Israeli Knesset Rejects Bill to Enshrine Equality in Law

Israeli Knesset Rejects Bill to Enshrine Equality in Law

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Palestinian citizen of Israel waves a Palestinian flag during a protest against the police killing of Khir Hamdan in Umm al-Fahm. (photo: Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

It should be no surprise that when faced with a choice of enshrining
equality in Israel’s Basic Law (the equivalent of a constitutional law) the Knesset
voted it down.  Not only the parties of
the governing coalition but also the ‘centrist’ Yesh Atid, led by Yair Lapid, a
former Israeli TV personality whose ‘centrism’ lies somewhere on the far-right
spectrum.

Those voting in favour of the bill were the Joint Jewish Arab List,
Meretz, a left-Zionist party and surprisingly the Zionist Union (Labour Party
and Hatnuah).  It is of course no
surprise but the decision confirms, if anyone were to be in doubt, that Israel prefers
to be a Jewish state rather than a democratic state.  Attempts to pretend that a Jewish state can
also be a democratic state of all its citizens are risible and shown to be so.
It is therefore no surprise that the authors of  Torat
Hamelech
(the King’s Torah) Rabbis Yitzhak Shapira and Elitzur will not
face any legal investigation or prosecution. 
Torat Hamelech is a manual
which instructs Jews on how they may legally, according to the Halachah (oral Jewish
law and the Talmud, which trumps the written law), murder non-Jews. 
Balad chairman and Joint List MK Jamal Zahalka. (Photo by Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)
According
to The Jerusalem Post, Israel court says book on killing non-Jews not incitement the book states that anyone who opposes “our kingdom” or encourages attacks
against them can be killed, as can children “if there is a good chance they will grow up to be like their evil
parents.”  
 
These religious injunctions are not merely a question of theory
either.  The Military Rabbis who accompanied
Israeli soldiers into Gaza emphasised that they are bound by Jewish religious
law which stipulates that you can wipe out the ‘enemy’ without regard to casualties,
yeah even the child and the suckling infant.
Now the Israeli Supreme Court has given its blessing to this kind of
genocidal racism let us hear nothing about how the Israeli Supreme Court is a
bastion of liberal values.
Tony Greenstein
In these days of entrapping human rights activists and
blacklisting ‘traitors,’ the concept of equality has become as radical as it
gets — and a threat to everything the governing regime stands for.
MK Jamal Zahalka [Youtube screenshot from David Sheen & Max Blumenthal’s interview, ‘Racism Competition’]
Last
week Israeli lawmakers had the opportunity to take a first step towards
enshrining equality in the law. They rejected this opportunity, voting
down
Joint List MK Jamal Zahalka’s proposed amendment to include a clause
on equality in Israel’s Basic Law:
Human Dignity and Liberty
.
The
vote was taken on a preliminary reading of Zahalka’s bill, meaning that it was
shot down before it even left the starting blocks. The majority of Likud, along
with the centrist Yesh Atid and Kulanu, along with the ultra-Orthodox parties,
voted against the bill. The Joint List, Meretz and Zionist Union voted in
favor.
It
may at first seem hard to fathom why Zahalka’s bill was rejected. It simply
proposed adding a section to one of Israel’s Basic
Laws
(which collectively make up the closest thing Israel has to a constitution)
that would legally declare the country a state of all its citizens,
by stipulating that there can be no discrimination against Israeli
citizens on grounds of race, nationality, gender, religion, religious
denomination, opinions, personal or social status, political affiliation, or
for any other reason. This should be a natural state of affairs for any
democracy.
Yet
the proposed clause strikes at the heart of a contradiction Israel has been
grappling with for nearly 70 years. Israel’s Declaration
of Independence
contained the competing visions of a Jewish state and a
state that treats all its citizens equally regardless of race, gender or
religion. With the best will in the world, a country that places
one ethnic or religious group above all else cannot offer full equality
. It
will always have second-class citizens, even if they have the appearance of
holding full civic rights (which is currently not the case for non-Jews in
Israel).
Even
the opening paragraph of the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty sets out its
purpose of “establish[ing] in a Basic Law the values of the State of Israel as
a Jewish and democratic state.” The addition of an equality clause would thus
contradict the law’s stated aim.
By
rejecting this amendment, the Israeli government has in effect ratified by
omission the idea that certain groups can take priority over others. And
indeed, any Israeli citizen who is Palestinian,
queer, non-halakhically Jewish or
simply not Jewish at all, is denied rights and freedoms that are automatically
granted to others.

