Did Israel’s Knesset on Thursday officially enact apartheid and officially jettison democracy in passing the so-called Nation State Basic Law, as MK Ahmad Tibi and the great maestro Daniel Barenboim would have it? The answer is no, but the truth hardly amounts to an inspiring narrative: this was the law the coalition government passed after it became clear that it lacked the votes for a previous and more extreme iteration of the law, which would have legalized segregated communities. An even earlier version, scrapped earlier this year, explicitly declared the supremacy of Jewish values over democratic ones.

The law that ultimately passed is an unnecessary and deliberate provocation aimed at Israel’s minority groups, especially its Arab citizens. The law deserves only the disdain of progressive Jews abroad, which it has thankfully garnered in abundance. Additionally, establishment groups ordinarily wary of commenting on domestic Israeli issues that don’t directly affect American Jews also denounced the law.

However, despite its discriminatory intent, it’s important to oppose this law while maintaining unwavering fidelity to the truth, which is that it says a lot but does very little. If you did not believe Israel was an apartheid state prior to Thursday’s passage of the Nation State Law, it is not one now. Even the much-discussed downgrade of Arabic from official language to one of “special status” does not appear to have any practical upshot.

In the weeks and months before it passed its final parliamentary reading, the Nation State Law was drastically watered down. Even the much-discussed downgrade of Arabic from official language to one of “special status” does not appear to have any practical upshot. As Noah Efron, co-host of the popular Promised Podcast and Professor at Bar-Ilan University told The Atlantic, the final version of the law had “essentially been emptied of almost all of the content that the right-wing folks who supported it at the beginning sought for it to contain.”

The vote in the Knesset was also relatively close. 55 members of the Knesset, including the incoming chairman of the Jewish Agency, voted against the law (the final vote was 62-55). Regrettably, the former historian Michael Oren, who was once much celebrated among American Jews in the United States, voted in favor of the law along with the rest of his nominally moderate colleagues in the Kulanu Party.

In addition to the political opposition to the law, it faced institutional criticism as well, from Attorney General Avichai Mendenblit, his deputy Ran Nizri, and President Reuven Rivlin.

After seven years of promoting the Nation State Law, the Israeli right could not pass a meaningful version of it­­­­, and the compromises they made were to shore up support in their own camp; not a single center-left MK was enticed to vote for it. Indeed, Yesh Atid, whose leader, Yair Lapid, has tried to appeal to “soft right” voters by tapping into populist resentment toward NGOs like Breaking the Silence, also opposed the law. Though I don’t usually offer praise for Lapid, his recent capitulation on the coalition’s weak ultra-Orthodox draft proposal did cause me to worry about the steadfastness of his opposition to the Nation State Law, especially as it underwent legislative surgery. He deserves credit for sticking to his position, as there would’ve been nothing easier for him than voting for a toothless nationalist bill in the face of opposition from the left and the Joint List.

This is all to say that the Israeli opposition, civil society, and its professional bureaucracy have not rolled over. But if we don’t need to worry about the implications of this specific law, we should take note of the broader political trends in Israel that brought us to this moment. Although Israel is not an apartheid state now, we should now be comfortable declaring this the national vision of much of the contemporary Israeli right, but especially Likud and Bayit Yehudi.

Permanent control of the West Bank is not consistent with a democratic and Jewish state. The only ways for Israel to maintain its Jewish character while expanding its borders is to either reach an arrangement with Palestinians in which they accept autonomy instead of statehood, or to somehow disenfranchise them (there are also fanciful proposals of mass aliya or tinkering with the definition of “Jewish,” but they involve too many independent variables for Israeli policy to rely on). A law that declares in no uncertain terms who has the right to self-determination within Israel’s undefined borders is not a good sign as to which option is presently under consideration.


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