Return to the ghetto: Israel’s Nation State Law would make early Zionists turn in their graves

This week, Israel’s “Nation State” law has caused outrage. In his usual way, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has steamrolled the bill forwards saying he hopes to see it pass before the Knesset enters its summer recess next week. A final version of the bill was discussed by Knesset members on Tuesday, with Israel’s President, Reuven Rivlin, expressing his opposition to its contents in a rare political intervention. Israel’s Attorney General, Avichai Mendelblit, warned Netanyahu of “possible implications for Israel in the international arena” if the bill was passed “in its current form”, prompting the Likud party to consider diluting its most controversial aspects.

An article in Haaretz details the specifics of the proposed law. It explains that the move comes after Israeli politicians – specifically those on the right – have been pushing since 2013 for legislation that would enshrine Israel’s Jewish character in law. The proposed “Nation State” law would become a Basic Law, effectively giving it “constitutional-like status”. Those on the left have decried the law as undemocratic, saying it legitimises preferential treatment of Jews and will further institutionalise discrimination against Israel’s non-Jewish population, estimated to constitute 2.2 million of the country’s 8.8 million-strong population as of 2018.

No aspect of the “Nation State” bill has proved more controversial than the clause providing legal justification for Jewish-only towns. The clause in question reads: “The state can allow a community composed of people of the same faith or nationality to maintain an exclusive community,” effectively giving the green light for the self-ghettoisation of Jews in Israel. For anyone with an understanding of Jewish history in Europe, such a notion should ring alarm bells.

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For centuries, Jews in Europe faced entrenched discrimination, violent pogroms and systematic repression. Their situation differed depending on their location. For those in the former Russian Empire, life was conducted inside the Pale of Settlement, a specifically designated area in which Jews could live that roughly encompasses modern-day Belarus, Lithuania and Moldova, as well as parts of Ukraine and Poland. In Western and Central Europe ghettos were also commonplace, with major cities such as Frankfurt, Rome and Prague all containing specific neighbourhoods where Jews were required to live.

Settlement – Cartoon [Sarwar Ahmed/MiddleEastMonitor]

By the late 18th century, Jewish communities in Western Europe began to fare better. Ghettos were abolished, and in France Jews integrated into everyday society and were able to undertake positions in the military and civil service and exercise their political rights as equal citizens. Yet in Germany in the 1930s, as National Socialism swept the country, Jews could still be found living in inner-city ghettos, until they were systematically rounded up.

The ghettoisation of European Jewry, in its varying degrees, provided impetus to a new movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This movement was Zionism. Spurred on by the Dreyfus Affair (1894-1906), in which a French Jew was incorrectly convicted of treason and sparked a national scandal, Zionism set about finding a solution to the “Jewish Question”. Early Zionist thinkers began to reassess Jewish identity, looking for a way to free the Jewish people of characteristics they were deemed to have developed during their life in the ghetto. Some were convinced that Jews no longer had a place in Europe and began pushing for a state of the Jews in Uganda or Palestine. Others believed this would only further detach the Jewish people from their surroundings, and advocated for further integration in to European society.

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Whichever strand of Zionism these thinkers adhered to, they were united in the perceived need to rid Jews of anything that made them different and therefore singled them out for ridicule, abuse and, at its most extreme, violence and death. All envisaged an end to the ghettoisation of Jews in Europe, both physically and culturally. Over 100 years later, Israel’s “Nation State” law threatens a repeat of this dark period in Jewish history and would leave Zionism’s founding thinkers turning in their graves.

Of course, the circumstances, not least the geographic and political context, are markedly different. In Israel, perhaps the creeping normalisation of segregation has left Israelis blind to the trajectory of their country. In June, residents of Afula, a city near Nazareth in the north of Israel, demonstrated against the sale of a house to a Palestinian citizen of Israel. Afula’s Mayor, Avi Elkabetz, supported the protests, saying: “The residents of Afula don’t want a mixed city, but rather a Jewish city, and it’s their right. This is not racism.” Responding to the move, Member of the Knesset (MK) Yousef Jabareen of the Joint List said that “racism, ethnic superiority has become a legitimate reality under this right-wing government” and that “this protest should rock the political system.”

Residents of northern Israeli town Afula demonstrate against the sale of a house to a family of Palestinian citizens on 13 June 2018 [Twitter]

Residents of northern Israeli town Afula demonstrate against the sale of a house to a family of Palestinian citizens on 13 June 2018 [Twitter]

Perhaps the fact that the repercussions of segregation are usually felt most severely by Palestinian citizens of Israel has meant that Jewish Israelis have thus far been able to ignore the problem. When Palestinian women were shown to be separated from Jewish women in Israeli hospitals, it was the former who demanded an end to the policy and compensation for such discrimination. When statistics showed that infant mortality rates were nearly three times higher among Palestinian citizens of Israel than their Jewish counterparts in 2017, very few Israelis lost sleep.

Yet none of these daily instances of segregation mean that history should be forgotten, nor that when that history looks doomed to repeat itself, action shouldn’t be taken. Rather than worrying about the way in which the “Nation State” law will impact Israel’s international appearance as a “Jewish and democratic” state, perhaps Israelis would do well to take a minute and ask if this is the kind of existence they want for themselves. A return to the ghetto marks a return to an age of prejudice, discrimination and violence, this time for Jewish and Palestinian Israelis alike. To be forced into this situation as a 19th century minority is one thing, to bring it upon yourself in the 21st century is quite another.

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