Israel’s Jewish “Nation-State” Law and the Nazis.

**This piece is adapted from an op-ed written for a seminar this previous fall.

In July 2018, Israel passed a new law commonly known as the Jewish “nation-state law.”  As the newest version of Israel’s “basic law,” the legislation contains several controversial articles that have caused some international activist groups to label Israel as a pseudo-apartheid state, including a report from the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia.  Others have chided Israel for passing laws that parallel Nazi Germany’s Nuremburg Laws or acts passed shortly after Hitler came to power in 1933.

Is there a proper parallel from Israel’s newest Basic Law that leads back to the actions of Nazi Germany?  The answer is no, but that does not make Israel’s law a morally good piece of legislation.  First proposed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet in 2014, the law went through debate and revision by the cabinet and the Knesset before being voted on in 2018.  Ultimately, the bill presents a dilemma that strikes at the heart of Israel’s competing identities of a Jewish and democratic state.

So, what’s included in the law that makes it so controversial?  There are three primary components of the law that caused a stir.  Firstly, the law states that, “The fulfillment of the right of national self-determination in the State of Israel is the unique to the Jewish people.”  Non-Jewish Arabs make up approximately 21 percent of the population of Israel, with another four percent being non-Jewish and non-Arabs.  Many observers question whether this self-determination statement is an attempt to begin a slow rollback of minority voting rights.

Secondly, the law affirms that, “Hebrew is the language of the state.”  Heretofore the state had not identified an official language, and both Arabic and Hebrew held important statuses within the country.  Although the law does state that Arabic has a, “special status in the state,” this officialization of Hebrew as Israel’s language seems to make Arabic second class.

Thirdly, regarding settlement actively, “The state views Jewish settlement as a national value and will labor to encourage and promote its establishment and development.”  Every year, more and more Palestinian West Bank territory becomes Israeli settlements as the country continues to build more living complexes closer to the Jordan River.  Beyond the nation-state law, settlement activity – long an area that the United States openly discouraged – has now been approvingly sanctioned by the United States, as demonstrated by Secretary of State Pompeo’s recent remarks offering legal cover for settlement construction.

The nation-state law passed in July 2018 clearly institutes controversial language into Israel’s Basic Law.  Any mention of Nazi Germany and Israel in a discussion of human rights is sure to raise eyebrows.  But the question is worth exploring considering the level of emotion and paradoxical human rights concerns directed at Israel.  How do these laws and the associated rhetoric compare to Hitler’s Germany in the early 1930’s?  Let’s examine some of the early legal actions soon after the Nazi’s took power.

Nazi Germany and the Jews in the Early 1930’s

The anti-Jewish legislation in prewar Nazi Germany came in three major waves, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial and Museum (USHMM).  The first wave, 1933-1934, came almost immediately after Hitler came to power in January 1933.  According to the USHMM, the first law that restricted Jews in Germany was the April, “Law for the Restoration of the Civil Service,” which excluded Jews from federal service.  This was the first law as part of the, “Aryan Paragraph,” a group of laws and regulations that slowly stripped Jews rights in public life.

In the same month, university enrollment for Jews was limited, and the governments of cities, localities, and regions moved to curtail various Jewish rights in the medical, legal, and financial professions.  The rule of government and law broke down during this time too.  A fire at the Reichstag on February 27 led to a large-scale roundup of the primary threat, communists.  Hitler was granted “emergency powers” on February 28, and the first concentration camp at Dachau was established on March 20 to hold political prisoners and enemies of the state.  It wasn’t long before the “hysteria” in Germany transferred away from fear of communists to targeting the Jewish minority and other non-Aryans.

Other anti-Jewish actions came to be.  In early April 1933, the Nazis announced a nationwide boycott of Jewish businesses and establishments that, although not entirely successful at rallying the public to the cause, laid the foundation for future activities.  Over the next year, the German federal government continued a removal of Jewish and non-Aryan rights, including removal from occupations, forbidding to perform as actors, and laws prohibiting some Kosher adherences.  By 1935, Hitler’s Germany was ready to enact a second wave of legal measures targeting the Jews.