The
absence of an equality clause also leaves the door open for the passing of
discriminatory legislation, as has been proved in Israel: since 1948, over 50 laws have been passed
that “directly or indirectly discriminate against Palestinian citizens,”
according to Adalah – The Legal Center for
Arab Minority Rights in Israel
.
This
reality denies the ethical values set down in the 1948 Universal
Declaration of Human Rights
. The first clause of that document states that
“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” This
foundational principle — equality by birth — is the basis for all other human
and civic rights, as Zahalka argued in his proposal when submitting the Basic
Law amendment.
This
understanding of liberty and dignity also provides recourse when there is no
legal precedent in a situation relating to such rights, allowing for humane
decisions to be made in the absence of specific guidance.

Don’t
question policies, don’t challenge laws
The
current version of the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty was used to
precisely this effect in 2011, when a Tel Aviv District Court judge wrote a
stirring legal opinion
ruling that Israeli author Yoram Kaniuk had the
right to be registered by the state as “without religion.” As a rule, everyone
who meets the rabbinate’s criteria is automatically classified as Jewish,
whether they identify as such or not.
“We
face a demand for freedom from religion in the civil registry,”
the judge
wrote. “Freedom from religion is derived from human dignity, which is protected
in the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty. When the given law is laconic, the
fundamental right shall decide, which tilts the scales in favor of the claimant
and his self-definition in the registry.”

The
judge’s legal opinion was true to the letter and spirit of that opening clause
of the UDHR. He understood that Kaniuk’s right to personal dignity and liberty
trumped the state’s self-appointed task of categorizing
people how it sees fit
, and handed down a legal opinion based on consciousness
and compassion — both of which are essential to maintaining equality.
Israeli author Yoram Kaniuk. (photo: Osnat Skoblinski)
When
George Orwell wrote that orthodoxy is unconsciousness, he was referring to the
kind of dogmatism that rules out thinking for oneself. It’s the kind of
unconsciousness that repressive governments require of their subjects in order
for them to be good citizens: don’t question policies, don’t challenge laws —
accept the top-down social order.
Equality
requires the very opposite of unconsciousness. It demands that we pay attention
to our environment and to one another. It asks of us to recognize specific
groups to ensure their rights are not violated, while not losing sight of our
common humanity. It also requires us to be alert to conflicting sensibilities,
for example when one group’s right to observe its traditions impacts another
group’s right to freedom of choice.
In
a state that categorizes
as relentlessly as Israel does
— a by-product of its cobbled-together
society, the interference of religion in state and legal affairs and the
effects of colonization and occupation all rolled into one — it can be
difficult to find the common humanity underneath it all. This is especially
true in a country that has become so accustomed to ethnic
and religious
separation.

A
status quo of inequality
Compassion,
that other pillar of equality, grows out of consciousness. As Israeli
academic Eva
Illouz has noted
, “[c]ompassion reserved only for members of my group is
not compassion, but self-preservation.” Compassion is critical in order to
be able to relate to others as fellow human beings rather than members of this
group or that, and to transcend the divisions that others place between us.
Lastly,
and most importantly, are the occupation and
the siege
on Gaza
, by far the biggest obstacles to equality in this land. The
discrimination engendered by Israel’s policies in the West Bank and vis-à-vis
Gaza is an essay on its own, but it must be remembered that the same government
which rejected the equality clause for its own citizens also maintains an
entire parallel
legal system
inside which the inequality of Palestinians under occupation
is tightly sealed.

A Palestinian child stands in front of his destroyed home in the Tuffah neighboorhood of Gaza city, Gaza Strip, February 9, 2015. Six months after the Israeli military offensive, tens of thousands of Palestinians are still displaced. (photo: Anne Paq/Activestills.org)
None
of this is to say that introducing an equality clause into Israeli law would be
an automatic harbinger of better times ahead. It wouldn’t erase the
institutionalized racism caused by decades of occupation and separation, nor
would it overturn the post-colonial “between the lines” discrimination
against Mizrahim
, which though not set down in law is no less deeply
rooted.

But
formalizing equality in the law would at the very least present an obstacle to
the Right’s seeming ability to operate
unhindered
in Israeli government and society, no matter how ruinous
to others
(and, in the long run, themselves) their policies may be. In
these days of entrapping
human rights activists
and blacklisting
“traitors,”
and amid the increasing demands for adherence to a narrow
ideal of state and ethnic loyalty
, the concept of equality has become as
radical as it gets — and a threat to everything the governing regime stands
for.

 

 

 

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