and was moderated by professor Lauren Strauss, director of the undergraduate Jewish studies program at AU.
Professor Dubnov proposed a historic lens, “The Israeli Basic Laws are not a product of long deliberation…Unlike the founding fathers, Ben Gurion is no Jefferson and Jerusalem is no Philadelphia,” he said.
Second speaker, professor Mohammed Wattad offered a unique Arab-Israeli perspective as a respected legal scholar and first Muslim dean of a law school in Israel. “Israeli laws do enough protecting human rights but there are not enough laws protecting Jewish identity,” Wattad said. “Don’t look at intentions of the framers, look at practical realities: Jewish identity is greater than democratic values,” he added.
Both speakers agreed that the nation-state law could be improved, but also that Israeli legislature is a unique system in and of itself. “Basic Laws can be easily changed, with a two to one vote” said Wattad. “Basic laws are tricky laws as there’s no written constitution,” Dubnov said.
“It’s nice to have two different perspectives from two highly knowledgeable intellectuals,” said professor Strauss in a post-event interview. “Achieving a balance was something we considered when selecting speakers.”
“Many interpret that the law as saying the non-Jewish population in Israel are some sort of second-degree citizens,” Dubnov said in an interview after the event. “The right says: true, wonderful, it’s about time that we will say it. Openly, proudly, not to be ashamed of it. While the left says: horrible, where is equality? It’s impossible…Even though this is a laymen’s interpretation, it’s still the perception of Israel by both right and left.”
“I think the law is redundant in some areas, we already have the law of return, what’s going to be the anthem, etc.,” said Michael Farro, a Virginia native who studied Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and came to the event. “Declaring that when you have a country with around two million minority. I think there wasn’t really a pressing need to do that.”
With the upcoming Israeli parliamentary elections in 2019, the law raises important questions about the direction of Israel’s democracy and the implications for society. “I think the elections could be a topic for a future event,” professor Strauss said.