At the annual party rally held at Nuremburg in September 1935, the Nazi’s announced a new set of laws commonly known as the “Nuremburg Laws.”  These laws prohibited Jews to hold German citizenship, removed their right to vote or hold office, and prohibited sexual relations between Jews and ethnic Germans.  The decrees also cast a wide net in the definition of Jewishness.  Someone was counted as a Jew if they had three or four Jewish grandparents.  The laws paid no mention to whether someone actually thought of themselves as Jewish or not.  People who had not practiced Judaism in years or had converted to Christianity still fell under the new laws.

As with the earlier laws, the announcement of the “Nuremburg Laws” heralded in a new round of municipal and regional legislation that further targeted the Jewish people of Germany.  Some areas banned Jews from entering hospitals for care, while the central government took the step of removing Jewish names from the scrolls of World War I dead soldiers who had sacrificed for Germany.  The government aimed to “Aryanize” all Jewish businesses by dismissing Jewish workers and managers and purchasing Jewish businesses at meager government-fixed prices.  Although Hitler ensured that the anti-Jewish activity was toned down in time for the 1936 Berlin Olympics that summer, this short reprieve did not last long.

The final wave of anti-Jewish legislation and actions prior to the war occurred in 1937-1938.  The Nazis expanded on the prior laws that were enacted over the previous several years.  More Jewish businesses were purchased, Jewish doctors were not permitted to treat non-Jews, and licenses were revoked for those practicing the law.  Additional measures targeted identification.  Those Jews who did not have properly Jewish first names were required to add Jewish surnames, and those with passports needed to have the letter “J” stamped on the inside.

The culmination of prewar anti-Jewish activity occurred in November 1938 with “Kristallnacht,” or “Night of the Broken Glass.”  Following the assassination of a German embassy official in Paris by a young expatriate Jew, massive and widespread pogroms occurred against Jews in Germany, Austria, and the Sudetenland.  In the violence and looting, hundreds of synagogues were destroyed, Jewish relics and Torah scrolls decimated, and at least 30,000 men shipped off to concentration camps.  Hitler blamed the Jews themselves for the rioting and instituted a one billion Reichsmark fine against the Jewish population, taken directly out of insurance payments to Jews whose businesses were destroyed.

The Kristallnacht destruction paved the way for more legislation, including eliminating many Jews from almost any form of employment in the private sector (public sector employment had been banned earlier).  Jews were not allowed to possess driver’s licenses, attend theaters, or watch movies and concerts.  Jewish children were expelled from school.  The Nazi regime moved directly toward the policy of forced emigration from Germany to Eastern Europe.  From 1933-1939, Nazi Germany moved slowly yet deliberately in its anti-Jewish efforts, targeting Jews in every aspect of German society  and clearing the way for the eventual effort to completely eliminate the Jews from Europe.

Israel’s Situation Today

Clearly the barbarism, the extent, and the direct targeting of the Nazi laws against Jews in Germany were on a scale and atrociousness that is not matched by Israel’s actions against Palestinians or Arab-Israeli citizens.  Not even close.  And it is rightful to remind readers that Israel itself was founded as a homeland for the Jews following the horrific devastation wrought against the Jewish people in Europe during the World War II era.  Yet, since its founding, Israel has been committed to not only being a home for the Jews but also a free and democratic state.  The Israeli “nation-state law” does represent a slight contradiction to Israel’s governing values and a concerning rise in Jewish ethnic nationalism in the country.  There are a few ways in which the law causes reason for disturbance.

Firstly, the law states that the right of self-determination is unique to the Jewish people.  The exact meaning of this phrase is not clear.  Arab citizens of Israel, and other non-Jewish citizens, have maintained their right to vote since the law’s passage, and Israeli democracy continues to flourish as Prime Minister Netanyahu is under legal scrutiny.  But language that leaves room for ambiguity regarding self-determination and democratic participation can be manipulated and utilized during a later time when leaders take power who are not so concerned with the rights of all citizens.  The Nazis did not remove the right to vote from Jews until late in 1935.

Secondly, the establishment of Hebrew as the official language may seem appropriate on the surface, given that Israel is the Jewish homeland.  At the same time, 25 percent of Israel’s population is non-Jewish, and most of that minority population is Arabic speaking.  The precedence of making a language “official” in a democratic state is a cautious road as well.  Many of the German laws that targeted the Jews didn’t deal with language, but they focused on specific rituals important to Jewish identity, including kosher butchering, places of worship, and historically Jewish occupations.  Movements that begin segregating on lines of language can easily spread to other areas of ethnic differences, as witnessed in apartheid South Africa or the American south under Jim Crow.

