Israel’s Jewish Nation-State Basic Law

Panel Presentation Examines Aspects of The New Legislation

On Monday, June 17, 2019, The Israeli Supreme Court Project at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law hosted a fervent and lively panel presentation titled “Perspectives on Israel’s Jewish Nation-State Law.” The panelists were Dr. Shahar Lifshitz (professor of law at Bar-Ilan University Law School and head of the Center for Jewish and Democratic Law), Talia Sasson (immediate past president of the New Israel Fund and chair of the International Council ) and attorney Nathan Lewin. The presentation was moderated by Dr. Ari Mermelstein, assistant professor of Bible and assistant director of the YU Center for Jewish Law and Contemporary Civilization and the Israeli Supreme Court Project, both based at Cardozo.

Talia Sasson
Talia Sasson

Sasson questioned the need for the law and felt that it had the potential to do great harm to Israeli democracy. To Sasson, the law raises the troubling question “Who does the state belong to?” and answers it with an equally troubling response: “Only the Jews.”

“I think that the horrible damage that this law causes to the State of Israel is enormous,” she said. “Because of the society of Israel and the unity of the state, this law should be cancelled.”

Nathan Lewin
Nathan Lewin

Lewin, on the other hand, was “delighted that Israel passed the law” because, to Lewin, “we are a Jewish people, lovers of Zion from the time of Abraham, and because we are Jews, we love this land. And it’s right and proper that today the representatives of the Jewish people who live in Israel say unashamedly, ‘This is our land.’” He went on to say that “we have always yearned for it—the Jews, not the Arabs, not the Palestinians, to whom the land has only recently become significant—but it’s the Jews who have all this time viewed the land of Israel as being the Jewish homeland.”

Shahar Lifshitz
Shahar Lifshitz

Lifshitz took a different approach to the topic, calling his position “in between.” He is a signatory to a set of proposed modifications to the Basic Law which affirm that while “the State of Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish People [sic],” the Basic Law should be amended “to give expression to its democratic values, especially the value of equality—which is not expressly mentioned in the Basic Law of the State of Israel.” His participation is premised on his academic research about the advantages and trade-offs for Israel of considering itself one of three models: Jewish first, a democracy second; a democracy first, Jewish second; and a model premised on separations between the two elements. Regardless of the model, however, Lifshitz believed that we need to develop “a dialogue in which each voice has to be respected and heard” and ensure that the exchanges are not zero-sum in which one side wins all at the expense of the other.

All three participants had ample opportunity to challenge each other’s positions, and a spirited Q&A session added to the vibrancy of the discussion.