Forward Thinking

In Knesset, Populism Trumps Reason

By Gal Beckerman

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Avi Dichter

What is happening in the Knesset?

It seems that every week brings forth a new bill that would curtail some aspect of Israel’s democracy. As Carlo Strenger writes in Haaretz today, “It is hard to avoid the impression that the parliamentarians of the 19th Knesset have engaged in a ferocious competition for chauvinism and anti-liberalism.”

I guess as long as this was limited to initiatives by Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu — both of which have members, like MK Danny Danon, who have expressed deeply anti-democratic sentiments — it was hard to make an argument that this was a more widespread trend. Just this week, Netanyahu put the kibosh on a bill that would have cut foreign funding to NGOs, undoing what for Danon was a direct attempt, as he elegantly put it, at “uprooting the lesion that is the extreme Left from Israeli society.” So, somehow, it seemed there were still adults in the house.

But there is another bill that has been barreling through the Knesset this month, this time coming from the nominally centrist Kadima party. Though its leader Tzipi Livni has been very critical of the legislative initiatives coming from the right, members of her party have apparently been trying to compete with them. The bill in question was proposed by Avi Dichter, the former head of the Shin Bet, and is called the “Basic Law on Israel - the Nation-State of the Jewish People.” It’s intended as an all-purpose declaration of principles for the state, a substitute in a way for the elusive Israeli constitution. But in its first version, the bill described Israel’s imperatives in such broad brush strokes, that it created potentially serious problems for the country’s sizable minority population (particularly its largest, the 20 percent who are Arab). So problematic was it that Dichter went and came up with a second version.

Now political scientist and former MK Shlomo Avineri writes that this new iteration of the bill does not improve on the last, but is still very obviously a way of answering the nationalistic voices on the right. In the initial bill Hebrew was called “the official language.” It’s now been changed to “the language of the state” but this does little to change the implicit dismissal of Arabic (a language spoken by a large portion of the population). There’s also the problem of paragraph 8a, which demands that “the history of the Jewish people, its heritage and tradition will be taught in all the educational institutions that serve the Jewish public.” Who can agree on the precise definition of any of these things? And what is the point of codifying this fact, beyond its function in scoring political points?

The real problem, however, is the vagueness of the proposed bill. It makes all kind of claims that are at the same time obvious and irrelevant, like that “the state will work to gather in the exiles” (Paragraph 6) and “the state will act to strengthen the bond between Israel and the Jews in the Diaspora” (Paragraph 7). As Avineri states in his piece, this statements are “mere rhetoric and certainly have no place in a Basic Law” and “anyone who thinks legal wording like this or some other wording — rather than a political reality — will protect Israel is suffering from a moral eclipse.”

It’s hard not to agree with his conclusion that for Dichter and the other Kadima lawmakers, this is just an ill thought out capitulation to the forces on the right now beating their chests about loyalty oaths and subversive forces within the country.

I’ll leave the last word to Avineri:

In short, the chaos that will reign here if the bill is passed reflects the amateurishness and hastiness of the proposal that seeks to assuage populist inclinations and ignores a long list of expected and unexpected side effects. The bill tries to create facts regarding the complex Israeli reality’s most sensitive issues. That’s exactly why Israeli parliamentarians have had difficulty legislating a constitution. There is no benefit in the bill, but its damage is enormous.


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