Jabotinsky would be ashamed of the Nation-State Law

‘In every Cabinet where the prime minister is a Jew, the vice-premiership shall be offered to an Arab, and vice- versa.”

In Israel’s current political climate one could be mistaken for thinking this is a quote from the far Left, perhaps a Peace Now activist or a writer for +972 online magazine. In reality, it is a clause from a 1934 draft constitution for a future Jewish state written by Ze’ev Jabotinsky and senior members of his Revisionist Party. This party was, of course, the precursor to the modern-day Likud, whose website states:

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“From its inception, the Likud Party adopted the principles of social equality, a free-market economy, and preservation of Jewish tradition and culture, values that were largely shaped according to the teachings of Ze’ev Jabotinsky.”

Last month the Likud-led Netanyahu government passed the nation-state bill into law. It was passed as a “Basic Law,” the equivalent of a constitutional amendment. Among other controversial provisions, it demoted Arabic from being an official language of the state. Another clause of Jabotinsky’s draft constitution reads:

“The Hebrew and the Arabic languages shall enjoy equal rights and equal legal validity.”

If the Nation-State Law was an amendment to Jabotinsky’s constitution, it would change the entire ethos of the document.

Regardless of how its proponents may frame it, the Nation-State Law is a major departure from Jabotinsky’s vision for Israel. While the Revisionists of the 1920s and 1930s were strong advocates of military force playing a central role in the Jewish pursuit of statehood, civic equality and fair treatment of minorities were always essential characteristics of that future state. For Jabotinsky a mere rule of the majority was inadequate:

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“It is foolish to identify majority rule with the essence of democracy and freedom…. In an ideal state, compromise between majority and minority should be a permanent rule.”

One can sympathize today with members of Israel’s Muslim, Christian or Druze communities who feel disenfranchised or disempowered by the passing of this law. Perhaps at this moment in Israel’s history such an individual would turn down the “vice premiership” of the state if it were offered to them under Jabotinsky’s draft constitution.

The forefather of Israel’s political Right also subscribed to the liberal notion of separation between religion and state, or even more broadly, nation and state. The single characteristic that would define Israel as a Jewish state, according to Jabotinsky, would be it’s majority of Jewish inhabitants:

“I do not believe that the constitution of any state ought to include special paragraphs explicitly guaranteeing its ‘national’ character. Rather, I believe that it would be better for the constitution if there were fewer of those kinds of paragraphs. The best and most natural way is for the ‘national’ character of the state to be guaranteed by the fact of its having a certain majority”

The Nation-State Law was most likely passed for political reasons rather than ideological ones, to appease the far-right parties in the governing coalition and to distract the public from ongoing police investigations related to the prime minister. It does, however, ostracize those who are loyal to values the party claims to uphold. One high-profile example is Likud MK Benny Begin. The son of former prime minister, Likud founder and Jabotinsky mentee Menachem Begin, abstained from voting on the bill due to a concern for human rights.

 It’s nothing out of the ordinary for politics to get in the way of ideology. However, those who think that today’s Likud is the party of Jabotinsky should think again.     The writer is a former member of the Betar youth movement.

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