JERUSALEM — On Aug. 4, Wadie Abunassar, an Israeli Catholic activist, attended a demonstration against Israel’s new “Nation-State Law.”

Although the rally, in the mixed Jewish-Arab city of Haifa, was considerably smaller than the 100,000-strong protest held the same night in Tel Aviv, Abunassar still felt compelled to protest the legislation.

“This law is discriminatory. It is bad by all means to everyone and not only to non-Jews!” Abunassar told the Register.

Championed by Jewish conservatives, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the law codifies what many already take for granted: that Israel is the national state and homeland of the Jewish people.

But unlike Israel’s declaration of independence, the law does not refer to the equal rights of non-Jewish Israelis, who comprise more than 20% of the country’s population, and it states that only Jewish Israelis have a right to self-determination in the country. It also downgrades Arabic from an official language to a language with “special status.”

The demonstrations, which were spearheaded by Israel’s small Druze minority community, were also attended by Israeli Christians, who comprise roughly 2% of the population.

The Druze, who practice an offshoot of Islam, organized the rally to protest the law’s failure to include a guarantee of their national rights, despite being conscripted into the Israeli army.

Even though Christians are exempt from military service, they are nonetheless “an integral part of Israeli society, and many Christians participated in the protests,” Abunassar said. “But we are not acting as Christians in this regard, but as Israelis. Many laymen like myself are contacting local and foreign leaders, including the Vatican, on this issue.”

Supporters of the law say it is vitally important at a time when Palestinians and others claim that the Jewish people have no religious, cultural and historical connection to what was once the “Land of Israel.” Why should every nation except Israel have the right to determine their national religion and symbols? they ask.

Writing in The Jerusalem Post, columnist Isi Liebler called the criticism from European nations “particularly offensive” and hypocritical, given that several are governed by similar laws.

“Where is the rationale for castigating Israel for describing itself as a Jewish state? Indeed, almost a dozen European countries, including England, have official state religions,” Liebler said.

The “Palestinian Basic Law,” which will govern any future Palestinian state, declares that Islam is the religion of Palestine and that Palestinians have the right to self-determination.

 

Catholic Concerns

Critics, including many Israelis, say the law gives rights to Jews that it denies to others.

The Latin Patriarchate, which cares for Holy Land Catholics, called the Nation-State Law “a cause of great concern.”

“Seemingly enacted for internal political reasons, while defining Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people, the law fails to provide any constitutional guarantees for the rights of the indigenous and other minorities living in the country. Palestinian citizens of Israel … are flagrantly excluded from the law,” the Latin Patriarchate charged in a July 30 statement.

The vast majority of Catholics in the Holy Land, including Israel, identify themselves as Palestinian Arabs.

The Latin Patriarchate called it “beyond belief” that the law “ignores an entire segment of the population, as if its members never existed.”

While the law may not change things on the ground for Israel’s non-Jewish population, the Latin Patriarchate said, “It sends an unequivocal signal to the [ethnically] Palestinian citizens of Israel, to the effect that in this country they are not at home.”

The Latin Patriarchate criticized Israel for downgrading Arabic and for the law’s pledge to work on the development of “Jewish settlement” in the land, with no mention of the development of the country for the rest of its inhabitants.

“This basic law is exclusive rather than inclusive, disputed rather than consensual, politicized rather than being rooted in the basic norms that are common and acceptable to all fractions of the population,” the patriarchate said.

 

Constitutional Nature

In Israel, basic laws are the closest thing to a constitution and are more difficult to repeal than regular laws.

The Latin Patriarchate said the law “directly contravenes” the 1947 United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181, which portioned Palestine into separate Jewish and Palestinian territories; Israel’s declaration of independence; and Israel’s “Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty,” enacted in 1995.

The first guaranteed the establishment of a Jewish state, while ensuring full civil rights to the Arab citizens of Israel. The second vows to protect all citizens and to ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all, irrespective of religion, race or sex. The third guarantees the respect of the dignity of every person.

“Where there is discrimination, there is no dignity,” the patriarchate said. “In other words, the law says that there are not equal rights between Jews and Arabs and refuses to acknowledge their existence.”

The patriarchate said Christian Israelis have the same concerns as other non-Israeli communities with respect to the law.

It said Christians “call upon all citizens of the state of Israel who still believe in the basic concept of equality among citizens of the same nation, to voice their objection to this law and the dangers emanating thereof to the future of this country.”

 

Show of Solidarity

Following the law’s passage, thousands of Israeli Jews attended a “Mega Arabic Lesson” in Tel Aviv to show solidarity with Arabic-speaking Israelis.

“I am heartened that the majority of the demonstrators were Jews,” Wadie Abunassar said of the Haifa rally. “I take this opportunity to appeal to officials to work to consolidate true democracy, because only a democratic system ensures a better future for the state of all its citizens.”

 Michele Chabin is the Register’s

Middle East correspondent.