Thirdly, the encouragement of settlement activity continues a discouraging trend of the slow Israeli takeover of the Palestinian West Bank.  As of May 2018, over a half-million Israeli settlers live in West Bank territory in settlement complexes that house tens of thousands of people.  As one Vox article on settlements explains, “Settlements create what Israelis and Palestinians call ‘new facts on the ground.’  Palestinian communities are split apart and their connection to the land weakened, while Jewish communities put down roots in territory meant for Palestinians.”  The article continues, “The settlements and the military occupation required to defend them makes life really difficult for Palestinians.  [They] are excluded from certain Israeli-only roads and forced to go through a number of security checkpoints.”

The lines are extremely blurred for any future Palestinian state, and the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled in a 2004 opinion that the settlements violate international law (although Israel claims they are legal).  And, the question arises: as Israel takes over more territory in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, what happens to the more than 2.5 million Palestinians  who live there?  Is Israel to make Palestinians second-class citizens or incorporate an ethnic minority of Palestinians into Israel and possibly risk becoming an Israel with a Jewish minority?

Powerful Rhetoric

Recent Israeli political rhetoric led by Israeli Prime Minister and Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu has intensified concerns about the anti-Arab trajectory of Israeli politics.  In March, the Prime Minister took to Facebook to remind voters that, “Israel is not a state of all its citizens.”  He later clarified that the state will respect the “individual rights of all its citizens,” but Israel, “Is the nation-state, not of all its citizens, but only of the Jewish people.”  And as the fall election neared in 2019, Netanyahu continued his powerful language.  “The Arabs want to annihilate us all – women, children and men,” said a campaign Facebook message sent to voters.

Similar language was used by the Nazis during the reign of anti-Jewish activity in the early 1930’s.  In March 1933, Nazi Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels took to the airwaves to explain and justify the upcoming boycott of Jewish businesses as a constructive and appropriate means for Germans to express their antipathy toward Jews in the country.  “The Jews in Germany are guests,” Goebbels warned, “If they believe they can misuse our hospitality they are sadly mistaken.”  And at the September 1935 Nuremburg Nazi party rally, Goebbels again spoke to the crowd about the Jewish “subhumans” attacking German and civilized culture.  Although the recent rhetoric by Prime Minister Netanyahu is concerning, the language used is not quite at the level that Nazis like Josef Goebbels used in the 1930’s.  Nevertheless, language has been used in history, including the Nazi era, to rally supporters, encourage action, and slowly move a society to accept more extreme measures against targeted population groups.

Israel is Not Nazi Germany

Israel’s recent ethnic-nationalist trend is not on the level of the Nazis anti-Jewish wave.  Israel has not taken legislative measures to curb the rights of its non-Jewish citizens. But warning signs are present.  At this moment, the country of Israel is surrounded by approximately 4 million stateless Palestinian people, a legal status that European Jews of the 1930’s knew all too well.  The passage of the Jewish “nation-state law” seems to build upon the undertones of society.  Questions have arisen around the sanctity of self-determination and voting rights of minority citizens.  The officialization of the Hebrew language over Arabic is a reminder of the slow cultural degradation of persecuted citizens throughout history.  The continued encouragement of settlement construction signifies the creeping extension of Israeli military control into the West Bank.  And the intensifying inflammatory rhetoric against Arab-Israeli citizens calls to question the country’s lingering divide between being a Jewish homeland and a democratic state.

All that has been described above entails a slow erosion of Palestinian rights.  A slow erosion of rights is a gateway toward a larger human rights problem.  It is important that Israelis self-reflect on the meaning of their country as both a home for the Jewish people and a democracy.  It is equally important that Israelis remind themselves of the rhetoric and legal measures taken against Jews in Germany in the 1930’s as they debate and enact similar ethnic and nationalist legislation.  No, the Israeli Jewish “nation-state law” is not like the Nazis.  But it still represents a disturbing step in the direction of ethnic division and minority disenfranchisement that is a stark reminder of the horrific plight of the Jewish people in the early 1930’s.

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